From £40,0007
Our first European drive of Lexus' GS replacement reveals an improved car of many talents - but with a familiar Achilles' heel

What is it?

A relatively big change in what is traditionally a conservative sector. Lexus has decided the time is right to change tack in Europe and focus on delivering volume, and the new ES plays a core role in that.

ES is a nameplate that will be instantly familiar to those in the US and Asian markets, given Lexus has shifted 2.3 million of the things since the first generation went on sale way back in 1989. It’s not a known quantity in Britain, despite now being lined up to replace the Lexus GS here. 

The reasoning is sound, however. The GS survived four generations in the UK without ever really capturing the market. But where Lexus always seemed content carving its own path with a modest 0.5% market share, now targets have been set to double that in the next year or so. 

The ES has greater potential to increase sales and profitability once supply issues have been ironed out (Lexus’ biggest markets can’t get enough of them), because unlike the rear-wheel drive GS it can compete financially with the fleet-heavy lower rungs of the executive sector: mainly the four-cylinder offerings from Mercedes, Audi and BMW.  The front-wheel drive platform is adapted from that of the hugely popular Toyota Camry, allowing Lexus to benefit from greater economies of scale and lower build costs. 

It means the ES is cheaper than the car it succeeds - a rare thing in this sector - but features more standard kit. The platform also brings more space, while Lexus claims better refinement and a more polished driving experience despite the loss of the ‘enthusiasts choice’ of chassis layout.3 Lexus es 2019 fd hero rear

What's it like?

Lexus is as keen as you’d expect to point out that this is much more than a reskinned Camry, despite obvious design similarities. 

For starters, it adapts the GA-K platform by using lighter high tensile steel and stronger joining techniques than its Toyota relative, with additional chassis bracing and, according to engineers, the most soundproofing material of any Lexus to date. 

The suspension is a bespoke setup, with new components including swing valve shock absorbers - claimed to be a world first - that mitigate low-speed body movements. Alongside this, the top two trim levels feature lateral bracing in the form of structural dampers, while F-Sport trim brings two-mode adaptive damping.

All of this effort may be ignored by some, who will disregard the ES on account of its humble relation and ‘wrong’ driven wheels. They shouldn’t. While still a way short of the lofty standards set by the BMW 5 Series, the ES features a surprisingly well-rounded and composed chassis. 

The comfort focus is immediate from the get go. Isolation from external noise is excellent, with the new hybrid powertrain (more on that in a sec) keeping things hushed and smooth around town. It feels softly sprung, but with greater damping control than the larger Lexus LS, although some of the larger surface scarring around our Spanish test route caused the odd disturbance. 

The damping sophistication means high-speed cruising is assured and stable, helped by reassuringly weighty steering. None of this is a particular shock when it comes to a Lexus, but what is a surprise is how assured it feels in the bends.

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The whole front-wheel drive thing is largely a non-issue, as the ES handles with decent composure and agility when driven at eight-tenths. A kerbweight at least 100kg less than the GS helps here. Body control is good, and while the steering isn’t particularly communicative, its weight and directness is confidence inspiring. When the front-end does begin to surrender grip, a lift of the throttle will bring it back into line before the electronics reign you in. 

Nevertheless, this is car at its best when the pace is taken down a few notches, allowing the ride compliance and general serenity to shine through. We also tried an ES F-Sport with adaptive damping that seemed to be of little benefit - the ride seems about the same in Normal mode, and becomes too fidgety in Sport.

There is one dynamic black mark, though, and it’s an important one. Lexus’ familiar 2.5-litre four-cylinder hybrid powertrain actually enters its fourth generation here, with almost no shared components and too many technical developments to list here. Power output is similar, but Lexus claims further improvements in thermal efficiency (an impressive 41%), fuel economy and drivability. 

Unfortunately, any improvements in the latter respect weren’t really registered by this tester, with frustration again caused by the motor's relationship with the CVT gearbox. Driven at a relaxed pace on flat ground, keeping things smooth and quiet isn’t difficult thanks to a progressive throttle, but up the pace or introduce any sort of incline and the peace is disturbed by an discordant ’mooing’ from the engine bay.

With an 8.9 second 0-62mph time, performance is best described as modest, but an attempt to exploit what power there is is met by the usual cacophony as the torque-light motor soars to its redline and stays there until you back off. The steering wheel paddles seemingly have next to no effect on the unpleasant din, unlike Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT ‘box which has a fair stab at mimicking stepped changes.

It’s not an overriding issue in something like a Toyota Prius, but in an otherwise capable luxury car the expected level of effortless performance and refinement is lacking. It’s a shame, too, because in other respects it’s an impressive powertrain - around town the lack of physical changes make it plenty smooth enough, while 50mpg is achievable with some sensible driving.

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Elsewhere, there’s plenty to like. It’s longer, wider and slightly lower than the GS, combining with better packaging due to that front-wheel drive layout to bring rear seat room among the very best in this class. Legroom is plentiful, and six footers will have no headroom issues despite the mounting of the new, smaller nickel-metal hydride battery pack underneath the bench. The boot is a decent size, too - it’s just a shame that structural bracing prevents the seats from folding down for longer loads.

The cabin is typical Lexus fare, with near-perfect fit and finish, the odd questionable material, and truly sumptuous yet supportive seats. The oft-criticised infotainment system has been updated with a bigger screen (eight inches or 12.3 inches depending on spec) clearer graphics and new menus. The touchpad-based control system is at least now partially useable on the move, but it still lags behind models with rotary control dials for ease-of-use.

10 Lexus es 2019 fd cabin

Should I buy one?

Powertrain aside, the ES is probably the most competitive mainstream Lexus on sale. It’s dynamically comparable to a Mercedes E-Class, rides and steers better than a Volvo S90, and is closer to those two cars than the GS ever was to the 5 Series and Jaguar XF.

The ES300h’s low Benefit in Kind rating will surely appeal to fleet buyers put off by diesel offerings, too. And they’d be getting a fine car - but with no plans to introduce another powertrain, keen drivers that like to exploit their car’s performance and enjoy some mechanical interaction should absolutely look elsewhere. 

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The economy-focused hybrid has its merits: it’s cheaper to buy than a full plug-in hybrid, doesn’t require messing around with cables and should be endlessly reliable. For traffic-clogged commuting, its simplicity and frugality is ideal.  

We’d opt for a base spec with a choice option pack rather than this fully-loaded Takumi model. The few thousand pounds saved there could be put towards something without a CVT gearbox to enjoy driving at the weekend. 

Lexus ES 300h Takumi specifications

Where Malaga, Spain Price £45,800 On sale Now Engine 4cyls, 2494cc petrol, plus 120bhp electric motor Power 215bhp at 5700rpm Torque 163lb ft at 3600-5200rpm Gearbox Continuously variable transmission Kerb weight 1740kg Top speed 112mph 0-62mph 8.9sec Fuel economy 52.95mpg (WLTP) CO2 106g/km (NEDC) Rivals Volvo S90, Mercedes E-Class

2 Lexus es 2019 fd hero side

Join the debate

Add a comment…
BiggaJ 15 January 2019

I know about the typo's in my former post

I am aware of the typo's in my former post, read past them please.

BiggaJ 15 January 2019

I love how people comment where most have never tried

People comment about a car based on reviews but seemingly know more about cars without having driven one. I have a 3.5 year old IS300H in F sport trim. The CVT is different but never felt it needed more power, I have put close to 100,000 miles on my car and will be due to change this year I guess. I have driven/owned all the major German brands and in all honesty, while they are generally quicker they are in my opinion no where near as good as Lexus. I'm not talking about how quickly it can get from A to B, or whether I can feel the understeer building in a corner etc. this is all meanigless drivel in todays road conditions. Yes the CVT can feel a little elastic on occasions but it never gets caught not knowing which gear to select like my wifes current and former Evoque 9 speed auto's. 

What i'm talking about is sitting in stop start traffice in near silence, travelling at a steady 75-80 on an mtorway and returning 50mpg, one of the best put together interiors on any current car but mor ethan any of that, the ability to travel close to 100,000 miles with nothing ever having gone wrong, not so much as a blown buld or fuse, not having had to replace brake pads yet let alone discs, being loaded with standard equipment form the get go!!!

In todays traffic laden roads, these are the things that really matter. Safe in the nowledge you are driving pound for pound one of the best built cars that is clean as it can be (please dont get me started on the plug in hybrids) and it isnt one of the so called clean German Diesels who have been proved to test on animals and it was nearly humans ..... want proof, watch 'Dirty Money' on Netflix.

SAS32 10 January 2019

ES base price is £35k!!

ES base price is £35k!!

The brain dead on here harping on in utter disbelief about the £45k price might want to acknowledge that the model tested is in the top specification trim, hence the price, and being a Lexus the specification will be extremely comprehensive but you already know that.   It's the same old repetitive s***e when anything non-German is reviewed.  Zzzzzz

I agree with others regarding the use of a CVT gearbox when other manufacturers including Kia/Hyundai are able to make a dual clutch transmission work with similar hybrid drivlines.  I also don't understand why Lexus didn't adapt the 2.0T for Hybrid as the additional torque would be a much better fit not only with what has been a diesel focused segment but it might also dampen the hysteria of the CVT.