First Drive: 2018 Lexus ES

Denis Droppa samples the all-new Lexus ES – a comfortable cruiser that's all about luxurious grace over fast and furious pace.

11 October 2018 - 17:37 By Denis Droppa

Since its launch here in 2013 the Lexus ES has become the premium Japanese brand’s bestselling vehicle. That’s no mean feat in a market that has seen so many buyers shunning sedans in favour of SUVs.

The volumes have been small, but Toyota South Africa CEO Andrew Kirby believes the new-generation ES, with its smart new styling, will do better than its anonymous-looking predecessor at attracting buyers and taking on German rivals.

Those rivals, size-wise, are the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-class and Audi A6, but in terms of pricing (at least for the entry-level Lexus ES) they’re the 3 Series, C-class and A4 — and that’s what makes the ES an attractive prospect, says Kirby.

At 4,975mm long this front-wheel drive Lexus has grown in length and width and the stretch-out space inside the cabin is truly of business-class spec. The boot is also a reasonable 420l in size considering it houses a full-sized spare wheel.

But did you hear me say front-wheel drive? Yup, and this may be a put-off to some drivers in a segment where rear or all-wheel drive is de rigueur.

The ES isn’t an enthusiast’s car however, and doesn’t pretend to be, being built on the same platform as the deeply unexciting Toyota Camry.

At the car’s media launch in Cape Town last week I stretched its legs through some curvy mountain roads and the ES displayed typically safe and polished front-wheel drive handling characteristics. Emotion and feel were in short supply but the big sedan did the direction-changing business as neatly as anyone might expect for its size. And it has a full gamut of electronic aids, including ABS and stability control.

Where the car excelled was in ride quality, and the ES wafted comfortably across long stretches of varying-quality asphalt. This smooth ride, together with its hushed operation, provided the executive driving experience promised by its price tags, and a more rigid new body helps to achieve this refinement.

The latest version of the brand’s most conservative car now has more exciting wrapping, including the spindle grille that has become the Lexus family look, along with LED lights front and rear and more appealing body curves. The restyle has definitely given the ES more showroom appeal and presence.

As before, two versions are available, the ES 250 petrol and the more luxuriously equipped ES 300 petrol-electric hybrid — respectively priced at R593 300 and R843 800. The ES 250 costs just 20 grand more than its predecessor but the hybrid’s seen a huge 160 grand hike.

Neither of them are powerhouses. The hybrid, with 160kW, has enough grunt for a relaxed long-distance stride and comfortably swift overtaking ability.

Feeding the power through a continuously variable transmission, the ES 300h is claimed to sprint from 0-100 km/h in 8.9 seconds and is electronically-governed to a top speed of 180km/h. The figure worthy of most attention is the factory-claimed fuel economy of just 4.6l/100km, though attaining that in real-world driving would be an unlikely feat.

With 152kW and 243Nm the petrol-only ES 250 makes for a reasonably easy-going cruiser without any performance fireworks. The 2.5-litre four cylinder engine is fairly refined too, but gets quite vocal at higher revs.

Linked to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the ES 250 is rated for a 210km/h top speed, 0-100 in 9.1 seconds, and sips petrol at the claimed rate of 6.6l/100km.

In an age of neat dashboards with tablet-like touchscreens, Lexus has opted for inexplicably complex controls for its infotainment. The dashboard is a busy riot of buttons and the multi-information display is controlled by a touchpad between the front seats which is finicky to use.

The interior trim on the Lexus ES 250 EX is Nulux simulated leather, while the ES 300h gets genuine cowhide, mixed with old-school wood panelling. The hybrid also features Viscotecs — an unusual three-dimensional painted finish which is applied to selected leather surfaces such as the armrest and door trim.

Safety in both versions is top notch and includes 10 airbags, while the ES 300 has a blind spot monitor, lane-keeping assist and a Pre-Crash System capable of detecting oncoming vehicles and pedestrians.

Standard comforts in both models include electrical adjustment for the front seats and the steering column, park distance control and cruise control.

The more expensive ES 300 has additional items like a high-end Mark Levinson audio system, heated steering wheel, head-up display, navigation and a wireless smartphone charge.

Coinciding with the launch of the new ES, Lexus SA has announced a new seven-year/ 105,000km warranty and maintenance plan which is also applicable to the rest of the Lexus range. Service intervals are every 15 000km or once a year.