Should Motor Trend sell puppies? Should Ferrari make an SUV? Should the ES be offered as a performance sedan?
On that last point, Lexus thinks so, so the automaker has added an F Sport variant for the first time as part of its 2019 ES lineup. It’s taken seven generations to move the midsize sedan this deep into the sporty space. Lexus wants to broaden the customer base for its best-selling sedan and thinks adding an F Sport will attract customers 10 years younger than the average ES buyer.
Lexus executives aren’t worried about a sporty ES encroaching into GS territory. As they see it, they’re providing more choice by taking the ES (Executive Sedan) known for luxury, quiet, and comfort and pumping up the driving dynamics. It’s part of a larger initiative to make the Lexus brand more dynamic, led by the LC coupe with its virtuous exhaust notes.
This is chapter three of the evolution of Lexus, and designers were given freedom to create new silhouettes. So we headed to Nashville for our first time behind the wheel of the new ES, which is longer, lower, and wider than before. The styling is bolder, following the lead of the LC and LS. LED taillights wrap around the cab and contribute to the wider, more planted stance punctuated by chrome exhaust tips.
Lexus design chief Koichi Suga describes it as the most aggressive change for ES to date. He points to the side profile with its low hoodline and long shoulder line designed to address the criticism that the previous generation was boring.
The 2019 ES goes on sale in September with pricing expected to start about $39,000 for the ES 350 and a premium of about $2,700 or less for the ES 300h hybrid.
It will be offered in three flavors in the U.S. The ES 350 and new F Sport have a 3.5-liter V-6 that gets 302 hp (up 34) and 267 lb-ft of torque (up 19). The engine has the D-4S fuel-injection system, which offers both direct and port injection. To transfer the power, the six-speed automatic transmission has been replaced with an eight-speed. Fuel efficiency is expected to be 22/33/26 mpg city/highway/combined.
The ES 300h has the same hybrid system as the Camry but with a different gear ratio. It’s a different system from the one in the LS and LC, however. The fourth-generation hybrid system has a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder direct-injection engine that runs on the Atkinson cycle and comes paired to an electric motor and a new, shorter transaxle. The nickel–metal hydride battery moves from the trunk to under the back seat. Lexus expects the system to generate 215 hp and get 44 combined mpg, making it the most efficient luxury vehicle without a plug.
The new system and CVT in the hybrid do a better job of avoiding the rubber-band feel when the engine is revving up but not moving forward. Acceleration feels more natural, and a three-layer inner dash silencer squelches any whine. Slip the car into Sport mode to boost torque at lower speeds, and use the paddles to make the gearing choices yourself—the uninformed might mistake it for the 350.
Engineers also did a good job making the brakes feel natural, more so than in the Camry. A new Auto Glide Control system puts the hybrid in coast mode for a smoother deceleration when you let your foot off the accelerator. It removes some of the braking angst that the extra drag of regenerative brakes can cause.
Europe will get the hybrid only—it’s the first time the ES will be sold in Europe at all. The crucial Chinese market will get a hybrid as well as the ES 200 and ES 250 with a 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, respectively.
There are no current plans to offer a four-cylinder in the U.S., or a plug-in hybrid or pure electric ES or even all-wheel drive, which has never been offered on an ES. But the umbrella TNGA platform has the capability and flexibility should the muckety-mucks decide the demand is there. Lexus hasn’t closed the door on an F Sport hybrid in the future, either.
The game changer is Toyota’s new global architecture and the rigid GA-K front-wheel-drive chassis that underpins the ES as well as the Toyota Avalon and Camry. Lexus made many modifications, including 65 feet of adhesives for rigidity that you won’t find in the Camry, as well as laser screw welds. The larger, rear-drive LS and LC are on the GA-L platform.
In an unusual internal move, the engineers of the LC, LS, and ES drove all three vehicles to ensure they performed the same, presenting a united front for the brand. That meant tweaking the front-drive ES’ steering so that on turn-in there’s a moment when it almost feels like you’re driving a rear-drive car.
The platform allowed the EX to extend the wheelbase 2.0 inches and total length by 2.6 inches for best-in-class rear legroom, which is a key attribute for the Chinese market. The car is also 1.8 inches wider. It rides on standard 17-inch wheels with a choice of two optional 18-inchers—one of those two is noise reducing.
The car has an aluminum hood and front bumpers to shave weight. But with additional technology and sound-absorbing material covering 93 percent of the floor pan, the overall weight of the top trim level is about 35 pounds heavier than the outgoing model.
The ES F Sport adopts elements from other vehicles in the Lexus stable, including the LS F Sport’s jet black mesh grille, 19-inch wheels similar to those on the LC and LS, the steering wheel from the LS, and the seat design from the LC. It’s also decked out with a standard trunklid spoiler, contrasting red stitching, and aluminum pedals. Of its eight colors, two are only for the F Sport, and buyers can also choose a red interior. In the F Sport, Lexus replaces Sport drive mode with Sport S and adds Sport S+ and Custom; these adjust the throttle, transmission, steering, and adaptive dampers.
The first regular ES 350 we tried had a mostly black interior that could have used more contrast to pop. The ride was smooth, which we expect from Lexus, but it’s good to see that the company isn’t taking it for granted or phoning it in. Even when we switched to the F Sport, acceleration was quite orderly, no snarling engine or frenetic power. There was more kick, but it was certainly not a bad boy, and the differences between the sport modes was subtle.
We were anxious to test the suspension, which uses MacPherson struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear with an integrated trailing arm and new Dynamic Control shocks.
Lexus says the ES has the world’s first swing-valve shock absorber, which is like a mini shock inside the shock with a second piston to sop up the little bumps on a relatively smooth and flat surface where there is not much shock travel. Hit a big bump, and the bigger piston does its job. It was a last-minute addition to the car; engineers decided last summer to put it on the ES, and it got some quick testing in Arizona before a quick decision to greenlight it and get it ready for production.
The Ultra Luxury package adds a performance damper. And F Sport buyers can opt for the Adaptive Variable Suspension from the LC coupe.
There is no bad choice. All performed well at absorbing bumps, big and small, and the adjustable dampers kept the car steady even in harder cornering. We were pleased that the F Sport did not share the stiff and rigid ride we’ve experienced with some F Sports in the past. Maybe the marriage of ES comfort and F Sport does find a sweet spot.
The electric power steering, now mounted on the steering rack, was a joy to drive. It was responsive without being too heavy or flighty.
Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 is standard and includes the usual suspects: all-speed radar cruise control, which comes to a complete stop; lane tracing assist, which follows the car ahead when there are no lane markings to read; steering assist when the car leaves the lane; road sign assist, which reads traffic signs; a sonar system for parking assistance; and cross-traffic alert. Cameras provide a panoramic or bird’s-eye view of the parked car.
Designers went for a cool and elegant cockpit centered around the driver, much like the LS and LC. There are LED lights throughout the cabin, and the F Sport has a new metal trim called Hadori aluminum, reminiscent of the ancient sword polishing process, that creates a wave pattern throughout the cabin. Some surfaces could be softer, though.
ES engineers were obsessed with a quiet cabin. At one point in development, it was deemed too quiet, which can cause carsickness and feel unnatural, so the engineers put more some noise back in. All the variants we drove proved they did their job well. The hybrid, however, was almost too quiet. We found the Avalon Touring, by contrast, to let in too much tire and road noise.
The ES becomes the first Lexus to offer Apple CarPlay—still no Android Auto—and Amazon Alexa is in place to accept voice commands. CarPlay will be available at launch with the larger 12.3-inch nav screen; if your car has the standard 8.0-inch screen, CarPlay will be available after October 1. The 10-speaker Pioneer system can be upgraded to the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system—the sound is exceptional. The wireless charger works for both Apple and Android phones, and the car has Wi-Fi.
A 10.2-inch head-up display screen offers a lot of real estate to display speed, fuel level, shifts, navigation, speed limits, and warnings when you stray out of the lane. Lexus says the entire cockpit was designed to make it easier to see and reach all controls with minimal effort and reduced eye movement.
And although the profile is more coupelike, rear-passenger headroom is increased by positioning the seats lower. It also has more cargo room, and a hands-free trunk—it opens with a kick of your foot—is available.
Two new colors join the ES lineup: Moonbeam Beige Metallic and Sunlit Green. The F Sport gets Ultra Sonic Blue Mica 2.0 and Ultra White as its exclusive color options.
The ES, which dates back to 1989, is the car that helped launch the Lexus brand. It has sold more than 2.1 million since, including more than 1 million in the U.S. This latest generation will be sold in 90 countries, including Japan and Europe for the first time. And although buyers continue to flock to utility vehicles, Lexus feels there will continue to be a market for sedans, often as the vehicle sitting beside an SUV in the driveway, marketing chief Cooper Ericksen said.
Ericksen expects the new ES to sell 50,000 a year in the U.S., of which 25 percent will be F Sport and 15 percent will be hybrids, compared with only 10 percent now.
Most of the cars for the North American market will come from the Georgetown, Kentucky, plant, but all hybrids will come from the Kyushu plant in Japan. And if Georgetown cannot meet demand, additional gasoline engine versions can be shipped from Japan, as well.
The ES faces tough competition from the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Acura TLX. But the brand is convinced its foray into sporty will pay dividends. And no, Motor Trend has no plans to sell puppies.
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