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Lexus ES review: the biggest-selling Japanese luxury car you've never heard of

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/01/2019 Andrew English
The new Lexus ES is displayed during a media preview of the Auto China 2018 motor show in Beijing, China April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj © Thomson Reuters The new Lexus ES is displayed during a media preview of the Auto China 2018 motor show in Beijing, China April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Where have you been, Lexus ES? Not on the Queen’s Highway, that’s for certain. This best-selling (2.3 million in the last 30 years) big saloon hasn’t ever been sold in the UK, or Europe for that matter, although it is now in its seventh generation.

Actually the ES is pretty much a poshed-up Toyota Camry, which also makes a return to UK this year; it’s almost as if Toyota and its luxury Lexus brand have just realised the big 5-series-sized gap they have been leaving in their ranges...

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Naturally, Lexus disagrees. It says we weren’t ready for the ES in the past, which is a nice way of saying this US-orientated sedan rode like a barge and was powered with a rubber band-like hybrid system, or various thirsty petrol engines. Now, however, with a new chassis based around the GA-K technology which underpins the sharp LC coupé and latest LS luxury saloon, Lexus wants to introduce just one model, the hybrid-only ES300h, to the old world.

Since the VW emissions cheating scandal, Europe’s ardour for diesels has rapidly cooled. And no one trusts governments or local authorities to not tax and fine these cars until the pips squeak, so small petrol engines, hybrids and pure electric cars are seen as the solution to going green.

Note, however the rebranding of Toyota's hybrid system, which started with the Prius, as "self-charging hybrid", as opposed to plug-in hybrids with larger batteries that drive farther on battery power alone. Lexus admits that it might have to offer the ES as a plug-in if the market moves strongly in that direction, but it feels strongly that its current hybrid drivetrains offer the best solution.

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26:  A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) © 2018 VCG BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26: A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

So it is powered by a new version of the Prius-type petrol/electric hybrid. The 2,487cc, four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated petrol engine runs in the efficient Atkinson cycle and is geared to a twin-motor hybrid system (now with each motor mounted on separate shaft, which allows simpler and more efficient gearing), powered by a small nickel-metal-hydride battery under the rear seat.

Unlike the larger, rear-drive LS and LC, the ES is front-wheel drive and doesn't use those cars' four-speed transmission to assuage the notorious hybrid rubber-band effect, though it gets artificial gears engaged with steering-wheel paddles.

It's about the size of a BMW 5-series and the now discontinued GS saloon, with a natty bodywork design using the "spindle" grille and weird creases and cuts from the LC and LS. Suspension combines front MacPherson struts with rear trailing arms and the dampers have flap valves on their low-speed valves to inhibit body roll as you enter a corner.

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26:  A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) © 2018 VCG BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26: A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

While it might have started as a Camry, the Lexus titivation program started early and was profound. There is more sound insulation (even the wheels have air chambers to reduce road noise), the bonnet and front wings are made of aluminium and the rest of the body is steel, much of it high strength.

Inside there's an 8-in centre touchscreen, heated front seats, parking sensors and a reversing camera on the base model. The seats are a bit over-padded in the standard car, but the F-Sport model's sports seats are more supportive and comfortable.

There's lots of leg room, but only just enough head room for three adults across the rear bench seat; while the body-strengthening A-frame across the back of the cabin means the seats don't fold as they did in the previous Camry, this is a classier place to sit. At 454 litres, the boot is more than adequate.

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26:  A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) © 2018 VCG BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26: A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) While the facia design is quite pleasing, with notably good backlighting, clear markings and relatively easy-to-master control functions (except the almost wilfully contrarian and not very good touchpad), there are simply too many buttons, with 21 functions on the steering wheel alone (not including steering). Lexus UK has started to strip out its cars' content to get the starting price more competitive with rivals, but the ES has the Lexus radar- and camera-based safety systems as standard, with improvements including night-time pedestrian and bicycle recognition, and lane-change assistance.

Lexus makes great play of its tax-efficient £35,150 entry-level model running on 17-inch wheels with 25 per cent benefit in kind tax, but 60 per cent of the 700 UK sales it expects to make this year will be of the £38,150 F-Sport model with variable damping, active noise control and 18-inch wheels, which is perilously close to the £40,000 luxury-car tax threshold - well above it if you indulge in the £700 Tech safety pack with LED lamps, a heated steering wheel and wireless phone charging, £670 worth of metallic paint and the £4,000 Takumi pack, which includes Mark Levinson audio, head-up display, a 12.3in satnav screen and powered boot lid. The top specification model is the £45,645 ES Takumi with 19-inch wheels, full leather and more sophisticated electronics.

Lexus ES 300h car is seen during the first press day of the Paris Motor Show at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles on October 02, 2018 in Paris, France. From 4 to 14 October 2018, the 'Mondial de l'automobile' presents to the public the new cars of the largest automobile brands in the world.  (Photo by Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto via Getty Images) © Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto Lexus ES 300h car is seen during the first press day of the Paris Motor Show at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles on October 02, 2018 in Paris, France. From 4 to 14 October 2018, the 'Mondial de l'automobile' presents to the public the new cars of the largest automobile brands in the world. (Photo by Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Weight and the hybrid system dictate the driving experience. At 1.75 tonnes in top form, this is a heavy car, most of it under the bonnet. The standard car feels soft and wallowing, the steering is over assisted (although it feels precise) and the engine wails as it gains speed.

The performance is actually pretty good, but the way it's delivered, while better than past hybrids, still feels disconnected from the throttle pedal. The continuously variable transmission is slow to kick down and while you can change 'gear' down the 'box, even in Sport + mode, it won't hold that gear through the turn so you lack control.

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The variable dampers in the F-Sport give firmer and more accurate body control and you feel more in charge. The steering is better weighted, especially in Sport mode, and the ride is quite plush, especially at medium speeds.

Push it and the handling, while not utterly hopeless, has a lot of straight-on understeer, which doesn't make it particularly rewarding to drive. Where its rivals don't mind being pushed from time to time, the ES is a car which is best driven at a medium pace. One thing the Toyota hybrid system does better than the opposition, however, is slowing, with seamless, progressive and strong braking as the system mixes friction and recharge braking.

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 30, 2018 -- Attendees look at the 2019 Lexus ES during the media preview at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto show in Los Angeles, the United States, Nov. 28, 2018. The LA Auto Show opens to the public on Nov. 30 and runs through Dec. 9. (Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong) (Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong via Getty Images) © Xinhua News Agency LOS ANGELES, Nov. 30, 2018 -- Attendees look at the 2019 Lexus ES during the media preview at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto show in Los Angeles, the United States, Nov. 28, 2018. The LA Auto Show opens to the public on Nov. 30 and runs through Dec. 9. (Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong) (Xinhua/Zhao Hanrong via Getty Images) Not a great driver's car, then, but that's mainly about the hybrid system rather than which wheels are driven. For a front-drive executive saloon, the ES is passable; for a hybrid front-drive executive saloon it's pretty good, although it does raise questions about the role of the smaller, and sportier, rear-drive IS saloon.

Perhaps the biggest fault is that Lexus is offering the ES as a tax-efficient transport solution rather than a desirable object in its own right. And if you boil everything down to figures, the ES is always going to lose against the similar but cheaper Camry.

THE FACTS

Lexus ES300h

TESTED 2,487cc four-cylinder petrol engine plus 650-volt electric motor powered with 1.59kWh nickel-metal hydride battery, front-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE from £35,150 (F Sport is £38,150 and Takumi is £45,650)/now

POWER/TORQUE

A Lexus ES 300 car is on display at the Beijing Auto Show on April 25, 2018. - Global carmakers touted their latest electric and SUV models in Beijing as they warily welcomed China's promise of better foreign access to the world's largest auto market, where domestic vehicles are making major inroads. Industry behemoths like Volkswagen, Daimler, Toyota, Nissan, Ford and others are displaying more than 1,000 models and dozens of concept cars at the Beijing auto show. (Photo by WANG ZHAO / AFP)        (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images) A Lexus ES 300 car is on display at the Beijing Auto Show on April 25, 2018. - Global carmakers touted their latest electric and SUV models in Beijing as they warily welcomed China's promise of better foreign access to the world's largest auto market, where domestic vehicles are making major inroads. Industry behemoths like Volkswagen, Daimler, Toyota, Nissan, Ford and others are displaying more than 1,000 models and dozens of concept cars at the Beijing auto show. (Photo by WANG ZHAO / AFP) (Photo credit should read WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Petrol engine: 174bhp @ 5,700rpm, 163lb ft @ 1,500rpm

Electric motor: 118bhp/149lb ft

Total system output 212bhp

TOP SPEED 112mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.9sec

FUEL ECONOMY 53mpg (EU Combined), 39mpg on test

CO2 EMISSIONS 106 g/km (on 19-inch wheels)

VED £145 first year, then £140

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26:  A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) © 2018 VCG BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26: A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

VERDICT While this new front-drive hybrid performs and drives better than we have a right to expect, its dynamics still fall far short of rivals' which is to do with weight and the peculiarities of the Toyota system. Like most attempts to take on the Germans in their home territory, the ES is likely to remain a rare sight. Better get a Camry instead.

TELEGRAPH RATING Three out of five stars

THE RIVALS

BMW 530e SE, from £45,810

With its 2.0-litre petrol and electric-motor driveline, this big BMW can be driven up to 29 miles on electricity alone and has a published (if largely illusory) fuel consumption of 141mpg and CO2 emissions of just 46g/km, which makes it highly tax-efficient. Expensive, but a decent enough drive - for a plug in...  

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26:  A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4.  (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images) © 2018 VCG BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 26: A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus ES sedan is on display during the Auto China 2018 at China International Exhibition Center on April 26, 2018 in Beijing, China. Auto China 2018, also known as 2018 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, will be held from April 27 to May 4. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Mercedes-Benz E300 e SE, from £46,735

Merc's big business executive gets a petrol/electric hybrid with a claimed 141mpg and 45g/km capability. However far-fetched these figures might be, the tax benefits are unassailable. Decent enough to drive and there's also a diesel/electric hybrid on the way for those who seriously want to save fuel.

Volvo V60 T8, from £54,770

A 2.0-litre petrol engine, an electric motor and a big lithium-ion battery give this 4x4 SUV a claimed 49g/km, 134.5mpg and EV range of 28 miles, but like all these plug-ins the Volvo is heavy, which blunts performance and range and make the dynamics less than sharp. Conventional XC60s are a lovely drive, but this version isn't worth its exorbitant price tag.

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