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First drive: 2019 Lexus ES Sedan [Review]

by Byron Hurd

Is has the right number of doors, but does it have the right stuff?

We're back this week with yet another crosso--wait, no; that's not right. At this point, it's becoming almost automatic. But no, not this week. That's right; it's a sedan, by God--the once-undisputed staple of the American roadway. Now? Well, you know. Nothing gold can stay.

All that glitters
In this case, it's perhaps less "gold" and more "beige." This is no Autobahn-carving super-sedan we got our hands on. The 2019 Lexus ES is an evolution of a formula Toyota's luxury subsidiary has honed and refined over the course of seven generations. Yes, the ES is as old as Lexus itself, having debuted alongside the LS in 1989. That's the same year that the world met (and fell in love with) the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

Any similarities between the two end there. The philosophy behind the ES is almost diametrically opposed to the little Mazda roadster's Chapman-esque mission. The latter is all about the driving experience. The former is focused on driving elegance. That's right; if you ask Lexus what the "E" stands for in "ES," that's the new buzzword associated with it: "Elegance," as in "Elegant Sedan." Sure, it's really just "Executive," but this marketing vocabulary ret-con isn't nearly as egregious as others we've heard.

No matter what "E" stands for now, there's one word nobody has ever been in a hurry to suggest: "Exciting." The ES has been known as many things--premium, comfortable, and quiet come to mind--but exciting is nowhere on that list. At its core, the ES still embodies that philosophy. The 2019 model is a little bigger, a little roomier and a little quieter than the model it replaces.

It's also more techy, with Apple CarPlay now available (sorry, Android users; like parent Toyota, Lexus has no immediate plans for Android Auto) along with Alexa integration. The latter is probably at least partially to blame for the absence of Android Auto, as Google and Amazon tend to butt heads wherever their ecosystems overlap and Toyota and Amazon have publicly announced a formal partnership. The hardware should theoretically support Android if that stance ever softens.

And yes, it gets more power too. The standard V6 now pushes 302 horsepower (up from 268) and 267lb-ft of torque (from 248). Lexus says it'll do 0-60 in 6.6 seconds (half a second quicker than the old car) and has an eight-percent-better combined EPA fuel economy rating. It'll do 22 MPG in the city and 33 on the highway, according to the company's estimates.

Both V6 models take regular unleaded and put power to the ground via an eight-speed direct-shift automatic and front-wheel drive. No all-wheel-drive is available, even on the hybrid model. More on that later. With its emphasis on ride comfort and trouble-free handling still at the forefront of its mission, the ES was equipped with what Lexus calls "Dynamic Control Shocks." These shocks incorporate a secondary valve (called a swing valve) which provides more flexibility in damping chassis movements, allowing the car to ride flatter and respond more accurately without sacrificing comfort. Lexus says the system is especially effective for suppressing inputs that cause occupants' heads to shake.

E is for elegant, F is for...
Yes, we said "both V6 models" above quite deliberately. No, there are no four-letter-words involved here. With the 2019 ES, Lexus has decided to give a shot of adrenaline to a model which, let's be honest, isn't really on any enthusiast's radar as a fun-to-drive option. Fortunately, Lexus has just the thing in its bag o' tricks: F-Sport.

For the uninitiated (or the uninterested?), F-Sport is the Lexus take on a sport/performance package for its mainstream cars. Currently only available on the V6, the F-Sport package starts with both interior and exterior badging; a sportier grille; unique wheels with upgraded tires and an edgier, aluminum-trimmed interior motif. This is paired with a more aggressive Sport+ tune on the drive mode selection knob which pipes in some extra engine noise for a more visceral experience.

The F-Sport also has front and rear chassis dampers for improved stiffness without a wild increase in noise or harshness and a thicker (solid) front anti-roll bar for improved steering response and feel. If you like, you can also upgrade to adaptive variable suspension which ties in to the drive mode selection for performance when you want it, and comfort when you need it.

And H is for...
This one should be easy. For the first time, the Lexus ES is being offered with a hybrid variant. It uses the larger, 2.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine paired to a 29-kilowatt electric motor. Total output is a respectable 215 horsepower (better than what you get in the NX 300h crossover, for example) but the real coup here is just how efficient it is. EPA ratings for the (rather large) 2019 ES 300h are 44 MPG city, 45 highway and 44 combined. And it'll still do 0-60 in a plenty-adequate 8.1 seconds.

Normally, this is where we'd expect to find a sneaky all-wheel-drive implementation, like that found on several other products under the Toyota umbrella (including the upcoming UX crossover). In these systems, power goes to the rear wheels exclusively via rear-mounted electric motors. Sadly, no such luck here. Not only is there no AWD option, but there's also no F-Sport hybrid. Lexus has been somewhat inconsistent in how it doles out F-Sport packages within its lineup, so this really could have gone either way, but it'll be interesting to see if they make an about-face on either of these decisions. When pressed, Lexus reps acknowledged that all-wheel-drive is on their radar.

Three's company
They say four is a crowd, but even just the three variants of the ES kept us busy on the roads along the rural outskirts Nashville, TN, where Lexus set us up with a pile of test cars. The number we have lends itself to a ranking (good, better and best, for example), but with this group, it's really not that simple. The best approach, we think, is to simply run down the cars in the order in which we drove them, starting with the plain-old ES 350.

First impressions? It's quiet. Damn quiet. There's plenty of grunt, but the sensation of speed and acceleration is suppressed very effectively by the lengths to which Lexus engineers went to offer a placid driving experience. Even when you get on it, there's only a hint of engine noise. Road and wind noise are similar muted; the only real source of outside noise we could discern was the panoramic sunroof in our loaded-up test car, and even that became much quieter when we closed its shade (which is made from the same material as the headliner).

Our drive out of downtown Nashville in the ES 350 gave us the opportunity to fiddle around with the touchpad interface. It's an improvement over the old not-mouse interface, we'll readily admit, but like the (completely different, for some reason) touchpad in the Acura RDX we drove a week prior, it just seems like an answer to a question nobody is asking. We did not play around much with Apple CarPlay, but we did connect a fellow test-driver's iPod to get some high-quality music into the Mark Levinson audio system--an impressive setup, as it always seems to be.

When we finally encountered some curved roads, the ES 350 tackled them about as well as we expected. That is to say, the ES will stop, accelerate and turn when asked to do so, but even in the more aggressive Sport modes, never outright encouraged the behavior. The immense noise isolation was effectively a built-in deterrent against misbehavior. No matter how competent it may be, the ES 350 just won't elevate your heart rate.

Next, we stepped into the ES 300h. After just a few minutes behind the wheel, we found ourselves actually feeling something. The 300h is not sporty, and indeed it doesn't really pretend to be despite the "Sport" option on the drive mode knob. Side note: What the heck is with those knobs above the wheel? They look like the horns of some aggressively yet ambiguously non-human Muppet.

It's loud, too. Not loud-loud, because nothing about the ES lineup could be described as loud, but you actually hear the drivetrain working. The CVT does a good job of putting you where you want to be in the powerband, and despite the fact that we drove it with every intention of being able to laugh at the resulting fuel consumption, we returned to base with an obnoxiously admirable 45-MPG average staring back at us from the cluster. We were surprised, not to mention impressed.

The ES 300h has no cargo or passenger area compromises for powertrain reasons; the battery is under the rear seat and the motor is under the hood. It's plenty quiet, plenty comfortable, and plenty fast for the duties it would likely assume. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that this is the ES most buyers should get, but ultimately won't.

We ended our day with F-Sport. At this point, we were ready for a little excitement, and we were pleasantly surprised by its willingness to deliver. The Active Noise Control makes a difference, believe it or not. Yeah, the engine noise is artificial, but the fact that it exists at all means the drive experience is more engaging.

This was the first and only time all day that we actually felt like pushing the ES in the corners, like putting it into manual mode and accelerating out in the lowest available gear, like straightening out some of those country-road curves a little bit when we had the visibility to do so safely. We were finally having a little fun.

Just a little, though. When we returned to base and switched over to that plane-Jane ES 350 for the return trip to the hotel, we were reminded why this car exists in the first place. In 1989, it was a luxurious Toyota Camry. Almost 20 years later, it became a luxurious Toyota Avalon. In 2018, it still is.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2019 Lexus ES is still a quiet, comfortable, sure-footed luxury cruiser for the entry-level-luxury customer. The hybrid adds fantastic fuel economy; the F-Sport adds personality. We'd pick one of those over the base car with our money, frankly, and we're not sure it would be the "fun" one.

2019 Lexus ES 350, ES 300h and ES 350 F-Sport base price TBA.

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Lexus.