You may not have noticed, but the Lexus ES is everywhere. Lexus’ best-selling sedan has been on sale since 1989, and six generations populate American roads. Its strong reputation for reliability also ensures that many ES sedans remain on the road for a long, long time. Understated styling and a focus on comfort and quiet elegance are ingredients for a great luxury sedan, but also make the car easy to overlook. But Lexus is making the all-new seventh-generation ES decidedly more visible. The new ES, set to go on sale in September, is also the first ES to be built in America.
The company has set an ambitious goal: keep loyal buyers who like the quiet, comfortable interior, while attracting new shoppers with sharp styling, and improved performance and driving dynamics. While the new ES isn’t a high-performance sport sedan, it has a new look and new attitude that separates it from the ES of the past.
It’s clear from the first look at the new ES that things have changed. Lexus has been in the process of revitalizing its lineup, starting with the introduction of the new flagship LC coupe and followed by the newest generation of the LS sedan. The ES benefits from the change, with more aggressive styling that echoes the cues first seen on the LC and LS. It starts up front with angular headlights and the new aggressive Lexus grille. The rear end also has a sharper shape, and the roofline is more raked and resembles a fastback. The new platform that underpins the ES is longer and wider, and the wheels are pushed toward the car’s corners. It makes the car look more aggressive than past models. In addition to the ES 350 and ES 300h models, the ES line receives the F Sport treatment for the first time. The F Sport receives dark accents, a spoiler and unique 19-inch wheels. Other ES models come with 17- or 18-inch wheels.
The revamped interior is filled with the high-quality materials and tasteful color combinations that Lexus is known for, and the design stands out more than in the previous ES. There are multiple combinations of leather seating and wood trim; the F Sport comes standard with Hidori Aluminum accents, inspired by ancient swords. The F Sport is the only ES that comes with the metal accents, and is also the only one available with red leather seats.
The new ES offers plenty of creature comforts. Higher trim levels come with features such as 10-way power seats for the driver and front passenger, heated side mirrors, heated and ventilated seats, a power rear sunshade and manual sunshades for the rear doors, a handsfree power trunklid, and a panoramic sunroof.
A notable change to the ES interior is the interesting way Lexus caters to both the driver and the rear passengers. Up front, gauges are controls are now more driver-centric, and the large heads-up display keeps important information in front of the driver’s eyes without being intrusive. While there’s a variety of controls, buttons, knobs and a touchpad, all of them are in easy reach of the driver. The seat design was updated, and front and rear seats proved comfortable during a full day of driving.
All ES models benefit from a larger cabin, and that improvement is most noticeable in the back seats. The rear seats are incredibly spacious, with more than ample legroom. Also impressive is the headroom. The new ES has a more raked roofline, which would seem to imply that rear-seat passengers would have to sacrifice headroom for the sake of the new styling. What Lexus did to counter the new roof was to change the angle of the seatback, creating plenty of headroom without forcing passengers to be at an angle where they’re staring at the headliner. And for those who are concerned that the changes to the ES would make the interior noisy, the 2019 model’s interior is very quiet – we didn’t get to drive a current model back-to-back with the new ES, but we believe the 2019 is even quieter than it was before.
Longer and wider than the previous sedan, the new ES is underpinned by a new, stiffer platform, known as the GA-K (Global Architecture-K), designed to improve the ES’s drivability and handling. This new platform helps give the Lexus more spirit than in previous models. The suspension has been revised; it’s similar to the outgoing model’s suspension, but now uses Dynamic Control shocks, with an auxiliary swing valve that controls fluid within the shock, smoothing out road irregularities at lower speeds. That system works well, as the ride is as smooth and as comfortable as you would expect in an ES.
We drove all three versions of the ES. Both the ES 350 and ES 350 F Sport use a 3.5-liter, 302-horsepower V6 with an 8-speed automatic transmission. The engine’s horsepower is up by 34 over the previous engine, and torque increases to 267, up by 19 lb-ft. The ES 350’s response off the line is better, and response to driver input feels more urgent than in previous models. The ES comes with a variety of drive modes, and switching from one to another does make a difference in driving feel and response. The F Sport and the Ultra Lux trims come with an additional horizontal damper that improves the ES’ rigidity in corners, but doesn’t add stiffness on the highway, retaining ride quality. The F Sport also has Adaptive Variable Suspension, which replaces the Dynamic Control shocks. This combination can adapt to changing road conditions, and offers the best cornering of the trio, but we did notice some late transmission shifts.
But the ES 300h may be the most compelling option for potential ES buyers. The hybrid uses a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson engine and a 29.1 kW motor, good for 215 system horsepower (up by 20 compared to last year). In addition to the increase in power, the hybrid is also more efficient; manufacturer estimates put combined fuel economy at 44 mpg. We found the hybrid’s acceleration to be plenty responsive – slower than in the ES 350 but it took little to no effort to drive efficiently. And the brakes felt fine, which isn’t always the case with hybrids. The gauge showed our current fuel economy during the drive was at or above manufacturer estimates. And the hybrid is still pleasantly quiet. Another nice feature of the hybrid is that the battery pack is now stored below the rear seats, so trunk size is the same in the ES 300h as it is in the ES 350.
The ES has better driving dynamics, more trim levels to choose from and retains Lexus levels of quality, comfort and quiet, but when it comes to infotainment, things are more of a mixed bag. We applaud the addition of Apple CarPlay, a first in a Lexus. It’s easy to connect, and the 12.3-inch screen that’s used for navigation and audio, among other things, is vibrant and crystal clear. (Side note: at launch, CarPlay will come with any ES equipped with the 12.3-inch screen. It will be available with the standard system in October.) However, the touchpad interface is not intuitive, and using that to control settings can be frustrating. Yes, an owner will eventually get used to it. But until then, they will have to take their eyes off the road to accomplish what they want to do, actions that can increase driver fatigue and distraction. Many controls also have separate buttons, which helps. Two positive notes about the touchpad: you can control the sensitivity of “clicks,” and you can pinch and zoom the map via the touchpad. Also available is a 17-speaker, 1,800-watt Mark Levinson audio system, and a Qi wireless charging pad for smartphones.
On the safety side, Lexus’ Safety System+ 2.0 comes standard. Some of the features it includes are intelligent high beams, lane departure alert with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, 10 airbags, and a pre-collision system that also has low-light pedestrian detection, oncoming vehicle detection and daytime bicyclist detection.