The ES is by far the most-successful Lexus nameplate since the brand launched in 1989. These days, the ES is outsold only by the crossover king RX350 and RH Hybrid, so the ES flame is still burning bright in Lexus showrooms worldwide.
The ES300h Hybrid is just about the opposite of the car most performance-sedan fans might pick for themselves, but the fact of the matter is: we absolutely adored the ES300h after spending a week together.
Intro: ES Bias?
From an outsider perspective, one might write off the ES350 and ES300h as legacy models — cars sold to long-time buyers regardless of whether the car is actually competitive with the best luxury cars on the market. From the harsh light of the 335i and C400 4Matic — the Lexus ES’s reputation is for pleasing old folks with old-fashioned Buick dynamics.
The ES is front-drive and this cheapens its appeal dramatically among luxury car buyers and observers, so the ES presence in the Lexus line — again, from the outside — seems curious as it overlaps with the IS350 on price and the GS350 on size.
From the inside, the Lexus ES is a compelling achievement in handling balance, MPG efficiency, cabin comfort and luxury equipment.
This review is divided into four sections: Exterior, Interior, Driving Impressions, and Summary points. Also included are pricing details, feature and option details, and a color palette.
So, if the Lexus ES’s longtime position in the market as a baby LS can be tiring to enthusiasts — what about the exterior design?
In truth, the ES300h is quite handsome and actually fairly interesting as we enter 2015. A mid-cycle refresh in 2013 brought the new spindle grille and arrow-head LEDs to the nose, along with newly re-profiled lower sills and a refined tail that now includes smaller, brighter LED taillamps. On the ES300h, LED front loglamps are a nice surprise in how great they look, as well as illuminate road signs in the dark.
The changes are modest but wholly successful at resetting the ES300h’s appeal in the line alongside the new GS and IS. Particular favorites include the reshaped nose design, which brings the grille-top higher and farther forward. This enhances the sense of prestige as well as making the nose tapering seem extra dramatic around the side of the nose — where there is actually very little front overhang to betray those FWD origins we mentioned.
It is in pure profile that the ES starts to feel very familiar and very front-drive in its design, but overall the ES300h is better-looking than it has been in more than a decade. Not quite as chic as the 1993 model was at the time of its launch, but darn close.
Similarly good and bad are the new headlamps themselves. With gorgeous LEDs in the bottom of the lamp, they feel current and hightech. The turn indicator design is a stacked layout that is very cool and very stylish, despite the incandescent blinker bulb inside the assembly.
The downside of the new headlamp design is that the previous projector-beam HID low-beams are still joined by old-tech highbeams.
The dramatic nose tapering also brings the LED arrowhead light shapes a bit too close together when viewed from far away, such as across the highway divider.
But for a car that most will know is instantly a new Lexus, the design does feel fresh and expensive. In fact, such a youthful refresh to the long-in-the-tooth current ES300h is still a big selling point.
Anyone will tell you that one of the most comfortable cars on the road is a Lexus. Sublime refinement, extreme quietness and ride quality to challenge the BMW 7 series or the Audi A8 all come standard on the ES.
We were frankly shocked by how nicely the ES is from the driver’s seat. Sure, all those features above are stronger than ever.
But the ES300h is also a smooth steer with balanced handling and absolutely perfect throttle control. The brakes of this Hybrid model can be a little grabby in traffic, but are fine most of the time with normal and firm inputs.
The steering is light as a feather in the Eco and Normal modes of the drive selector — and firms up very nicely in Sport with more weight and more heft in the hand.
The battery pack behind the back seat of the ES300h actually makes the car ride and handle better than any front-drive luxury car we’ve ever driven. There is a pure sense of levelness and rigidity to the ES chassis that makes it unflappable, even when driven hard around bumpy corners.
Tech-wise, Lexus Enform is a great system and the mouse-style controller is simple and easy to use — even eyes-free. Critiques of the interface seem totally unjustified.
Favorite elements of the control suite is the Drive Mode selector that actually makes dramatic changes to the car’s feel. We also loved the included Lexus Concierge — which can enter an address for you on the road via the touch of a headliner button. Leaving an appointment in Atlanta with the 2015 Acura TLX and rushing to the airport en route to Pebble Beach — Lexus Concierge folks were able to input the destination on the move in less than 30 seconds. Polite, easy, helpful. A feature all luxury car’s should have.
Lastly, there are various color options for the leather, but a single wood option that is a sexy bamboo design. It is still too glossy, and the wood on the steering wheel makes one cringe.
The best option we can suggest are the vented and upgraded seats, which bring perforated leather versus solid for the base seats. These optional seats also bring a critical seat base length adjustment — with very good under-thigh support only when the squab is extended fully.
The ES300h drives amazingly well. Considering that this hybrid runs a four-cylinder engine and CVT, the expectation of a giant Prius was top-of-mind.
In truth, there is some giant Prius brilliance in the Hybrid solution, but only in how smoothly the engine and regenerative charging integrate into the overall drive experience. The ES300h flips off the engine in almost all cruising or slow-down scenarios, but has a very short and 25-mph-limited EV mode for stealth maneuvers.
Totally silent cruising is a feature in 98-percent of ES300h miles, but the engine does make itself heard on hard throttle. The CVT winds the engine up to 6000-rpm while doling out the power, but it is pretty subtle and not as annoying as the CVT in the Nissan Pathfinder, among others.
A manual shift functionality is easy to use, and Sport mode does make the helm reassuringly heavy. The ES300h’s steering and chassis possesses amazing lane discipline and is rock-steady at highway speeds.
Cushy ride, hushed harmonics combined with decent overall pace. We estimate an 8.0-second sprint time to 60-mph, and even driven hard for an entire gas tankful, we could not get the MPG to dip below 33. Cruising range is comfortably over 500-miles.