We still remember when Lexus launched in the US in 1990. It was a bold move – the Toyota company creating an upstart to take on the biggest luxury names in the market, including Mercedes and Cadillac. And its success is legendary, where it seems like Honda’s Acura, and Nissan’s Infiniti have never been able to quite get that cache.
Why the history lesson? Well, there were two models when Lexus debuted, the LS400 and ES250. And now the ES250 name is back! So, if you’ve been waiting, your wishes have been fulfilled. Even more interesting, the ES250 is unique in the ES line, with a 4-cylinder engine and All-Wheel-Drive. So, it’s a bit of a groundbreaker, but let’s see if it’s worth your time.
On the outside, the ES is pretty much identical to the all-new ES350 that bowed in 2019. That’s a good thing, based on the same chassis as the Camry and Avalon, Lexus took the old, meh styled sedan, and turned up the wick to make it look sportier and more interesting.
Up front is the massive grille that adorns most Lexi, and we must be getting used to it – it doesn’t looks so huge anymore. We hope that same familiarity works for the new BMW 430I we tested.
Setting it apart from the LC coupe and LS flagship, the ES gets a vertical grille pattern that is echoed at each corner of the bumper, giving the sedan a muscular look. LED headlights with signature L-shaped driving lights add to the presence.
The profile is sleek and coupe-like, with some side contours that make previous models look positively slabby. Optional 18-inch split 10-spoke alloy wheels on our tester add some interest.
At the rear, the familiar angled Lexus taillamps look fresh and modern, and our tester wore a fair amount of chrome as well. Hey, it’s a Lexus. Finishing off the classy looks, our ES was dressed in Nebula Gray Pearl – understated and elegant. If you want more visual oomph, the ES250 is also available in F SPORT trim, which includes tough-looking 19-inch wheels, and a little more visual aggressiveness.
Not your Grampa’s Lexus
Inside, the ES250 is pure Lexus, with high quality materials, tasteful design and loads of comfort. A sporty digital tachometer and speedo sits proudly in the center of the instrument panel, framed by a thick steering wheel with a nice combination of leather and wood trim. Paddle shifters let you know the ES still wants to play, if you do. An extra touch – wood trim with ambient lighting surrounds the cabin as well. Quite elegant.
The seats are comfortable and well-shaped, and those in back enjoy limo-like legroom. This is a big, spacious sedan.
Our tester’s optional infotainment system included a massive 12.3-inch color multi-media display, perfect for displaying the Lexus navigation system, or in our case Apple CarPlay. The screen not only looks beautiful, the system sounds amazing too, with Mark Levinson Audio, featuring, 1,800-watts pumping through 17-speakers. We did still find the Lexus touchpad fidgety. You get used to it.
We also enjoyed the Premium Package, which includes memory system for driver’s seat, mirrors, steering wheel position, as well as heated and ventilated front seats, rain sensing wipers – even power folding outside mirrors.
All-wheel-drive meets 4-cylinder power
The drive is quite different than what we’ve come to expect from Lexus. The biggest difference is under the hood, where you’ll find the 2.5-liter four cylinder, that also finds a home in the Toyota Camry. It’s quite different from the 302-hp 6-cylinder ES350 which is very smooth and powerful. We like the 4-cylinder here, though – it has a little rasp as it starts up, and it gives a throaty growl as you wind it out. It’s fun.
Which is not to say it’s fast. With 203 horsepower and AWD, you have to work it hard if you want to get around quickly. Even then, you get the feeling it would rather kick back and enjoy the ride. Do just that and you will be rewarded with excellent fuel economy, up to 34 mpg highway.
Handling is enjoyable too. The smaller engine reduces weight on the nose, and makes the ES250 feel lighter at the wheel, turning in easily and quickly. Throw in the All-Wheel Drive system, and you have loads of grip, giving the ES a kid of hunkered down feeling if you toss it around. And for the rest of the time when you just want extra grip in slippery conditions, it’s sure to make this a sedan for all seasons.
The ride is typical Lexus, smooth, quiet and refined. We grew to love the little bit of engine noise with the 4-cylinder – it makes the ES more extra chunky peanut butter rather than original smooth flavor.
ES The One For You?
Pricing is interesting. The ES250 AWD starts at $39,900. Our tester was loaded with Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert ($1,065), Wireless Charger ($75), Those handsome alloy wheels ($770), Head-up Display ($500), Triple Beam LED headlamps ($1,515), Power rear sunshade ($210), Navi with Mark Levinson Audio ($2,900), Hands-free Trunk ($550), Premium Package ($1,375), Wood & Leather steering wheel ($300), Wood Trim with LED lighting ($740), a couple accessories and $1,025 for destination, and we rang the bell at $51,855. Gulp!
Competition is close at hand – the ES350 front wheel drive with powerful V6 starts at $40,000, and options out comparably. And with standard traction control, it’s probably all you’d need for most weather conditions that don’t require an SUV. You can also get a Camry LE with AWD starting at just $26,500.
Spec out an Audi A4 quattro, and you get a near-identical $51,040. We love the Audi’s European feel and superb dynamics, but if you’re going to keep your vehicle a long time, Lexus reputation for reliability and pain-free ownership would swing us towards the E250.
We loved our ES250 AWD, it’s not for everyone – traditional Lexus buyers may be happier with a front-drive V6 ES350. But if you’re not a traditional Lexus buyer, you might be charmed by the ES250 as much as we were.
With its engaging personality, fuel efficiency and the added confidence of all-wheel-drive, the ES250 is a very compelling package.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.