2018 Lexus ES 300h: First Drive Review
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The sixth-gen Lexus ES 300h was capable, but being very similar to the Camry made its price hard to justify. The new Lexus 300h promises to be different though, we find out if that’s true
The seventh generation Lexus ES 300h was launched in India soon after its international debut at the Beijing Motor Show in April 2018. We finally got a chance to experience this midsize luxury sedan and here are our first impressions of the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Jaguar XF and the Volvo S90 competitor.
It would be difficult not to stop and stare at the ES300h. It looks like a baby LS, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
A low, wide stance, Lexus’ massive hourglass-like ‘Spindle’ grille flanked by sleeker triple-barrel LED headlamps, the long body suspended on beautiful 18-inch wheels and sportscar-like tail section make this unlike anything else on the road. Lexus talks about the ES 300h giving you the same feeling as a very happy occasion (a party, a wedding and the likes), and it has done that successfully.
Some of our favourite design bits from the car include the new grille which features vertical slats instead of the horizontal ones on the previous model.
The headlamps are sleek and feature two distinct design elements - the three-barrel LED lamps which are underlined by LED indicators and the signature L-shaped LED DRLs which have their own distinct position in the headlamp cluster.
The ORVMs seem to jut out of the body more than usual and are sculpted to feel like they have been shaped by the wind.
The side view reveals a fastback/notchback design, a first for the ES series in its 7-generation history. The body surfaces are subtle, with no visible contours on the side except the shoulder line below the windows and the crease along the bottom of the doors. This dazzles the eye as the surfaces catch light differently at different viewing angles.
The 18-inch, 15-spoke aluminium wheels are a work of art and complement the stylish exterior design of the ES 300h.
The large windows end in a hofmeister kink, with the quarter panels specifically designed to let more light in for the rear passengers. The chrome surround is subtle all-around but becomes chunky at the kink, adding a bit to the sense of occasion.
The rear design is all about making this hunk of a sedan look rather slim and surprisingly sporty - there’s a hint of the LC 500 two-door coupe here. Highlights include all-LED taillamps which wrap around the corners, the boot lip spoiler and the chrome strip which runs along the bottom of the bumper.
There’s also the argument that the ES’ design stands out because of the rather stiff-upper-lip-like design adopted by the competition. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the Lexus ES 300h has a presence unmatched by its rivals.
Its swooping design is also deceptive. The new ES300h is larger than the older car - it is 65mm longer, 45mm wider and has a 50mm longer wheelbase. But with a 5mm reduction in height, the ES300h now looks much bigger than it actually is. For comparison, the ES is 88mm shorter than the E-Class long wheelbase, 261mm narrower than the 5 Series and has the shortest wheelbase in its class. Look at it in isolation and you would be rubbing your eyes in disbelief at those numbers.
While our test cars were donned a rather sombre Deep Blue paint scheme, the ES 300h can be had in nine colours including the exciting Red Mica or the all-new Ice Ecru.
The sense of occasion continues on the inside, with the ES 300h taking inspiration from the LS for a premium cabin.
The front half is distinctively divided into two, an easy on the eyes, ergonomic driver’s cockpit and a comfortable passenger side.
While it may look a tad busy at first, the dashboard was designed to keep most of the instruments at eye-level for the driver. The two rotary wheels on either side of the instrument cluster can be used to change the driving modes (Eco, Standard, Sport) and toggle the traction control. Even the instrument cluster and the centre display are placed on the same height, so that one does not have to look too far for important information. The head-up display, offered as standard, is also informative enough and doesn’t need the driver to take his eyes off the road.
If you are not sitting in the 14-way adjustable driver seat though, the cabin has enough design details and features to keep you entertained and comfortable. The seats have partial leather covers, featuring harder leather on the outer corners, while the centre gets softer fabric. This makes the seats comfortable and cosseting at the same time. The front seats can be cooled or warmed, and there are individual ACs for both the front occupants - operated by conventional buttons rather than a touch unit.
The door handles are sleek, made of a single-piece soft-touch plastic and are nice to operate. Lexus claims that the armrests on the doors and the centre armrests (fixed one at the front, foldable one at the rear) which feature textured fabric covers, are more comfortable on longer drives than leather-covered ones. In our short time with the car, they did seem well placed but the claims about being comfortable over a longer journey remains to be verified.
The rear seat experience is more about peace of mind rather than outright entertainment. There are no seatback-mounted screens or wireless headphones here. Flip down the centre seatback and it transforms into a useful centre armrest, with controls for the rear climate control, seat heating, multimedia controls and the rear sunshade. The sunshades on the side windows are manually deployable, but are nicely shaped - even the quarter panel glass gets its own shade!
The rear seat angle can be changed by as much as 8-degrees and helps in making the cabin feel spacious. In fact, the front passenger seat can be pushed forward using buttons accessible from the rear seat to free up even more legroom.
There is one aspect where the ES 300h really suffers in terms of space, and that is the headroom on offer. The front occupants suffer the most. Its low roof, along with the inclusion of a sunroof, eat into their space. At a maximum of 915mm, it is one of the lowest in the segment. Rear passengers fare better, but at 895mm, it is 15mm less than the Jaguar XF and the 25mm less than the BMW 5 Series.
The Rich Cream interior leather upholstery you see here adds to the sense of space. But, as you might have guessed, it is the most susceptible to dirt among the four upholstery options available (Topaz Brown, Chateau and Black). Other customisation options include one of three trim colours - Shimamoku Black, Shimamoku Brown and Bamboo.
Talking of space, better packaging, thanks to the new GA-K platform, and the compact battery pack have made the boot a lot more useful than the previous model. The 204-cell battery pack now sits under the rear seats rather than the boot, which has not only allowed the luggage space to go up to a huge 454 litres, but has also freed up enough space to fit a full sized tyre shod on the same stylish 18-inch alloy wheel!
The wow factor inside the Lexus ES 300h is courtesy the two all-digital screens on the dash and the 17-speaker 1800W Mark Levinson surround system.
The 7-inch TFT instrument cluster and the 12.3-inch multimedia screen conduct a synchronised start-up routine. The centrepiece of the instrument cluster is a round digital screen which can either be the speedometer or the tachometer, changing colour and information displayed depending on the driving mode chosen.
The 12.3-inch multimedia screen can be controlled only via a touchpad on the centre console, which is not the easiest to use on the move. We can understand that a touchscreen based system would have been too far from both the front seats to be used easily, but it begs for an easier user interface. The system has built in navigation, trip details, a dedicated detailed display for the hybrid system, multimedia options and others. That said, it is not the most intuitive interface to use as there are no guides on the screen to show you how to access them.
And then there are the limited connectivity options. In an age where many manufacturers are moving to smartphone-based interfaces for Android and Apple users, Lexus has stuck to offering only Bluetooth and Miracast connectivity along with DVD player/AM/FM/USB/Aux-in. Concerns about limited connectivity are thrown right out of the big windows as soon as you play music. It’s so good and powerful that it could double up as the sound system at a mini-concert!
Unfortunately, our impressions of driving the ES 300h turned out to be inconclusive. Limited drive time, ultra smooth straight roads around Greater Noida and the Yamuna Expressway meant there was very little to judge in terms of ride quality, steering feedback, cornering ability and handling.
The steering response, at least while taking some of the roundabouts slightly quickly, seemed to be faster than what would be expected of a business barge. Couple this with almost instant feedback and quick gear changes (for an eCVT) and you have a quick, and capable sedan which is not boring to drive.
What is evident is that Lexus engineers have tuned the suspension to be supple without being floaty. The Lexus takes bumps very silently and there’s minimal road noise coming into the cabin over asphalt. There was significantly more road noise on the six lanes-wide concrete Yamuna Expressway, but the ride remained controlled even when we encountered continuous undulations. That said, there was an increased up-and-down bobbing movement at very high speeds.
Increased cabin insulation and even specially designed alloy wheel resonance chambers play a big part to quieten the cabin up. Lexus has had to engineer the surround sound system to pump in ambient sounds into the cabin to make it feel less erie - it’s that quiet! What also makes the ES 300h so very quiet at most times is its hybrid powertrain.
A Proper Hybrid
The Lexus ES 300h is powered by a 2.5-litre, in-line 4-cylinder petrol engine paired with an electric motor, both powering the front wheels. It may sound like the ES 300h has the same powertrain as the 6th-gen model, but there are significant changes made here.
The electric motor setup has been significantly changed, which has helped in terms of packaging, lowering weight and improving performance. The petrol engine, meanwhile, has been tuned to be Euro-6/BSVI complaint and return improved fuel efficiency.
Getting technical here would be boring, so let’s just say that the system certainly feels like an improvement. The switch between all-EV and hybrid mode is hardly noticeable, and unless you are hard on the gas, you will never hear the engine rev. Keep the throttle pinned and the CVT characteristics of letting the engine rev to an optimum power generation rpm are evident, but let go and the electric motor takes over almost immediately to give you a silent drive experience. A combined power output of 217PS is enough to propel the ES 300h from 0-100kmph in a claimed 8.3-seconds. This may be slow by segment standards (BMW 530i does it in 6.2 seconds) but it is in no way slow.
The braking feel, generally the most unnerving part of a hybrid car, has also been improved. The transition from the braking force being used for energy regeneration to actual slowing down of the car is less evident in the ES, improving braking confidence.
Like any previous Lexus hybrid car that we have driven, the ES 300h forces you to drive calmly. But unlike them, the ES 300h doesn’t feel laidback if you do put your foot down. Ultimately though, the ES 300h’s drivetrain is about efficiency and with a claimed figure of 22.37kmpl, it should be the most economical car in its segment.
If you had experienced the sixth generation ES 300h, this new one will feel like a proper update. It now has style along with substance, unlike the car it replaces.
The Lexus ES 300h is no longer just a car you should buy because it offers space, luxury, a hybrid powertrain at a competitive price (Rs 59.13 lakh, ex-showroom Delhi) and a highly sought after ownership experience. It is also stylish enough to stand apart from the German, Scandinavian and British crowd, spacious and quiet enough to be the ultimate chauffeur-driven car, and sporty enough to occasionally offer thrills. The ES 300h has finally transcended the badge on its grille.