Lexus ES 300h: First Drive Review
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Can the most affordable Lexus in India take the fight to its segment above rivals?
At Rs 55.27 lakh, the ES 300h is the most “affordable” model in the Lexus range. Well, at least in India. The luxury sedan is coming with the promise of class above quality and attention to detail, combined with Japanese reliability. However, while it is the lightest on the pocket way to enter the Lexus India family, it certainly isn’t cheap. At its current price, it competes with the likes of the Volvo S90, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6 and Jaguar XF – a task that its big brother, the GS, takes on overseas.
Does this green car have what it takes to punch above its weight?
Understated – not a word you generally use for Japanese designs and the ES 300h is no different. The plus-sized front spindle grille is l-o-u-d, and it is certainly polarising. Things only get edgier from there and the sleek full-LED headlamps add some aggression, while the daytime running LEDs and LED fog light enclosures seem to mirror each other’s contours.
The side profile tames things down a bit and while the silhouette is still sporty, the panels are quite clean and bereft of too many cuts or creases. We really liked the styling of the 17-inch alloy wheels, but the ES 300h badge on the rear doors looks a bit out of place. At the rear, the boot-lid mimics the design of the grille and the brand badge is blue, highlighting the hybrid heart that powers this car. The rear end does look familiar and some may draw parallels with the Camry, but this isn’t just a slightly restyled version of Toyota’s premium sedan.
In terms of dimensions, the ES is longer by 65mm and even the wheelbase is 45mm larger. The width is greater by only 5mm, but its height is actually lower by a full 30mm. Numbers aside, the ES 300h feels better built than the Camry and there is a greater sense of solidity and weight when you open or shut the doors. It isn’t on par with its German rivals in terms of feel, but comes close.
Getting into the ES is quite easy and while it does sit quite low (ground clearance = 151mm), even senior citizens won’t have much trouble with ingress/egress. Once in, the dashboard cocoons you in the cockpit and outward visibility is clear too. It’s also been designed for great ergonomics and all the controls fall to hand easily.
What’s really nice for the most part is the quality and attention to detail. For instance, the dashboard top is draped in leather with the stitch showcasing the craftsmanship. The door pads employ premium quality plastic and they feel tough as well. Even the pillars, traditionally covered by just plastic panels, get draped in the same wool-like fabric as the roof liner. A nice touch is the leather-draped palm-rest which sits behind the joystick infotainment system controller, adding to the sense of luxury, as does the analogue LED backlit clock.
Much like the new E-Class, not only are there rear sunblinds, but even the rear quarter glass gets a mini-sunblind of its own. There’s a wide range of leather and trim options/combination to choose from as well, enabling better cabin personalisation. It’s things like this that make you realise that while it is more expensive than the Camry, that added cost isn’t just for badge bragging rights. It really does feel like a different car altogether.
However, there are a few oddities. The centre console gets a gaudy looking silver panel that looks too similar to the setup we saw in the old Fortuner and it’s something that falls into your line of vision the second you’re in the car. Like the Camry, here too there is the issue of one too many buttons being used, and the layout could’ve definitely been cleaner. Even the panel around the drive mode selector dial looks out of place, while the dial itself feels a bit tacky to use. Nitpicking? Yes, but if you’re going to be paying over half a crore to buy a car, you have every right to do exactly that!
Cabin space, unsurprisingly, is quite generous. Seating two six-footers one behind the other is easy, but there is a drawback. Remember when we said the ES 300h’s height is 30mm shorter than the Camry’s? Well, while that height drop adds a coupe-esque touch on the outside, it eats into rear seat headroom – something people who are around 6ft tall or more will find lacking. It’s also less than ideal for seating 3 at the rear, as the seat base and armrest jut out in the middle, while the headroom is at its lowest in the middle, because of how the roof is contoured.
The seats themselves are very supportive, even for large frames. While the cushioning is soft on the seats, the side bolsters are firm, offering a good balance of comfort and support. Yes, both front seats are power-adjustable (10-way) and the driver gets three memory settings as well.
The steering wheel is electrically-adjustable for both rake and reach, and, it isn’t cluttered with too many buttons. We do, however, wish Lexus skipped the wood trim on it as it does tend to heat up quite easily in the summer. Oddly, while all the cars come from Japan, an RHD market like India, the steering stalks are in the left-hand drive order i.e. light stalk on the left and wiper stalk on the right. The instrument cluster has well-sized fonts and is an all analogue setup with a digital MID in the middle. The multi-information display is quite familiar as most of the menu options are similar to what you would see in the Camry or even the Innova Crysta. There is a party trick here though. While the left dial generally shows you the drive mode the hybrid system is in (Charge/Eco/Power), switching the drive mode selector to Sport, changes this display into a rev-counter in the blink of an eye. Neat!
For convenience, the Lexus ES 300h gets 3-zone climate control, including a negative ion generator. That’s actually a positive thing as the climate control system ionizes the air to improve cabin freshness and eradicate odours. Also included are ventilated front seats, a motorised rear sunblind and, for the driver, cruise control. Yep, before you ask, it also gets a sunroof. It doesn’t get the Camry’s reclining rear seats, but the default position is comfortable as is. What is missed from the Toyota, though, is the boss button, which lets you adjust the front passenger’s seat electrically from the rear.
What is appreciable, though, is how practical the car is. Despite having space occupied by the battery pack, the boot space (425-litres) is adequate for the whole family’s luggage. Even the spare tyre is a full-sized alloy and sits under the boot floor, so sensibility hasn’t been sacrificed.
Nestled in the leather draped dashboard is the ES 300h’s 7-inch infotainment display. Unlike its rivals, it isn’t a touchscreen nor does it get a dial. Instead, you get a joystick controller to shuffle through the various functions. The screen itself has quite a unique display, reminiscent of the Sega games we grew up playing at arcades! It’s also very user-friendly and simple to navigate through, but the joystick takes some time to get used to as no other car sold in India uses such a setup. In your first few attempts using it, you might accidentally jump the menu option you were going for.
The display can even be customised to show you the menu options of your choice. Unfortunately, none of Lexus’ cars come with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. They are navigation ready, but none of the cars have India-spec maps installed as of now.
The biggest highlight, though, is the 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. Combined with the effective cabin insulation, it does a great job of providing you with a movie theatre like experience. Even with the volume turned all the way up, the sound is still crisp with perfectly defined highs, lows and mids.
We just came fresh off driving the Camry Hybrid, so the first question that came to mind was, is the ES any different to drive? Well, not really. The ES 300h has the exact same setup as the Camry and behaves similarly as well. From a standstill, the car will almost always move ahead in pure EV mode, where there is no noise whatsoever. In fact, the Camry did let in a fair amount of road noise, but the ES is so heavily insulated that it is, to quote every English teacher in India, pin drop silent!
We found ourselves in heavy traffic for the most part of our drive, but even in those conditions, similarities between the Camry and ES become apparent. For example, once you depress the accelerator pedal to gain some speed, there is a momentary surge before car’s power delivery smoothens out. Once you reach a relaxed cruise, the ES feels calm and pleasant to drive. The 2.5-litre petrol engine and electric motor deliver a combined output of 205PS and 213Nm of torque. These figures are adequate, but nothing more. Overtakes do take a little planning and even with the accelerator floored in Sport+ mode, there’s no excitement in how the car gains speed. For reference, Lexus claims a 0-100kmph time of 8.5 seconds, which is respectable. Importantly, it has a claimed efficiency figure of 17.8kmpl and as we saw in the Camry, you can get close to that figure at least on the highway.
Ride and Handling
The ES 300h’s ride and handling package revolves around comfort. The suspension deals with uneven roads very well and if you’re looking to nod off after a long day in the office, this is one of the best cars to do it in. Most bumps are imperceptible and it doesn’t crash through even the harsher patches of road.
We couldn’t push the car much to test the handling, but its mannerisms are again, similar to the Camry. The steering is quite vague and while it is super light for city usage, it won’t please the enthusiast in you. Also, the brakes have the same mushy feel as the Camry’s and they don’t bite sharply enough. Brake hard at a high speeds and you will have to depress the stop pedal a fair bit before the car slows down significantly.
Lexus has provided an extensive safety package for the ES 300h, which includes a tyre pressure monitoring system, hill-start assist, 10 airbags and 3-point seatbelts with pretensioners and force-limiters. The car also comes equipped with ABS, EBD, traction control, vehicle stability control and brake assist. Parktronic sensors come fitted to the front and rear, while a rear camera also comes as standard to make parking easier.
The Lexus ES 300h is only offered in one fully loaded variant. However, there are several interior and exterior colour/trim combinations available, and every car is custom designed to the customer’s taste before the order is placed.
There’s no looking around the fact that the Lexus ES 300h comes at a hefty price premium. While it does offer bragging rights of owning something unique, it falls short of beating its similarly priced European rivals as they feel noticeably more luxurious.
However, buyers in this segment are gradually veering away from diesels, and the ES 300h’s petrol hybrid powertrain is something that’ll guard it from our often confusing regulations. Additionally, the car is easy to drive and will be fuel efficient in the real world. It’s also tremendously comfortable and offers refinement and noise insulation levels no other car in the segment can match. Finally, a major selling point for the ES is the brand that makes it, not just for snob value, but because of the reputation it has developed.
Internationally, Lexus owners have lauded the brand for ensuring a hassle-free ownership experience and of course, reliability. In fact, the ES 300h comes with a 3 year/1,00,000km warranty as standard, with a 5 year/1,50,000km warranty on the hybrid drive (including the petrol engine). That speaks volumes about the brand’s confidence in its cars. Lexus itself admits that it isn’t interested in sales numbers, but ensuring that each customer has an unparalleled ownership period. If done right, THAT will be the ES 300h’s biggest trump card against its rivals.