Hy­brid gets a makeover

Car Re­view: 2019 Lexus ES 300h

The Observer (Sarnia) - - DRIVING - JIL MCIN­TOSH DRIV­ING.CA

Ev­ery so of­ten, I drive a ve­hi­cle that turns into a love-hate re­la­tion­ship. I love driv­ing it, but I ab­so­lutely hate op­er­at­ing it, and that’s how I got along with the re­designed-for-2019 Lexus ES 300h, the hy­brid ver­sion of the com­pany’s mid-size sedan.

It’s roomy, it’s com­fort­able, and it’s bank-vault quiet, for a truly plea­sur­able drive. Un­for­tu­nately, should you want to ac­cess func­tions in the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem, you get a com­puter-style touch­pad that would be best fixed with dy­na­mite.

For the most part, the ES 300h has the best of in­ten­tions. Both it and its non-hy­brid ES 350 sib­ling are based on a new plat­form; it’s wider, lower, and longer in length and wheel­base than the model it re­places. I’ve yet to be sold on the gap­ing maw of the Lexus “spin­dle” grille, although ob­vi­ously there are plenty of buy­ers who are (or who buy in spite of it), but the rest of this car is gor­geously swoopy and stylish. Be warned, though: that fast-flow­ing low roofline means rear-seat pas­sen­gers have to duck when get­ting in, lest they bonk their nog­gins on the door frame.

Power comes cour­tesy of a 2.5litre four-cylin­der en­gine with hy­brid sys­tem. It’s rated at 176 horse­power on its own, but when gas and elec­tric work to­gether, it’s a max­i­mum of 215 hp go­ing to the front wheels. It’s a con­ven­tional hy­brid so you don’t plug it in, and the bat­tery is stored un­der the floor where it doesn’t af­fect the roomy rear seat or the trunk space.

The ES 300h starts at $47,000, a $2,000 pre­mium over the ES 350, but that’s just the be­gin­ning. Three pro­gres­sively more lav­ish op­tion packs can be added, which layer on such items as nav­i­ga­tion, heated steer­ing wheel, blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing, wire­less charg­ing and LED head­lamps. My tester’s Ul­tra Lux­ury Pack­age, at $14,500, topped them with high­est-end au­dio and up­hol­stery, hands­free trunk, head-up dis­play, and 360-de­gree cam­era, among other items, bring­ing the car’s price to $61,500.

Toy­ota/Lexus knows hy­brid, and the ES 300h’s sys­tem is no ex­cep­tion. It au­to­mat­i­cally and seam­lessly trans­fers be­tween gaso­line, elec­tric­ity, or a com­bi­na­tion of the two, de­pend­ing on what’s re­quired. Don’t get too ex­cited by the EV (elec­tric ve­hi­cle) Mode but­ton on the con­sole, though, as it’s not an elec­tric car. I’ve never un­der­stood why the au­tomaker in­cludes it on its hy­brids. When you press the but­ton, the car runs on its bat­tery alone at lower speeds, such as in park­ing lots, but the sys­tem will do that any­way, and the but­ton’s EV mode abruptly shuts off if you ex­ceed its low-speed limit.

There’s a sport-mode set­ting that mostly just in­creases the en­gine’s rpm, and there are pad­dle shifters to tog­gle be­tween the CVT’s six sim­u­lated gears, but this is not a sports sedan. Ac­cel­er­a­tion is smooth but not brisk and the steer­ing is ac­cu­rate but lacks crisp­ness and feed­back. Go in ex­pect­ing old­school lux­ury and you’ll be fine. The bonus is the fuel ef­fi­ciency: in cold-weather driv­ing I av­er­aged 5.9 L/100 km, just a tick above the car’s pub­lished con­sump­tion, and it takes reg­u­lar-grade fuel.

The cabin de­sign is very busy yet still man­ages to be high-tech hand­some (although, truth be told, the two di­als jut­ting out on ei­ther side of the tall in­stru­ment-clus­ter cover re­mind me of the bolts in Franken­stein’s mon­ster’s neck).

There’s also a real shifter, in­stead of the ghastly elec­tronic push-pull­hit-a-but­ton-for-park stalks that so many au­tomak­ers are us­ing.

There are real but­tons for the cli­mate con­trol, the heated seats and steer­ing wheel (which can be set on an au­to­matic mode that ties them into the cabin tem­per­a­ture you’ve set), and a cou­ple of the stereo func­tions, along with a dial for the vol­ume. It’s also the first Lexus to of­fer Ap­ple CarPlay.

But oh, touch­pad con­troller, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. The cen­tre screen isn’t touch ac­ti­vated; in­stead, you slide your fin­ger over the touch­pad to move the screen’s cur­sor, and then tap the pad to ac­ti­vate what you’ve se­lected. These touch­pads work fine when you’re us­ing a com­puter at your desk. On the road, es­pe­cially a bumpy one, when you’re sup­posed to be watch­ing traf­fic in­stead of a bull’s-eye stut­ter­ing across a screen, not so much. It’s even worse in win­ter, when skin dries out and the pad doesn’t al­ways re­spond eas­ily to des­ic­cated fin­gers. Re­ally, I want to drive a Lexus, not a lap­top.

Some of the screen func­tions can be ac­ti­vated by voice com­mand, and it works re­ally well: ad­dresses are en­tered all at once, rather than line by line. One quib­ble is that, even zoomed in as close as pos­si­ble, the nav­i­ga­tion screen doesn’t al­ways show the names of crossstreets, which is an­noy­ing when you’re look­ing for some­thing and the street sign isn’t yet vis­i­ble. A very mi­nor com­plaint, I know, but some other sys­tems work much bet­ter.

That touch­pad is my deal­breaker, but if you can live with it, this car’s a con­tender. It’s a very im­pres­sive makeover; Lexus has cre­ated a roomy sedan that co­coons you in com­fort but with up-to-date han­dling and poise. Fewer trips to the gas pump are just the ic­ing on this cake.

JIL MCIN­TOSH/DRIV­ING.CA

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