Lexus ES

FIRST DRIVE We try the lat­est front-drive hy­brid ex­ec­u­tive saloon com­ing to the UK

Auto Express - - CONTENTS - John Mcil­roy John_m­cil­roy@den­ @john­m­cil­roy

Can front-drive, hy­brid exec saloon beat 5 Se­ries and E-class?

THE new Lexus ES marks a rad­i­cal de­par­ture for the Ja­panese brand in Europe and the UK. It re­places the GS, which tried hard (but ul­ti­mately failed) to take on the Ger­mans at their own game: a rear-drive ex­ec­u­tive saloon.

So the GS is be­ing dropped and the ES is be­com­ing a global car. It’s not a new badge else­where – this is the sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion ES – and it’s Lexus’s best-sell­ing saloon world­wide, sec­ond af­ter the RX SUV in its over­all sales chart.

It’s a dif­fer­ent car to the GS, too – not least be­cause it is based on the lat­est Toy­ota Camry and is front-wheel drive. It’s closer in prin­ci­ple to the Audi A6, then, than it is to a BMW 5 Se­ries or Mercedes E-class.

The pow­er­train choice will be more fa­mil­iar to Bri­tish cus­tomers – and has ever-in­creas­ing ap­peal in the cur­rent anti-diesel cli­mate. It’s a 2.5-litre petrol hy­brid pro­duc­ing 215bhp, which puts the ES roughly on par with the Mercedes E 220 d and BMW 525d.

Lexus is still do­ing the num­bers on how ef­fi­cient the set-up will be in the forth­com­ing WLTP tests, but es­ti­mates sug­gest 60.1mpg and emis­sions of 106g/km of CO2 – de­cent fig­ures for a car like this, and, while a 530e plug-in hy­brid will trump them, the 300h should be com­pet­i­tive on com­pany car tax.

Lexus is also still fi­nal­is­ing specs, but we know the ES will be sold in five trim lev­els in the UK. Ba­sic cars get an eight­inch screen but lack the abil­ity to add some of the op­tion packs. Mid-grade will open ac­cess to the Tech and Safety Packs, as well as adding leather seats.

F-sport will come in two flavours – reg­u­lar, with the eight-inch in­fo­tain­ment screen and sports-themed styling cues, and F-sport High Grade, which steps up to a 12.3-inch widescreen sat-nav sys­tem. That up­graded unit is also part of the High Grade range top­per, which in­cludes semi-analine leather seats.

The mil­lion-dollar ques­tion is whether a front-wheel-drive hy­brid Lexus can get anywhere near the Ger­mans on driv­ing in­volve­ment – and our gut feel­ing af­ter a day in the car is that it will not.

Weirdly, though, that’s not down to the chas­sis. If any­thing, the ES feels well sorted. It’s nicely damped, and the com­fort doesn’t come at the ex­pense of body con­trol, which feels more than ac­cept­able. The steer­ing is direct, too.

No, the rea­son that the ES isn’t go­ing to bother a BMW for driv­ing plea­sure is the hy­brid pow­er­train. Lexus’s ef­forts are get­ting bet­ter all the time, and should you wish to drive ev­ery­where with gen­tle throt­tle mod­u­la­tion, the ES will re­ward you with great smooth­ness and re­fine­ment. But it’s less ef­fec­tive when you’re in a rush – and should you try to over­come this by tak­ing a bit more con­trol, it’ll still get in your way.

While there are pad­dles be­hind the steer­ing wheel, there just isn’t enough

“The ES is nicely damped and its com­fort doesn’t come at ex­pense of body con­trol”

low-down torque for a car weigh­ing 1.7 tonnes. Ask the ES to pitch up against an E-class as a re­fined long-dis­tance cruiser and it could come much closer to nail­ing the brief, though. And not every Lexus has en­joyed this pu­rity of fo­cus.

Our car was a very late pro­to­type, but, even at this stage, ma­te­ri­als felt on a level with the likes of Jaguar’s XF. The dashboard de­sign draws in­spi­ra­tion from the LS, with a big head-up dis­play likely to fea­ture on high-end edi­tions.

The key to it all could be pric­ing – let’s hope the shared plat­form will al­low some wrig­gle room on the num­bers.

ES lacks low-down torque for rapid progress, but scores as a long-dis­tance cruiser

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