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