Luxury brands are curious things.
Some, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac, have a storied history of excellence that justifies their position at the top of the automotive food chain.
Others, however, were created by marketing departments to try to evoke some of that aura without the history.
Such is the case for Lexus. Toyota created the marque in the late 1980s to compete with the established luxury brands. They actually did quite well, as the Lexus brand has a cachet that’s missing in other newly created luxury divisions.
2015 Lexus ES 300h
|2.5L inline-4 w/electric motor||200 hp @ 5,700 rpm||156 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm||Continuously Variable (CVT)||$48,605||Rent It!|
As the entry point to the Lexus brand, the ES has always been an upscale Toyota Camry. Up until the current generation, it shared that car’s platform and mechanical components, but was wrapped in prettier sheet metal and offered more luxury appointments.
The 2015 Lexus ES300h tested here is no longer based on the Camry directly, but is now based on the Toyota Avalon, itself a Camry derivative with a stretched wheelbase. Along with that added length – and the added rear legroom that comes with it – the ES also shares the Avalon’s powertrain options, like the hybrid system in the test car.
Outside, the ES is a slightly prettier car than the Avalon, although there is a strong family resemblance. The body panels have a smooth, flowing look and a depth that almost looks like liquid metal. Even the angry Cylon grill that Lexus insists on putting on all of their cars looks elegant and stylish on the ES. It’s not an especially striking car, but its beauty reveals itself slowly. The Avalon is already an attractive large car, Lexus just made it a little better.
Too bad they couldn’t do the same for the interior. Lexus traded the Avalon’s utility for style and tech, creating a console that’s overly cluttered, confusing and lacking in storage space.
Lexus eschewed the Avalon’s intuitive, well-placed touch screen, instead placing the screen high and deep in the dash, out of reach for any touch interface. To compensate for the lack of a touchscreen, the designers put a rectangular joystick next to the gear lever that changes its layout based on the layout of the buttons on the screen, giving tactile feedback when moving between them. It’s a neat parlor trick, but it’s not easy to use as it’s easy to move the joystick too far and miss the intended button.
But the biggest problem with the joystick is that Lexus added a long, curved, leather wrist rest behind it that eats up most of the console space. To add more confusion, there’s a faux metal knob in front of the gear lever that’s roughly the same size as the joystick, but all it does is switch between the three drive modes, Eco, Normal and Sport. The two control systems take up so much console space that Lexus barely had enough room for the two small cupholders with retractable covers.
In contrast, the touchscreen-equipped Avalon makes excellent use of the console space. In the same spot where Lexus crammed in that big metallic knob and small cupholder, Toyota put in a technology cubby for cell phones that can even be optioned out with a wireless Qi charger. The lack of storage space in the ES’s console is frustrating, as the only storage is the relatively small bin under the center armrest. There isn’t even a place for sunglasses.
Console issues aside, the interior is very well constructed and appointed in the typical Toyota/Lexus fashion. Panel gaps are nonexistent, the leather on the seats is supple and soft and the front seats themselves are gloriously comfortable and infinitely adjustable.The back seats are all-day comfortable and the extended wheelbase gives passengers gobs of legroom. The bamboo wood trim on the dash, doors and steering wheel is a nice touch, as is the analog clock on the center of the dash. However, the console and door panels have a little too much hard plastic for a car in this price range.
The gauge cluster is a study in elegant simplicity and even has a trick up its sleeve. In Normal and Eco modes, the left gauge is an energy meter, letting the driver know when the car is in eco, power or charging mode. But move the big metallic knob to Sport mode and the gauge transforms into a tachometer.
The ES300h shares the same Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain as the Avalon and Camry hybrids, which is a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine paired with an electric motor. The combination makes 200 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque and is sent to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission.
Based on these specifications, it’s obvious that the ES hybrid isn’t a sports car. The hybrid powerplant is down on horsepower by 68 compared to the V-6 and it has more weight to move around with the battery pack. Still, it can get out of its own way well enough and will satisfy most drivers, especially as hybrid buyers tend to care more about fuel economy than outright speed.
The CVT has six shiftable ratios, but even when shifted manually it still varies revs and doesn’t pretend to be a geared transmission. Lexus should just remove the manual shift option from the hybrid as it really doesn’t do anything.
What the powertrain lacks in performance it makes up in slickness. The power moves seamlessly between the engine and electric motor, with only a slight stutter as the engine powers on during acceleration that feels like turbo lag. Toyota knows what they’re doing when it comes to hybrids.
The slick powertrain gets the big ES an EPA rating of 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 40 mpg combined. So it’s very disappointing that during a week of mixed driving, the test car only managed 32.9 mpg, especially when the mix was skewed more toward city driving than highway driving.
Fortunately, the ES inherited the Avalon’s much improved chassis tuning. The steering has some road feel and has a directness that makes the ES feel tossable, without any slop in the wheel. Body motions are well controlled for a car that has such a smooth, luxurious ride. There is body roll, but it’s not floaty like the stereotypical luxury sedan. It’s the same ride/handling setup that makes the Avalon such a surprisingly competent car to drive.
Trunk space in the ES is average for the class, although the battery pack behind the rear seats takes up some room and also eliminates the pass-through found in the non-hybrid version.
The ES300h starts at $40,430. The test car, with optional navigation system, luxury package and heated steering wheel, comes in at $48,605 with destination fee.
For that price, the ES becomes more expensive than some of its competition that have real luxury badges, like the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and the Audi A4. Granted, those aren’t hybrids and they don’t have the interior space of the ES, but they still deliver solid fuel economy and are much more entertaining to drive.
But the ES’s biggest competition comes from its own sibling, the Toyota Avalon. A similarly-equipped Avalon will cost a few thousand dollars less and offers 95 percent of the luxury of the ES, plus a lot better interior design and utility. All that’s good about the ES – the ride and handling, the exceptional build quality, the comfortable seats – can also be said about the Avalon.
On the TFLcar scale of:
- Buy It,
- Lease It,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It…
…the 2015 Lexus ES300h gets a Rent It.
All things considered, the only thing that the extra money really buys is the Lexus badge. Unless the intention is to impress the people at the country club, those who like the ES’s combination of style, build quality, luxury and economy should drive right past the Lexus dealer and test drive an Avalon. It’s not that the ES is a bad car. The Avalon is simply a better version of the same car for less money.
Check out this TFLcar video review of the 2013 Lexus ES300h: