Lexus IS VS Lexus ES
- Smooth powertrain
- Bulletproof quality
- Individual looks
- Feels heavy
- Odd-bod interior
- Some ergonomic failures
- Comfortable ride
- Great fit and finish
- Good value
- Apart from grille, styling is plain
- No seat-back screens
- Obvious Toyota elements
Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the Lexus IS350 Sport Luxury with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.
The Lexus IS has carved out a niche in the executive sedan market - some owners would require dynamite to shift them to another brand. With an unparalleled commitment to post-sales service and a reputation for absolutely bulletproof reliability, Lexus hasn't exactly beaten the Germans into submission here in Australia, but it has given them a good fright. If you want to take on Audi, BMW and Mercedes, you've got to bring what Americans call 'your A-game.'
Explore the 2016-2017 Lexus IS Range
Lexus IS 2016 review | first drive video
Lexus IS300h 2016 review | snapshot
Lexus IS350 2016 review | snapshot
Lexus IS200t Luxury 2017 review | road test
Lexus IS200t F Sport 2017 review | road test
The IS350 is a niche within a niche, though. At this level, the Germans have convinced their customers that forced induction fours or sixes are the go, while Lexus soldiers on with a naturally aspirated V6 and a specification list as long as your arm.
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CT, IS, GS, LS, RC, LC. Yes, that list of letters looks like something you’d read when getting your eyes tested at an optometrist, but they are actually all Lexus models.
Ok, you may have known that already, but did you know that those are just their initials? They actually have full names, too; Compact Touring, Intelligent Sport, Grand Sport, Luxury Saloon, Racing Coupe, Luxury Coupe.
And so this review isn’t just on the new-generation ES, but on the Elegant Sedan, which made it to Australia in 2018. And, as if hinting at things to come, it’s available in ES300h petrol-electric hybrid guise only.
This is the seventh-generation of a model that has been part of the Lexus line-up since the very beginning, way back when the luxury arm of Toyota first stepped onto the world stage in 1989.
So, does the ES300h live up to its Elegant Sedan name? Does being hybrid-only in Australia mean it loses its powerful presence? And is there any reason why you’d get one over a Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5 Series?
So many questions, but after living with the ES300h in top-of-the-range Sports Luxury guise for a week, we now have all the answers.
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The IS350 is a fine car and is edging ever closer to the truly European feel the marque seems to crave. It's also different enough for those who don't want to be a part of the German triad and want to do something different while getting an after-sales experience that's hard to beat.
The thing about the IS is that it feels a little old - the interior tech and naturally-aspirated V6 are a bit 2009. That's not to criticise the car itself because it's beautifully made and if past IS generations are anything to go by, will outlast humanity. The 350 feels, and is heavy. It's a bit thirsty and doesn't quite tick all the boxes many in the sector are looking for. But wow, is it getting closer.
Is the Lexus IS in the running for you? Or does your wallet only speak German?
The ES300h is outstanding in terms of ride comfort, refinement and value. If you’re looking for a true driver’s car then a Lexus RCF is probably a better tree to bark up, but if you’re looking to ferry passengers in a serene, prestigious and fuel-efficient way, then look no further.
Is the Lexus ES300h in the same league as a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
This third-generation IS is, at last, a distinctive looker. The first car was a clean design that aged reasonably well (as did the car - there's still a ton of them kicking around) but the second one seemed a bit timid, a sort of slimmed version of the first car's styling ideas in a bigger body. Things weren't quite right and that car's look has not aged well at all.
The third generation, though, is much more aggressive, more individualistic. The mid-life refresh made the front end look a bit frowny, but the Lexus spindle grille really looks the business even if the headlights appear awkwardly finished. In profile it fits in well with the pack and then it all gets a bit aggro again at the back, with that extravagant downward sweep of the taillights. Pretty, no, memorable, yep.
Inside is less adventurous and, annoyingly, not ageing as well as Lexus might have hoped. The two-storey dash feels a little heavy-handed with its double chin rolls. I can see what the designers were going for, but they missed.
And that chintzy analogue clock in the centre stack. Please. Stop.
There are also too many Toyota-style buttons littering the dash. Having said all of that, the obvious Lexus bits are terrific to touch and use, apart from the entertainment system's click mouse thing. That's a bit of a mess and the screen's software actively works against precise operation.
All is mostly well on the instrument pack except when the sun is coming over your shoulder. The reflections obliterate both of the traditional dials and if you'd already driven, say, an IS200t with the digital dash, you would be asking tough questions about why that instrument set isn't in the top-of-the-range machine.
If you think all Lexus models look the same, then pop on over to the Audi, BMW or Benz websites and take a peek at their line-ups. Compared to the ranges from those prestige car makers, Lexus models look wildly different from each other.
Opinions on that ‘Spindle Grille’ are as polarising as views on politics or religion. Personally, I like how upfront and brave the grille design is, but what seems odd to me is that it’s almost as if this was the only place on the exterior where designers were allowed to be a bit adventurous. The rear, while cleanly styled is a bit plain. The bottom just doesn’t match the face.
The ES300h’s roofline in side profile is beautiful as it sweeps almost fastback-style to the boot lid. Again, not the most dramatic styling, but it’s still pleasing in the sense that the design flows well together. The same can be said for the fit and finish – the panel gaps are near-perfect.
This perfection continues into the cabin, where the materials and craftsmanship matches German prestige rivals in places (the door handles, leather and digital instrument cluster, for example), only to be let down in other areas which disclose its budget Toyota family connection (the air vents, steering wheel and display screen).
The ES300h’s interior design isn’t going to set everybody’s world on fire, but there will be those who adore its asymmetrical styling with different textured surfaces that fold, swoop and jut up against each other’s space. Have a look at the images, they’re of the Sports Luxury which sits above the Luxury in the two grade line-up.
The differences visually between the grades is minimal. The Luxury has 17-inch alloys, while the Sport Luxury has 18-inch.
New colours for this generation include Glacial Ecru (the sandy hue of our test car in the images) and Radiata Green. Both grades’ interiors come in a variety of colour schemes, including Black, Chateau, and Topaz. Exclusively for the Sport Luxury cabin is Rich Cream, too. The Sports Luxury steering wheel has wood trim.
One of the more peculiar design elements of the ES300h’s cabin design, and there are a few, are the controls for the drive modes and traction control. They sit like horns on the instrument cluster hood, as though these are things the driver will constantly be reaching for, when in reality most people will never touch the traction control button.
A new-generation car means new foundations, and the ES300h is built on the GA-K platform which underpins the Camry. The platform is part of the latest global architecture which Toyota and Lexus are now using to build its vehicles.
The dimensions of the ES300h, if you’re wondering if it will fit in your garage, are just under 5.0m long, 1.9m wide and 1.4m tall.
This is probably the weakest part of the Lexus equation. While front and rear seat passengers enjoy a pair of cupholders per row, there's little in the way of storage for our ubiquitous phones. A centre console bin is provided (from which your USB cable must sprout), but the dash and console are bereft of a good place to stow your phone. Each front door will carry a small bottle but rear seat passengers miss out. The glovebox is a good size and cooled for your convenience.
The Lexus ES300h is a five-seater sedan, but it’s really designed to sit two comfortably in the back, given there’s a large driveshaft hump in the floor and that the outboard seats are divided by a fold-down control panel/armrest.
Legroom in the second row is ample. I’m 191cm tall, and I had about 20mm of space between my knees and the seat back when it was in my driving position. Headroom gets tight with that sloping roofline, but there’s just enough space thanks to the low hip point of the rear seats.
Cabin storage is excellent. The fold-down armrest for the rear seats has a storage tray and two cup holders, while the large centre console bin has a lid which can open towards the driver and also to the front passenger (I spent way too long marvelling at how it worked). There are two cup holders up front and decent-sized door pockets, too. Those rear doors open wide for easy exit and entry.
Boot space in the ES300h is 454 litres (VDA), beating the 410-litre cargo capacity of the BMW 530e.
As far as power outlets, you’ll find two USB chargers in the centre console storage bin and a Qi wireless charging pad, which is awkwardly situated making it hard to place larger phones onto it.
Price and features
The IS range kicks off at $59,340 for the base IS200t but it's not until you're spending $65,390 that you'll find yourself in a V6-powered IS350. Another twenty large will see you in the Sports Luxury we had for the week, at a not inconsiderable $84,160 (although that's $4000 less than a BMW 340i). What do you get for that? Quite a bit, as it happens.
A 15-speaker stereo (with Mark Levinson branding, whoever that is), 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, a hefty safety package, active cruise control, LED headlights and daytime running lights, auto headlights and wipers, heated, cooled and electrically-adjustable front seats with three memory settings on the driver's side, sat nav, lots of leather, park assist and power everything including sunroof.
Metallic paint is a breathtaking $1500.
The stereo, sat nav and various functions are controlled from a rectangular click-mouse arrangement reminiscent of a '90s laptop. It isn't great and my impression of the software is that the designers need to go out and buy some Apple and Android devices and learn how modern things work. Or at least have a look at iDrive and MMI. Having said that, the sound is epic, although the radio's insistence on switching to KIIS FM on start-up, no matter which device or station was last used, was irritating.
The sat nav also has some annoying functions that are, mercifully, switchable. The speed camera warnings are helpful and insistent while the incessant school zone warnings were hugely annoying. That's hardly Lexus' fault given there are so many of the things, but the constant 'ding-dong' in urban areas is infuriating and sounds like you're trapped in an airport.
Yes, and don’t let anybody tell you any differently. The Luxury lists for $59,888 and the Sports Luxury is $74,888. Both are bargains when you consider the quality and features.
If it was my money, I’d go for the Luxury which is almost indistinguishable visually but doesn’t come with as many tech and convenience features as the Sport Luxury.
Still, the Luxury gets the 12.3-inch screen with sat nav, a 10-speaker Pioneer stereo system with digital radio, a head-up display, dual-zone climate control, wireless charging, 10-way power adjustable front seats, privacy rear windows, a moonroof, proximity key and LED headlights.
The Sports Luxury takes all of that and adds a Mark Levinson 17-speaker sound system, leather seats, heated and ventilated 12-way power adjustable front seats, heated and power reclining rear seats, three-zone climate control, heated steering wheel, power rear sunshade and manual side rear window shades, gesture-open boot and cornering LED headlights.
The Sports Luxury also comes with noise reducing 18-inch wheels – they contain what’s called a Helmholtz resonator which cancels out the drone that can be produced when driving.
Is there anything missing? When I saw the rear fold-down armrest with the control panel I instantly thought the ES300h must have had seat-back screens, but nope. Also, it’s annoying that Lexus still doesn’t have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as part of its package. This will change we hear, but it has been slow on the uptake.
The Lexus ES300h’s direct rival is the Infiniti Q70 Hybrid GT Premium for $82,900, but it also challenges the likes of Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which starts at $91,900, BMW’s 5 Series, which begins at $92,990, and the Audi A6, which kicks off at $81,900.
Engine & trans
The IS350's power comes from a 3.5-litre 60-degree V6 producing 233kW and 378Nm. Zero to 100km/h for the 1685kg sedan is dispatched in 5.9 seconds with the aid of an eight-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels.
Towing capacity is rated at 750kg unbraked and 1500kg braked.
This combines a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine making 131kW and 221Nm, with an electric motor that has an output of 88kW and 202Nm. The 244.8V nickel-metal hydride battery has been moved from under the boot floor in the previous generation car to under the rear seats, so it no longer eats into the cargo space.
The ES300h isn’t a plug-in hybrid, so battery recharging is done through regenerative braking.
A continuously variable transmission means seamless and smooth low-speed driving using just the motor, but under heavy acceleration the engine activates and you’ll hear that drone associated with CVTs.
This is the point of a hybrid, right? To save fuel? The electric motor can power the car at low speeds around car parks or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I found that after 104km of both urban and open road usage my fuel economy in the Sport Luxury was 5.4L/100km.
Lexus’ official combined fuel economy figure for both the Luxury and Sports Luxury is 4.6L/100km.
For some reason, the IS always feels heavy. There's something about the way the car moves that makes it feel chunky. That's not all bad, of course, because it imparts a feeling of solidity and strength, but when you line it up next to a BMW 340i, it tips the scales a further 145kg the wrong way. When you look at it that way, you're always carrying two medium sized people around with you.
It doesn't seem to blunt the performance too much, reaching 100km/h in 5.9 seconds, about eight tenths slower than Beemer with the same number of gears and a torque deficit of almost 70Nm.
Another reason it feels heavy is that the sprint itself is one of the most drama-free acceleration events you'll ever experience. The 3.5 V6 is as silky as they come, as smooth as any in-line six, which have the advantage of not having pistons punching away from each other throwing the engine about.
It's not as sharp on the throttle as the 340i or A4, even when in Sport+ mode, so the Sports bit of the Sports Luxury tag is about thirty percent of the equation.
It does steer and brake with great accomplishment, but there's no life in the chassis, really, so it's best regarded as a luxury car rather than a sporting sedan. The IS has always been thus but with the sad demise of the IS F, there's nothing to really go after the quicker Audis, BMWs or Mercs. You have to lose two doors and move on to the RC F for that.
Ride quality is superb and the cabin is seriously quiet. Rough roads with huge expansion joints and zingy concrete surfaces fade into the background, conversation remains easy with just the stereo to push what little wind noise penetrates the cabin into the background. The adaptive damping must take a lot of the credit for the ride and handling refinement - it's unobtrusive and doesn't suddenly pour concrete into the dampers when you switch things up.
Two words: quiet and comfortable. Well that’s three words, but that sums up the ES300h on the road. Yes, rivals may have intelligent adaptive air suspension and leather made from free range cows, and they are supremely tranquil and sumptuous places, but challenging them is this ES300h.
Even with its regular shock absorbers and steel-spring suspension, the ride was outstanding for its comfort and composure on the worst roads Sydney could throw at it over the week we tested the car.
Front and rear seats were supportive and comfortable over long distances, too. From a driver’s perspective the experience was serene – this was an easy and relaxing car to pilot.
I’m not a huge fan of petrol-electric hybrid powertrains, but it suits the seamless personality of the ES perfectly, adding to the smoothness of the ride as it slipped silently through traffic.
Just don’t expect the ES300h to be rewarding from a dynamic driving perspective. The steering was heavy and a little numb, and while the handling was good, I felt disconnected from the road. And whenever I needed to move quickly the combustion engine would splutter to life and the CVT would begin to drone.
Eight airbags (including knee bags for front seat occupants), ABS, stability and traction controls, blind spot sensor, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, auto emergency braking, forward collision detection, brake assist and driver attention detection.
The IS scored five ANCAP stars, the highest available.
The only complaint here is that both lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert are too polite - a little more information as to what's going on would be helpful.
The Lexus ES300h was awarded the maximum five-star ANCAP rating when it was tested in September 2018. Coming standard on both the Luxury and Sports Luxury grades are 10 airbags, AEB with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.
By stepping up to the Sports Luxury you’ll also get adaptive high beams which is fair enough, but you’ll also gain equipment which really should be on the base grade, too, such as blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert - which come standard on a Camry SL for half the price.
You’ll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top-tether anchor points across the second row which we used for our four year old and his car seat.
The Lexus range comes with a four year/100,000km warranty with roadside assist for the duration. Servicing is every 15,000km or twelve months, whichever comes first.
The ownership experience only loses marks because of the lack of capped or fixed price servicing. Service intervals are well-spaced at 12 months/15,000km but Lexus will only commit to "indicative" pricing after the first service (which is, to be fair, a freebie).
The Lexus experience is legendary - owners with cars well over a decade old still have them collected from their homes come service time. Technically, you may never have to visit a dealer again, just pay the nice person when they comes back with your freshly washed, and serviced car. Or they'll give you a loan car to drive yourself around in for the day.