Lexus IS VS Lexus ES
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
This generation of the Lexus IS has been with us for a while now, and it has a lot more to contend with than it did on its debut. The Infiniti Q50 has come and gone, but a new Audi A4 (soon to be refreshed) and a very impressive new BMW 3 Series made life difficult. And that's before everybody wakes up to Genesis, which could bloom into a real threat.
Lexus has carved itself a bit of a niche in this country, going after just about every luxury segment worth chasing (and one or two that possibly weren't...) but the IS has been getting on with the job of presenting itself to customers who have either tired of German luxury or just weren't interested in the first place.
The third-generation IS must soon be heading for replacement, so it's worth having another look to see how the Japanese challenger fares.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
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.
Read More: Lexus ES300h Luxury 2019 review: snapshot
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
It's difficult to place the Lexus against any of the Germans because it's a different sort of car. Its intent is probably closer to the Benz C-Class than the more overtly sporting BMW 3 Series or the all-rounder Audi A4. All three of those cars are way ahead for cabin, chassis and engine technology (depending on spec levels, of course).
None of them feel as solid or, ultimately, as tightly built as the Lexus. The IS has a very consistent idea of what it's meant to be and it goes all the way back to the LS400 - something identifiably similar but different enough to lure you to Japan.
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.
The first IS is still - remarkably - a common sight on our roads and couldn't be more different to the current generation. This car is low and sleek, with fast glass and big bold statements, like the huge spindle grille. That grille was a bit weak when this first generation arrived, but the mid-life facelift fixed that, but didn't touch the headlights, which still look a bit melted. Then there are the "big tick" daytime running lights, which don't really work with the headlights. It's all a bit odd.
Inside, things are very grey and sober. Obviously, it's astonishingly well-built, but there are just too many carefully labelled buttons and way too many switches you can spot in your neighbour's Toyota Corolla. They're not bad buttons, they just don't fit with the vibe of the rest of the car. Everything is clear and crisp, though, and the materials feel and look fantastic. It feels properly expensive.
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.
For some reason, the IS has always had a tight rear seat, despite its growth over the years. Handily, one of my neighbours has the iconic original IS200, and there isn't a big difference between the two cars, despite being separated by two decades.
This IS has such a flat windscreen that you have to be careful not to whack your head when you're getting into the front seats. The glass is super-fast and no doubt that pushes the cabin space towards the rear. The front seats are uncommonly comfortable and you also get heating and cooling, so you're covered all year round for posterior thermal comfort.
Front and rear passengers enjoy a pair of cupholders each and a bottle holder in each door.
The boot swallows a suspiciously identical-to-the-Euros 480 litres.
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
At $59,340, the IS300 Luxury opens the range, stacking up well against the obvious luxury competition. That scores you a 10-speaker stereo, 17-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled electric front seats, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, active cruise control, sat nav, auto LED headlights with auto high beam, headlight washers, keyless entry and start, partial leather trim, power everything, auto wipers, and a space-saver spare.
The standard complaints about the Lexus entertainment system still apply - it's hard to use, is devoid of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and takes longer than it should to learn where everything is. The sound, however, is excellent from the 10 speakers, the screen is huge and (mostly) pretty and the sat nav works quickly and without fuss.
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
Under the long bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine with a very reasonable 180kW and 350Nm, carrying the code number 8AR-FTS. An eight-speed automatic sends the power to the rear wheels and will propel the 1680kg machine to 100km/h in seven seconds flat.
You can tow 750kg with an unbraked trailer 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.
The sticker on the windscreen suggests you might get 7.5L/100km, drinking premium unleaded. Unfortunately, and despite my fervent efforts, the best I could manage was a far more sobering 12.7L/100km.
That's not a great result, and it's quite similar to the 200t I drove a couple of years ago. Even with stop-start.
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.
From the driver's seat you get that very appealing sense of solidity that you get in every Lexus, even the baby SUV UX. That's partly because when a car weighs this much, it helps soak up the bumps. Lexus has a particular ride quality, even in its sportier variants, that makes you feel safe and cosseted.
The steering's weight is light, but not so light you can't feel what the wheels are doing, yet it's not overly chatty.
But the main contributor to the feeling of solidity and safety is realising how unbelievably quiet and smooth the IS is. Even the turbo four is the most distant of whirrs (without sounding bad), smoothly dishing up the power and torque. I'll admit to more than mild surprise when I saw the 0-100km/h time of seven seconds - it just doesn't feel that quick, but the speed does indeed pick up.
The eight-speed automatic could be more decisive - I often found myself grabbing a lower gear because the transmission had been a bit tardy picking the right cog. It could also drop into third or fourth a little too firmly when in Sport mode. It wasn't bad, it just felt like it was making a last-second decision to pick the gear and then ramming it home a touch enthusiastically. In normal city driving, however, it's smoother than the butter through which a Barry White track is being played.
As a sporty sedan it does okay, too, but the suspension is really set up to keep everything calm and comfortable. The electronics cut in early and often on slippery surfaces and even Sport mode is pretty tame. And that's perfectly okay.
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.
The IS lands with eight airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, brake asssist, forward collision warning, forward AEB with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, active-safety bonnet and tyre-pressure monitoring.
There are also two ISOFIX points and three top-tether anchors.
The IS scored the maximum five ANCAP stars in December 2016.
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.
Lexus offers a slightly unusual four-year/100,000km warranty, which I guess is a good way to separate yourself from the Euro competition, who are stubbornly sticking with three years. Added to the warranty is four years of roadside assist.
Also throwing a punch at the Euro manufacturers' generally lacklustre after-sales offering, Lexus offers to either come and fetch your car from you for servicing or will give you a loan car for the day. And you'll get your car back freshly washed and vacuumed, too.
All of this (and a reputation for bulletproof reliability) is intended to lure you away from the Germans.