Lexus IS VS Lexus ES
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
No it isn’t an all-new car. It might look like it, but the 2021 Lexus IS is actually a heavy facelift of the existing model, which originally went on sale way back in 2013.
There have been significant changes to the look of the new Lexus IS, including a revised front and rear end, and the company has widened the track and made “substantial chassis changes” to make it handle more adeptly, too. Plus there is a whole raft of newly added safety features and in-car technology, despite the cabin being, largely, a carryover affair.
Suffice to say that the new Lexus IS 2021 model - which the brand describes as having been “reimagined” - carries over a few strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. But does this Japanese luxury sedan still have enough quality traits to compete with the likes of its main rivals - the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class?
Let’s find out.
|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|
The new-look Lexus IS takes several steps forward over its predecessor - it’s safer, smarter, sharper to look at and still pretty well priced and equipped.
It is feeling its age inside, and the competition has moved on in terms of engines and EV tech. But even so, if I was buying a 2021 Lexus IS, it would have to be the IS350 F Sport, which is just the most fitting version of this car, though the IS300h Luxury does have plenty to like for the money, too.
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.
You either get the Lexus look or you don’t, and I think this latest version is possibly more agreeable than the IS in years gone by.
That’s partly because the brand has finally done away with the odd spider-eyes twin-section headlights and daytime running lights - now there are more traditional headlight clusters, which look a lot more resolved than before.
The front end still features a bold ‘spindle’ grille, which gets different treatment depending on the grade, and the front, to my eye, looks better than before but still very much stuck in its ways.
At the side you’ll notice the giveaway windowline hasn’t changed, despite the chrome trim line having broadened as part of this facelift, but you can tell the haunches have muscled up a bit, with the new IS now 30mm wider overall, and the wheel sizes are 18s or 19s, depending on the grade.
The rear accentuates that width, with an L-shaped lighting signature now spanning the entire re-sculpted boot lid, giving the IS a pretty tidy rear end design.
Overall dimensions for the IS are 4710mm long, making it 30mm longer nose to tail (on an unchanged 2800mm wheelbase), while it now spreads across 1840mm (+30mm) and is 1435mm tall (+5mm).
The exterior changes really are impressive - I think it is a more purposeful but also more pleasant looking car now than it ever has been in this current generation.
The interior? Well, there’s not a whole lot to talk about in terms of design changes, aside from the repositioned and larger media screen - which sits 150mm closer to the driver because it’s now a touchscreen with the latest smartphone mirroring tech. Otherwise it’s a carryover affair, as you can see from the interior pictures.
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.
The interior design of the IS, as mentioned, hasn’t changed dramatically, and it is starting to feel old compared to some of its contemporaries.
It’s still a nice place to be, with comfortable front seats with electric adjustment and heating across all grades, and cooling on many variants, too.
The new 10.3-inch touchscreen media system is a nice unit, and means you can essentially do away with the silly trackpad system that still resides near the gear selector, so you may still end up bumping it accidentally. And the fact the IS now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though neither are wirelessly connectable) does further its appeal on the multimedia front, as does the standard 10-speaker Pioneer stereo - though the 17-speaker Mark Levinson unit is an absolute blinder!
The centre stack below the media screen retains a CD player, and still has the electromagnetic temperature adjustment sliders as well. That part of the design is dating it just as much as the transmission tunnel console area, which looks a bit out of touch by modern standards, though still incorporates a pair of cup holders and a reasonably large centre console bin with soft armrest padding.
The front doors feature trenches with bottle holders as well, while in the rear doors there is still no drink storage - a carryover annoyance from the pre-facelift model. However, the middle seat in the back doubles as an armrest with pop-out cupholders, and there are rear air vents too.
Speaking of that middle seat, you wouldn’t want to sit in it for long, as it has a raised base and uncomfortable backrest, plus there’s a huge transmission tunnel intrusion eating into leg and foot space.
Outboard passengers also miss out on toe room, which - for my size 12s - is an issue. And it’s hardly the roomiest second row in this class for knee room and headroom, as my 182cm frame was a touch squished behind my own driving position.
Children will be better catered for in the back, and there are two ISOFIX anchorages and three top-tether attachment points for baby seats.
The boot capacity varies on the model you buy. Choose an IS300 or IS350 and you score 480 litres (VDA) of cargo capacity, while the IS300h has a battery pack that robs it of some boot space, with 450L available.
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 updated 2021 Lexus IS range has seen a number of pricing changes, and a reduction of variants, too. There are now five IS models available, down from seven prior to this update as the Sports Luxury model has been axed, and you can only get the IS350 in F Sport trim now. However, the company has expanded its “Enhancement Pack” strategy across the different variants.
Opening the range is the IS300 Luxury, which lists at $61,500 (all prices listed are the MSRP - not including on-road costs, and are correct at time of publishing). It has the exact same equipment as the IS300h Luxury model, which is $64,500, and that ‘h’ stands for hybrid, which will be detailed in the engines section.
The Luxury trim is equipped with items such LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, proximity keyless entry with push-button start, a 10.3-inch touchscreen multimedia system with satellite navigation (including live traffic updates) and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech, plus a 10-speaker sound system, eight-way power-adjustable front seats with heating and memory settings for the driver, and dual-zone climate control. There’s also auto headlights with auto high beam, rain sensing wipers, power steering column adjustment, and adaptive cruise control.
Indeed, there’s a raft of safety technology included - more on that below - and there’s also a number of Enhancement Pack options.
Luxury spec models can be equipped with a choice of two Enhancement Packs: the $2000 Enhancement Pack adds a sunroof (or moonroof in Lexus speak); or Enhancement Pack 2 (or EP2 - $5500) further adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, cooled front seats, high-grade leather-accented interior trim, and a power-operated rear sunshade.
The IS F Sport trim line is available across the IS300 ($70,000), IS300h ($73,000) or the V6-powered IS350 ($75,000), and it adds a number of additional features over the Luxury grade.
As you can probably tell, F Sport models get a sportier look, with a body kit, 19-inch alloy wheels, standard fit adaptive suspension, sports front seats with cooling, sports pedals, and five drive modes to choose from (Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom). The F Sport grade also includes a digital instrument cluster with an 8.0-inch display, as well as leather-accented trim, and scuff plates.
Buying the F Sport grade allows customers to add further goodies by way of the Enhancement Pack for that grade, which costs $3100 and includes the sunroof, 17-speaker sound system and rear sunshade.
What’s missing? Well there’s no wireless phone charging in any grade, and no USB-C connectivity either. Note: the spare wheel is a space saver in the IS300 and IS350, but there is only a repair kit in the IS300h as there are batteries where the spare wheel would go.
There’s no go-fast IS F model sitting at the top of the tree here, nor is there a plug-in hybrid to compete against the circa-$85K BMW 330e and Mercedes C300e. But the fact the IS models all come in below $75K means it’s a pretty decent value proposition.
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 engine specs depend on the powertrain you choose. And at a glance there’s no variance between the earlier version of the IS and the 2021 facelift.
That means the IS300 model still runs a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor producing 180kW of power (at 5800rpm) and 350Nm of torque (at 1650-4400rpm). It has an eight-speed automatic transmission, and like all IS models, it is rear-wheel drive (RWD/2WD) - there is no all-wheel drive (AWD/4WD) model here.
Next up the spectrum is the IS300h model, which has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol motor teamed to an electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack. The petrol engine is good for a 133kW (at 6000rpm) and 221Nm (at 4200-5400rpm), and the electric motor produces 105kW/300Nm - but the combined total maximum power output is 164kW, and Lexus doesn’t provide a maximum torque figure. The 300h model runs a CVT automatic transmission.
The big horsepower offering here is the IS350, which runs a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine, producing 232kW of power (at 6600rpm) and 380Nm of torque (at 4800-4900rpm). It runs an eight-speed auto.
All models have paddle-shifters, while the two non-hybrid models have seen tweaks to the transmission software that is said to “estimate driver intentions” for better enjoyment.
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.
There’s still no diesel model, no plug-in hybrid and no full electric (EV) model - which means that while Lexus was at the forefront of electrification with its so-called “self-charging” hybrids, it is falling behind the times. You can get plug-in versions of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, and the Tesla Model 3 plays in this space in full-electric guise.
As for the fuel-sipping hero of this trio of powertrains, the IS300h is said to use 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle fuel test. In reality, our test car’s dashboard showed 6.1L/100km across a mix of driving.
The IS300 with its turbocharged 2.0L engine is next best for fuel use, claiming 8.2L/100km. On our short launch drive of that model, we saw 9.6L/100km on the dashboard.
And the full-fat IS350 V6 petrol claims consumption of 9.5L/100km, while on test we saw 13.4L/100km.
The emissions for the three models are 191g/km (IS300), 217g/km (IS350) and 116g/km (IS300h). All three are Euro 6B compliant.
Fuel tank capacity is 66 litres for all models, meaning your mileage range for the hybrid model could be considerably longer.
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.
With the engine at the front and drive to the back, it has the ingredients for a pure driver’s car, and Lexus made a bit of a big deal about the new-look IS being more focused thanks to chassis adjustments and track width improvements - and it does feel a pretty nimble and tied-down car in the twisty stuff.
It is competent at stitching together a series of corners, and the F Sport models are particularly adept. The adaptive suspension in those models includes both anti-dive and anti-squat tech, which is designed to make the car feel solid and flat on the road - and it does, thankfully without feeling twitchy or uncomfortable, with good suspension compliance even in the most aggressive Sport S+ drive mode.
The 19-inch wheels on F Sport models are fitted with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber (235/40 front, 265/35 rear) and there’s plenty of tarmac tenacity.
The grip from Luxury-spec models on 18s could be better, with those Bridgestone Turanza tyres (235/45 all around) proving not quite the most enthralling.
Indeed, the IS300h Luxury I drove felt very different in character to the F Sport IS300 and 350 models. It was surprising how much more of a plush-focused model the Luxury grade feels, and likewise it wasn’t as impressive in dynamic driving due to the tyre grip and less-enthusiastic drive mode system. The non-adaptive suspension is a touch more jittery too, and while it’s not to the point of discomfort, you might expect better for a car on 18s.
Across all models the steering is accurate and direct enough, with predictable response and decent feel to the driver’s hands for this electric power steering setup. The F Sport models have even further retuned steering for “an even sportier drive experience”, though I found at times it could feel a little numb for rapid changes of direction.
As for engines, the IS350 is still the pick. It has the best zest, and feels the most fitting powertrain for this model. It sounds good, too. The auto transmission is pretty clever, there's easily enough pulling power, and it's probably going to be the last of the non-turbo V6s in Lexus's line-up when this cars life-cycle is up.
The IS300's turbo engine was the most disappointing, lacking some urge and constantly feeling bogged down by turbo lag, transmission confusion, or both. It felt underdone in enthusiastic driving, though in dull day-to-day commuting circumstances it came across as more acceptable, though the remapped transmission software was far less impressive in this application than in the IS350.
The IS300h was a lovely, quiet and refined experience all around. It’s the one you should go for if you don’t really care about all that go-fast stuff. The powertrain is proven, it accelerates with nice linear delivery, and at times it’s so hushed I found myself looking down at the instrument cluster to see if the car was in EV mode or if it was using the petrol engine.
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 facelifted version scores auto emergency braking (AEB) with day and night pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection (from 10km/h to 80km/h) and car detection (10km/h to 180km/h). There’s also all speed adaptive cruise control with low speed following.
The IS also has lane keeping assistance with lane departure warning, lane trace assist, a new system called Intersection Turning Assist which will brake the car if the system judges the traffic gap isn’t big enough, and there’s also road sign recognition.
Plus the IS has blind-spot monitoring on all grades, as well as rear cross-traffic alert with auto braking (below 15km/h).
And beyond that, Lexus has added new Connected Services features, including an SOS call button, automated collision notification if an airbag deploys, and stolen vehicle tracking.
Where is the Lexus IS built? Japan is the answer.
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.
On paper, Lexus’s ownership offer isn’t quite as enticing as some other luxury car brands - but it has a strong reputation for blissful ownership.
The Lexus Australia warranty period is four years/100,000km, which is better for duration than Audi and BMW (both three years/unlimited km) but not as accommodating as Mercedes-Benz or Genesis, each of which offer five-year/unlimited km warranty.
The company has a three-year capped price servicing plan, with maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km. The first three visits cost $495 each. That’s okay - but Lexus doesn’t offer free servicing like Genesis, and nor does it offer prepaid service plans - for three to five years for a C-Class, and five years for Audi A4/A5, for instance.
There is complimentary roadside assistance for the first three years, too.
That said, the company has its Encore ownership benefits program that allows a number of experiences and deals, and the service team will collect your car and return it, leaving you with a loan car if you need it.