Test Drive Lexus ES300h: an acquired taste
Lexus has been struggling to get a foothold in the European market. The new hybrid ES300h is likely to enter more fleets as they look for diesel alternatives with a comparable, if not lower CO2 rating and TCO. This Audi A6/BMW 5/Mercedes E challenger is an acquired taste, though – aesthetically, dynamically and digitally.
Street cred (look&feel, driving experience, convenience): 7/10
The ES300h replaces the commercially very discrete GS model. It is based on the latest Toyota Camry and that means bye bye rear-wheel drive: it’s now the front wheels that transfer the engine’s rotation to the road. Given the comfort-oriented nature of this car, we don’t regret Lexus’ decision. On the contrary: it creates loads of interior space and makes for a more reassuring drive on slippery roads.
Power comes from a 2.5 petrol unit mated to a small battery pack through a transmission that feels like a CVT but really isn’t. The engine whine during acceleration so typical for Toyota-Lexus hybrids until recently has been partially fixed, fortunately. The four-cylinder still climbs to the ideal rpm and stays there for maximum efficiency as long as you accelerate, but it is less intrusive than before. In fact, the engine doesn't sound half bad.
In the beginning you may question whether that is how the car is supposed to drive: an engine that howls at a fixed rpm as the car picks up speed very progressively, only to settle down at a more agreeable number of rotations when you reach cruising speed. No gearshifts, no rpm drops, no real push: it takes a few moments to make this way of driving your own. Fortunately, the ES does without the fake sound of an automatic gearbox shifting up while you floor it – this feature on the IS300h makes the driving experience feel like an arcade game.
As to the materials used and the NVH level, we were quite impressed. Road and wind noises are well contained so you feel very zen aboard this big Lexus, which is never disconcerted by bumps or potholes. Some buttons and trim still can’t hide their Japanese descent, but that didn’t really bother us. What did, however, is the fact that the rear seats cannot be folded, contrary to the Camry’s. What’s that about, Lexus?
Fleet cred (Safety, ergonomics, eco-credentials, value proposition): 8/10
Maybe you can live with the fixed rear seats and the engine characteristics, but there is another potential deal breaker: the HMI. It’s as if Lexus wanted to do things differently for difference’s sake, not with optimum usability in mind. The only way to command the central display is by moving your finger on a laptop-like touchpad on the centre console and by clicking to select. We cannot find any argument in favour of this system. We also missed the writing feature available on models like the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Volvo S90.
Equipment-wise, Lexus provides each ES with more standard goodies than you get from the German premium OEMs in this segment. A glass sunroof, a camera and sensor-based parking system, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, AEB with pedestrian and cyclist recognition, DAB: they are all included. Customisability is limited, though: Lexus, like many Asian brands, works with trim levels (base model, Executive Line, F Sport Line and so on) which you can enrich with just a handful of individual options.
The comprehensive standard equipment contributes to the residual value of this Lexus, and so do the relatively limited numbers on the road. The TCO is also positively influenced by the low CO2 emissions (100g/km, NEDC 2.0) and the real-life fuel consumption. We burnt a bit less than 7l/100km on average, which we found rather reassuring (the Lexus RX450h we tested three years ago claimed about 12 litres for every 100km travelled). Our own findings echo the excellent real-life fuel consumption results registered by ADAC's Ecotest.
As to the safety aspect, there is nothing much to say, except that Lexus has not deprived the entry-level from a rather complete suite of ADAS so that it passed the Euro NCAP tests with flying colours. It even got two “Best in Class” titles in 2018. That won’t hold prospective buyers back from choosing an ES. What might, however, is the very limited distribution network in Europe.
The bottom line: 15/20
If diesel is off the table and you are looking for a low-CO2 alternative that is more affordable than a plug-in hybrid BMW 5 Series (530e), Mercedes-Benz E Class (E300 e) or Volvo S90 (T8 Twin Engine), then the Lexus ES300h is worth considering. You will have to live with a few particularities. If you can, this Lexus is a great place to be mobile in.
- Comfortable, spacious, cosseting interior
- Affordable alternative to premium PHEV models
- TCO: low CO2 and real-life fuel consumption, generous equipment
- No split-folding rear seats, relatively small boot
- Unpractical human-machine interface
- Limited dealer network