The hybrid version of the new 2019 Lexus ES sedan is pretty much what you’d expect—even assuming your expectations are pretty high. A new foundation (GA-K version of the TNGA platform), shared with the new Toyota Avalon. Longer, lower, wider. A little more power. Improved fuel economy. Lower noise levels. And sheet metal that for the first time in seven generations actually merits a second glance.
Okay, maybe you didn’t actually expect the new skin to be so seductive, but if you’ve seen the latest Toyota Camry and Avalon, you should have. The Lexus design team gave the ES a slick teardrop profile that they characterize as “the most aggressive of any ES.” And they topped it off with one of the largest executions of the Lexus spindle grille yet.
We’ve nattered on about this trademark styling element for more than five years, but Lexus research has long indicated that it’s effective. Polarizing, yes. But enough customers have come down on the acceptance side of the ledger to perpetuate this device and subject it to evolutionary revisions.
Revisions such as the one adorning this new ES. A jaundiced eye might squint and see the cowcatcher of a turn-of-the-20th-century railroad engine. At least the cowcatcher strakes of the hybrid’s grille are more attractive than the mesh in the grille of the new ES350 F Sport model.
Although the hybrid powertrain, like everything else on the car, has been updated, it’s basically the familiar system that propels so many Lexus and Toyota hybrids. An internal-combustion engine augmented by a pair of electric motors, it’s capable of moving the ES on electric power alone—but only at parking-lot speeds.
The primary drive motor doubles as a generator to recharge the battery pack, as does the regenerative-braking system. Like many Toyota/Lexus hybrids, the battery pack is nickel-metal hydride rather than lithium-ion, the corporate engineers expressing preference for the reliability of the older system. The 1.6-kWh battery pack resides below the rear floor, which improves rear-seat space, according to Lexus.
Nourished by a combined direct- and port-fuel-injection system, the Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter inline-four is rated at 176 horsepower, 20 more than the previous iteration. Total combined output of the hybrid powertrain is 215 horsepower, up 15 from the outgoing hybrid.
More important to hybrid intenders, the EPA rates fuel economy at 43 mpg city, 45 highway, and 44 combined, increases of 3, 6, and 4 mpg. As is typical, we underachieved, logging 38 mpg overall. But on our 75-mph highway test, the new ES300h exactly matched the EPA’s 45-mpg figure, beating the previous-generation ES300h hybrid by a whopping 8 mpg.
Despite the power increase, the 2019 hybrid was a bit slower than its 2017 predecessor, by 0.5 second to 60 mph and 0.3 second to the quarter-mile mark, although its trap speed was a shade higher.
Sprinting to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds isn’t exactly sprinting, and this is one of several dynamic anomalies. With new dampers, quick steering, and shift paddles—not to mention its sleek profile—the ES hybrid suggests a sporty persona. But while the suspension prevents extravagant body motions, it doesn’t add up to eager responses. The quick steering (2.6 turns lock to lock with the available 18-inch wheels), although programmed for plenty of effort, is as numb as it can be.
Brake modulation wasn’t as affected by the regenerative function as in the previous generation, but the 189-foot stopping distance from 70 mph is dismal, with little feedback present during repeated hard applications. A big contributor to the lengthy stop is the Bridgestone all-season tires that are tuned more for low resistance than ultimate dry grip—and this also goes for a so-so skidpad performance of 0.81 g.
The short version: There are performance-oriented hybrids out there, but this isn’t one.
On the other hand, haste is rarely a high priority for hybrid buyers, and the ES300h doubles down on the virtues of the preceding generation. The new architecture is a bit stiffer, contributing to ride quality that could be characterized as a little soft by contemporary standards, but it’s all-day comfortable, blunting the hard edges of nasty pavement irregularities.
An even stronger claim to fame is what occupants hear as the ES rolls down the highway. They hear conversation, including remarks coming from back-seat passengers, as communication is possible for all aboard without raising any voices. They also hear the audio system clearly, even at moderate decibel levels.
They do not hear wind noise, or noise coming up through the suspension, regardless of surface. Quiet operation has been a Lexus hallmark since the original LS400 challenged the luxury-sedan establishment in 1989, and the new ES continues the tradition, raising the ante in the process.
The interior appointments augment the dynamic serenity. There’s increased rear-seat room, thanks to a wheelbase that has been stretched by 2.0 inches and plenty of rear headroom despite the faster roofline (the design team dropped the rear H-point to compensate). The cabin is replete with handsome interior décor, a 10-speaker Pioneer audio system, exemplary instrumentation, and a 7.0-inch TFT center display with intuitive secondary controls. And, for the first time in a Lexus, Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa capability.
As you’d expect, safety features keep pace with industry trends. The Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 suite of driver aids is standard, with pedestrian-and bicyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning and assist, and automatic high-beams.
Pricing for the ES300h hybrid starts at $42,335, $480 less than the outgoing car. Our ES test car was the top-level Ultra Luxury trim, which is a $3650 step up from the base ES300h Premium and adds features such as leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, ambient interior lighting, power sunshades, and more. Adding onto the price was navigation with a 12.3-inch screen and Mark Levinson audio for $3000, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert for $1900, adaptive LED headlights for $1515, a $500 head-up display, and a $480 heated wood-trimmed steering wheel. The final as-tested price was $52,355.
ES stood for Elegant Sedan when the first generation made its debut alongside the original LS400, and with this seventh generation the label fits more than ever before. In the entry-luxury realm, the ES is elegance personified.