Cool and calm under the pressure placed on its segment, the new Lexus ES250 adds sophistication to what is essentially a Camry package...
The executive-sedan market in South Africa is no place for the fainthearted. Under constant pressure from a steady stream of raised-ride-height offerings of every shape and form, otherwise excellent models such as the Honda Accord, Mazda6 and honest Ford Fusion have gradually been forced out of showrooms to make way for more fashionable relatives sporting a commanding driving position, greater sense of adventure and the perception of superior safety. With the likes of the evergreen German compact-executive sedans even feeling the heat (the BMW X1, for example, regularly challenges monthly 3 Series sales), the pressure to remain relevant in the upmarket-sedan segment has never been greater.
While VWSA relies on the recently introduced, Passat-based Arteon to bolster its foothold in this segment, another stalwart of the SA motoring scene, Toyota, has (covertly) placed its trust in the legacy of one of the most popular executive sedans ever to grace our roads to ensure the newcomer finds an eager audience.
Indeed, built on the same GA-K platform as the eighth-generation Camry (and forthcoming SA-bound RAV4), the seventh iteration of the Lexus ES may share its architecture with the bestselling car in the US market but, says Lexus, boasts stronger underpinnings and support structures than the Camry to achieve the levels of comfort and sophistication expected of a well-heeled cousin.
There’s no mistaking the newest Lexus with anything else on the road. Longer, wider and lower than the model it replaces, a near five-metre profile is crowned by a sloping roofline tapering into sleek taillamp clusters at the rear. Up front, a meticulously crafted and neatly chiselled evolution of Lexus’s unmistakable spindle grille ensures this entry-level ES model echoes the upmarket appeal of the LS grand saloon.
With only two derivatives available, it’s the lower-specification ES250 that’s charged with offering a compelling blend of value and finesse or – as suggested in our first test of the last ES back in 2014 – affording the Camry a Lexus upgrade. Certainly, in terms of perceived quality, there’s a lot to appreciate in the cabin of the new Lexus. From impressively comfortable (electrically adjustable) front seats to a well-considered scattering of soft-touch surfaces, the accommodation offers a welcome sense of luxury. Yes, there are cost-considered firmer plastics present and, in this specification, the leather upholstery is of the synthetic variety, but none of this detracts from the fact that even an entry-level Lexus sedan feels expensive.
A quick glance at the interior of the hybridised ES300h SE model reveals where the lower-spec derivative loses out. Apart from an obvious upgrade in the quality of both leather and trim items, the incorporation of a vivid, 12,3-inch display screen within the tiered facia design in the more expensive car makes the still-crisp seven-inch unit in ES250-spec feel somewhat dated by comparison. Size and clarity of this screen aside, both systems use the latest evolution of Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface infotainment control and it remains as comparatively user-unfriendly as always. While it’s a system which inevitably gets easier to understand and use with time, you have to wonder how much longer Toyota will persist with this tech; the move towards touchscreen and voice-recognition interfaces is in full swing among European-based rival brands.
While rear-passenger legroom remains as impressive as in the previous-generation car (a measurement rivalling that of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class), an inevitable compromise in headroom thanks to the new car’s sloping roofline means taller-than-average passengers may want to call shotgun. One further concession to the design of the new ES is the absence of folding rear seatbacks, the inclusion of an extra layer of strengthening in the car’s rear bulkhead limiting access from the luggage area into the cabin. That said, a generous 352 litres of luggage space can accommodate a set of golf clubs or bags for a family weekend away.
Introduced to our market in the ES250 is Toyota’s Dynamic Force Series A25A-FKS 2,5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine. Mated with an eight-speed automatic transmission, this direct-injection unit targets improved combustion and thermal efficiencies for both superior performance and fuel consumption compared with the previous E250’s powertrain. Offering 152 kW and 243 N.m of torque, the new car proved slightly quicker off the mark than the six-speed 135 kW/235 N.m model we tested in February 2014, while it made the most of its slick – although occasionally frenetic – eight-speed transmission to improve on the previous car’s 100 km fuel-run figure (8,3 plays 8,7 L/100 km).
That figure will inevitably improve while the ES250 is driven in its most natural habitat: on the open road. Here, the transmission takes a break from its constant search for the optimal ratio and the engine settles into a low-rev background away from the audible strain associated with strident performance duties. On this note, the inclusion of both a sport mode and the one-touch ability to dial out traction control seems counter-productive.
It is on a quiet cruise where this Lexus comes into its own. Boasting class-leading NVH levels and a well-considered suspension arrangement, the ES250 makes gentle, unobtrusive progress.
It’s for that reason adaptive cruise control (a traditional system is standard) and satellite navigation – both included in the ES300h package – are missed in this entry-level model. These spec items are the most obvious concessions to economies of scale, however, with climate control, heated seats, auto LED headlamps and wipers, parking sensors with a reverse camera, keyless entry and a full bouquet of audio-system functionalities tipping it back in the ES’ favour.
The recent announcement by Toyota that its upcoming, SA-bound midsize hatchback will welcome the return of the Corolla nameplate to a five-door raises an interesting debate about whether such a widely respected brand should do more to harness the strength of its heritage — particularly within our market — when it launches new models. Once the Corolla hatch joins the likes of the Hilux, Prado and Land Cruiser, wouldn't this new executive sedan benefit from a return of the Toyota Camry nameplate, particularly when the newest version shares so many positive attributes with the entry-level Lexus? We can but wonder...
Whichever badge it wears, however, Lexus' latest ES should continue to find favour with buyers fond of the sumptuous levels of comfort, effortless cruising ability and proven reliability this range of vehicles has continuously offered over the years.
*From the December 2018 issue of CAR magazine