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JOHANNESBURG – As a large sedan employing a hybrid powertrain, the Lexus ES300h EX represents a niche within a niche in South Africa. And with the wider market increasingly favouring crossovers, that means this saloon is facing as tough a time as ever.

Indeed, if you’re looking for a front-driven executive sedan with a hybrid powertrain, you don’t have any other option in South Africa (globally, of course, such variants exist, including in the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima line-ups).

Despite the ES range achieving modest average monthly sales locally (around 17 units a month based on the past six months), Lexus South Africa is pressing on by adding a new trim level: this ES300h EX slots in below the current ES300h SE flagship but above the non-hybrid ES250 EX.

Priced at R774 300 (that's some R136 600 less than the range-topping SE), the EX sacrifices luxuries such as the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and does without some driver assistance features, including adaptive cruise control, front collision detection and lane-keep and blindspot assist, among other amenities.

But it features the same 131 kW/221 N.m 2,5-litre four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Combined with the battery pack, the total power output peaks at 160 kW. Although that’s a figure just nine units shy of the outgoing Golf GTI, the ES300h is not a car that begs to be driven hard. In fact, my experience behind the wheel turned out to be largely soothing.

During highway driving, though, I found the ES300h's power delivery a little slow, likely thanks to car’s mass and transmission. The eCVT has, of course, been set up to favour comfort over performance, which works well in urban settings but less so on highways when brisk acceleration is required to merge or overtake.

Still, from the bustling roads of Sandton to long stretches of the N1, the ES300h proves to be a calm and collected chariot. It boasts impressive levels of refinement and a ride that’s neither too rigid nor too floaty (thanks in part to that rear wishbone suspension setup). This, of course, combined with the fact it’s front-wheel driven, detracts from the sedan's dynamic ability somewhat but that certainly isn't cause for concern for the average ES buyer.

More importantly, the saloon's hybrid system noticeably improves overall fuel consumption, helping us achieve an indicated figure of 5,6 L/100 km over the day's 300 km route (despite the vehicle carrying four people, with its luggage compartment fully loaded).

There's no denying the market for a hybrid sedan in South Africa is tiny, with many buyers instead opting for more conventional German sedans (or, indeed, crossovers). But if you have your eye on the ES, slipping in behind the wheel of this new variant will feel like money well spent. You'll get comfort, refinement, luxury and even a dash of exclusivity...

FRANSCHHOEK, Cape Town – With the underrated Lexus GS no longer offered locally – and considering the previous ES sedan was the marque's bestselling four-door in our market – Lexus has expanded the reach of the new ES line-up, offering this base ES250 EX with a healthy but not overly generous spec list at R593 300 and a lavishly equipped ES300h hybrid in SE trim at R843 800 (a leap of nearly R170 000 over its ancestor). That leaves the base model to duke it out with smaller German midsize sedans, while the SE tackles larger executive saloons. We were in Franschhoek and surrounds recently to sample both and it was the ES250 driven here that left the bigger impression.

Striking design...

Bearing a strong visual resemblance to the LS luxury saloon, the new ES ditches its predecessor's blocky, staid appearance for flowing lines and sharp detailing around the front and rear lights, as well as the alloy wheels (17s on this model; 18s on the hybrid). It's a big car – nearly five metres long – but it looks balanced and, most importantly, expensive (more so than an Audi A4 or Mercedes-Benz C-Class).

Slide onto the hide-trimmed seats (something called Nulux leather on this model) and the quality immediately impresses, with densely padded plastics covering the entire facia and most of the doors. There's very little deformation in any of the panels when prodded and I couldn't detect any rattles on the press vehicles we drove on the launch.

There are, however, some trim bits betraying the ES250's entry-level status: plastic strips where the hybrid features "wood"; plus an eight-inch infotainment screen instead of the 12,3-inch unit in the dearer version. The ES250 is offered in EX grade boasting such standard features as LED headlamps, auto lights and wipers, a reverse camera, electric adjustment for the front seats and 10 airbags. In addition, the SE incorporates a pre-crash system, adaptive cruise, panoramic parking camera, sat-nav and head-up display, among other mod-cons.

Space all-round is abundant – with the driver's seat set for my 1,85-metre frame, my knees were nowhere close to touching its back when I jumped in the rear seat – and the vehicle is impressively hushed at a cruise. The ES would make a great cross-country car.

Simple tech

Sporting a new 2,5-litre, four-cylinder engine under its fluted bonnet, coupled with a new eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, the ES250 makes steady rather than stirring progress. However, there is enough in-gear punch at oxygen-rich coastal altitudes to suggest the engine won't feel breathless at the Reef. It's not the quietest of powertrains, sounding strained above 4 000 r/min and penetrating the calm in the quiet cabin, but at steady velocities the din quickly fades into the background. That said, if you're used to the low-rev muscle of a turbocharged engine, the 2,5-litre's rate of response will disappoint.

What won't annoy is the ride quality, which is unquestionably the best in the premium-midsize class. Rolling on 17-inch wheels wrapped in 55-profile tyres, the ES250's independent suspension does a brilliant job of soaking up scars without being so soft as to send the body pitching and wallowing. The steering, too, is nicely direct and the gearing feels natural.

So, would I recommend the ES?

Yes, but this 250 and not the hybrid. While the ES300h adds another layer of performance to the ES package and its list of standard features is as lengthy as a 7 Series', R843 800 feels like a leap too big. The ES250, however, is no more expensive than an entry-level German sedan but contributes additional refinement, spec and space, plus Lexus' class-leading seven-year/105 000 km maintenance plan. In fact, it's the most resolved Lexus I've recently driven and deserves to at least equal its predecessor's success in the local line-up.

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