Boredom has been banished from the Lexus lexicon, and that’s finally true of the company’s most popular car, the roomy and stylish ES. Redesigned for the 2019 model year, the new Lexus ES sits on a platform designed to deliver greater driving dynamism, and in ES 350 form you can even get one in racy F Sport specification.
The car we’re discussing here, however, is the 2019 Lexus ES 300h.
A fuel-sipping hybrid, the ES 300h is expected to extract 44 miles out of every gallon of gas in combined driving. That doesn’t mean it’s a snooze in which to cruise, though. And at a starting price of just $42,335 including the $1,025 destination charge, the ES 300h might prove unexpectedly within reach.
Lexus sells the ES 300h in standard, Luxury (+ $2,655), and Ultra Luxury (+ $3,650) trim levels. Choose the Ultra Luxury, add all of the factory options, and the price tag barely crests $55,000.
My test car was more modestly outfitted. An Atomic Silver example in base trim, it had black NuLuxe leatherette, 18-inch machined aluminum wheels, a Premium option package, a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert and intuitive parking assist, wireless device charging, and a Mark Levinson premium surround sound audio system. The window sticker read $47,905.
Behind “That Grille,” an Efficient Hybrid Powertrain
Grille. There, I said it. Now that I’ve addressed the ES 300h’s least appealing design trait (which is also a genuine pain in the butt to clean), we can get on to the good stuff.
Hold your thumb up to cover the you-know-what on the photo above, and you can see that the ES is fundamentally attractive. Hard angles and sharp creases harmoniously blend with a rakish roofline and sensually swollen rear fenders, the rear-swept design culminating in a tidy and symmetrically pleasing tail.
Lexus wraps the look around a platform shared with the Toyota Avalon, giving the ES a full-size interior at an entry-luxury price. Engineered to give Toyota and Lexus models newfound driving dynamism, the vehicle architecture boasts greater stiffness and a lower center of gravity.
Under the hood, a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder engine is paired with an electric motor fed by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack mounted underneath the rear seat. Together, these components produce 215 horsepower, which is enough to scoot the ES 300h to 60 mph in a claimed 8.1 seconds.
To eliminate the “rubber band” feel common to continuously variable transmissions, Lexus better aligns engine speed with actual vehicle speed, and in Sport driving mode the car is more responsive and provides the driver with six transmission ratios accessible via paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Switch from Sport or Normal into Eco mode, and the ES 300h’s new Auto Glide Control system activates for more efficient coasting, such as when exiting a freeway or approaching an intersection. Perhaps I should have used that more often, as I averaged 38.1 during a week of driving. That’s nowhere near the EPA’s 44-mpg estimate.
Big on Comfort, but Style Trumps Utility
Aside from the observed fuel economy, the Lexus ES 300h meets or exceeds dynamic expectations. It’s not particularly rewarding to drive, of course, unless you strongly value comfortable seats, a serene cabin, and a mix of ride and handling that isolates you from lousy pavement while feeling secure and trustworthy when taking the road less traveled. In other words, this car is perfect for daily commuting and long road trips.
My few complaints are related to how the brake pedal feels, displaying some of the stickiness common to cars with regenerative braking systems; the idle sound and quality of the car’s 4-cylinder engine; and the low-speed pedestrian warning note that reminds me of the background noise in a middle-school metal shop class.
Comfort is excellent, front and rear. The Lexus ES can be difficult to classify due to the disparity between its price and its size, but no matter what you might read elsewhere, this is a full-size car with lots of interior room. Normally, I’m not a fan of Lexus’s NuLuxe seat upholstery, but as long as it offers ventilation it’s usually an acceptable substitute for the real deal.
Front seat occupants face a stylish dashboard that, for once, Lexus refrained from calling “LFA-inspired.” I could do without the weird Frankenstein twist knobs sticking out of the instrument shroud (the LFA part), and the infotainment system’s Remote Touch Interface (RTI) finger-tracing touchpad has never been one of my favorite ways to navigate this type of technology, but otherwise the ES is a good place to spend significant time. Just remember the low base price when you’re examining some of the interior’s bits and pieces.
The good news is that once you’ve got the ES 300h set up the way you want it, your interaction with RTI is minimized. Between steering wheel controls, voice prompts, and the sprinkling of buttons and knobs for climate and basic stereo functions, you won’t need to curse the RTI unless you want to mess around with the 12.3-inch display.
In particular, I found the single stereo and tuning knob compelling. The outer section controls volume, while the lower section tunes between stations. This is a terrific approach when it comes to saving space and preserving a minimalistic aesthetic. Also: Yay for Apple CarPlay!
Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t inspired to crank the music up, despite my test car’s 17-speaker, 1,800-watt Mark Levinson PurePlay surround sound system. I mean, it sounded great but didn’t stun me with clarity and richness.
In-cabin storage is remarkably stingy, but the trunk is huge thanks to the battery’s relocation to underneath the rear seat. The car holds 16.7 cu.-ft. of junk in its trunk, which is an impressive figure.
A Near Flawless Car for a Specific Kind of Driver
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2019 Lexus ES is a super-safe car. It’s a “Top Safety Pick+,” but beyond that, it gets the highest possible grades in every single IIHS assessment.
Of course, the goal is to avoid a collision in the first place, and to that end, Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 is standard equipment on every version of the new ES. Highlights include adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with low-light pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and lane keeping assist. New features include lane centering assist and a road sign recognition system.
Generally speaking, these technologies, along with the blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems, worked well and in a refined manner. I did, however, learn that in heavier traffic situations the adaptive cruise control had trouble “seeing” vehicles merging into the gap ahead.
At one point, a Tesla Model S entered the freeway in front of me just as the ES had started to accelerate to resume the pre-set cruising speed. The dark-colored Tesla moved quickly across the lane to the left, but the Lexus never reacted to its presence, causing me to panic and stab the brake pedal.
No car is flawless, though, including the new Lexus ES. Overall, though, in spite of this apparent glitch in the adaptive cruise system, the car’s aggravating RTI, and some interior materials that clearly help to explain the low base price, the ES 300h does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide a stylish, upscale, safe, comfortable, roomy, and efficient form of dependable transportation.
Just be sure to switch to Eco mode if you want to get closer than I did to the official fuel economy estimate.