Auto review: Whatever its name means, the 2019 Lexus ES is surprisingly provocative and athletic

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 11, 2018

             

The 2019 Lexus ES

NASHVILLE ó From its debut in 1989, the Lexus ES has been Lexusí top-selling sedan, one that prioritizes refinement and solitude over driving thrills. While endearing to older drivers who prefer a comfortably sedate sedan, it did little to attract younger buyers who understandably thought that ES was an acronym for Elderly Shuttle rather than Executive Sedan, its true nom de guerre.

Selling in more than 90 countries, Lexus is about to release the redesigned 2019 Lexus ES, which employs an all-new platform that it shares with the 2019 Toyota Avalon. In fact, the 2019 ES shares the 2019 Avalonís 113-inch wheelbase and 195.9-inch overall length. This means the ES has grown 2.6 inches longer, 0.2 inches lower and 1.8 inches wider than before. The wheelbase has also grown by 2 inches, allowing for an exceptionally roomy cabin, particularly in the rear seat. In fact, according to Lexus, the ES has more rear seat legroom than the flagship Lexus LS sedan. Overall size is larger than a BMW 3-Series, but smaller than the 5-Series.

All that length is put to good use. Looking like a miniaturized LS, the ES gracefully embraces Lexusís kinetic new styling, a look highlighted by the brandís distinctive spindle grille and L-shaped LED taillamps. Lexusí design chief Koichi Suga describes it as "provocative elegance."

Despite the new platform and updated appearance, the ESís chief attribute remains intact. To ensure the ES is even quieter than its predecessor, sound-deadening insulation covers 93 percent of the floor pan, up from 68 percent. This explains why the ES is extraordinarily quiet at all speeds. Hybrids are noticeably noisier thanks to their low rolling resistance tires, although not by much. Its sheer silence might seem at odds with Lexusís attempts to inject the ES with a more exciting demeanor, but thatís not the case. The old car didnít possess a scintilla of excitement, whereas the new one possesses a pulse, although how much of one depends on which model you choose.

The ES 350 is powered by a double-overhead cam 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, an increase of 34 horsepower and 19 pound-feet of torque from the previous V-6. Fuel efficiency is up as well. While final EPA numbers arenít available, Lexus estimates average fuel economy of 26 mpg. A new eight-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode is standard; a manual transmission isnít available. The ES 300h Hybrid comes with an all-new 2.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine mated to an electric motor and continuously variable automatic transmission rated at 215 horsepower. Fuel efficiency is estimated by Lexus at 44 mpg, although test drives of the new ES 300h saw fuel economy reach 45.9 mpg. Finally, thereís a new F-Sport model that employs the V-6 engine with the eight-speed transmission but adds front and rear adjustable performance dampers, 19-inch wheels with 235/40 all-season tires and a rear spoiler. Other models have 17-inch wheels, although 18-inchers are optional.

This results in three very different personalities. The ES 350 is responsive and powerful, although the transmission chooses a high gear and then hesitates before downshifting when more power is needed. Nevertheless, it runs 0-60 mph in 6.6 seconds. In contrast, the ES 300h makes the same run in 8.1 seconds. Although noticeably slower, most buyers will be happy with this model.

Once underway, youíll find the new ES is somewhat more engaging than the outgoing model. The suspension isnít floaty yet still masterfully absorbs bumps. Credit the carís unique shock absorbers that have a mini piston inside the larger shock to handle smaller bumps on moderately smooth surfaces that donít require much shock travel. The bigger piston handles the larger bumps. Body lean is evident during cornering, but itís well controlled. Push this car and youíll find its limits are higher than youíd expect. This is particularly true of the F-Sport, which is a credible, fun-to-drive sports sedan thatís more than capable of putting a smile on your lips by providing athleticism never associated with an ES.

Nevertheless, the eight-speed transmission still acts with the annoying fuel-efficient shifting found on other models. The Hybridís continuously variable transmission lacks the rubber-banding common in this type of transmission, when the engine revs but the car doesnít move forward.

While piloting the ES, youíll find the instrument panel centers around an eight-inch infotainment interface that uses a touchpad on the center console. While itís an improvement from the joystick previously used by Lexus, itís still not as easy to use as other systems that employ a touchscreen or knob. An eight-inch screen with a 10-speaker Pioneer audio system is standard; a 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and 12.3-inch screen are options. The new ES is Amazon Alexa-enabled; Apple CarPlay, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and wireless charging come standard.

The 2019 Lexus ES350 goes on sale in September.

"We are confident that we have created a new expectation of what a luxury car should be," Suga said during the carís introduction in Nashville last week, and itís no idle boast.

For the first time, the Lexus ES isnít an Elderly Shuttle; itís an Excellent Sedan.

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Stats

Base prices: $39,000 (estimated)

Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC V6

Horsepower: 302

Torque: 267 pound-feet

EPA fuel economy: Not available

Wheelbase: 113 inches

Length: 195.9 inches

Cargo capacity: 16.7 cubic feet

Curb weight: 3,649 pounds

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