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    2018 Lexus ES 300h First Drive Review

    Authors Image

    Sagar Bhanushali

    Lexus ES Exterior

    What is it?

    Why I would buy it:

    Smashing looks, silky smooth drivetrain 

    Why I would avoid it:

    Not a driver's car, some interior bits not upto segment standard

    When we first tested the ES 300h last year, we were left impressed with how well the hybrid sedan carved its own niche in a segment that’s fuelled by petrol and diesel only. Now, Lexus has introduced the 2018 ES 300h which is an evolution for the Japanese marque and although it may not look all that different compared to the old version, there is plenty going on under the skin. To begin with, it’s based on Toyota’s new Global Architecture-K (GA-K) platform and as a result, it’s noticeably longer, slightly lower and wider than before. What’s more, the wheels have been pushed closer to the corners thanks to a 2-inch longer wheelbase and wider front and rear track. 

    Although it’s difficult to gauge from the pictures, there is no denying that the new ES 300h looks more edgy and has a touch more virility in its stance compared to the old model. What’s also more evident in the flesh is the hunkered down look and the appearance is enhanced in no small measure by that in-your-face grille and the lovely triple beam LED headlights with L shaped daytime running lights. In profile, the roofline remains low and sleek thanks to the steeply raked A pillar that flows to the sharply slanted C pillar. The pronounced shoulder line that extends from the top of the front wheel arch all the way to the corner of the boot adds to the visual appeal. As for the rear, it’s clean and sharply chiselled with wraparound LED taillights which, if we may add, remind us of the old Hyundai Sonata. Nonetheless, the taillights are beautifully detailed and add to the well balanced look.

    How is it on the inside?

    Climb into the 2018 ES 300h and you immediately sense that Lexus is the sort of brand that likes doing things differently. The cabin design and ambience is unlike what we have seen in this segment – it’s rich and flamboyant and not restrained with the norms that the Germans have fashioned. That said, the cabin also looks busy, be it in the array of materials used or the sheer number of switches on the dash or the layout of the huge infotainment display. More on that later. 

    As for the quality, the dash is beautifully finished with ultra-soft plastics over the top half. Even touch points like the steering rim, gear lever and the door pads are all draped in plush leather, but and there is a big but – there are hard plastics on door armrests and around the steering column and some of the switchgear seems to have come from cheaper Toyota models, which is bit of downer considering the Lexus’ price tag. The other disappointing bit is the lack of a rotary knob for the infotainment system – you get a small touch pad to browse through the menu and honestly, it is quite difficult to operate on the go.

    The system itself is far from intuitive and is riddled with complex sub menus. You will definitely need a few days to get used to its layout. That being said, we have become fans of the 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system that the ES 300h comes with – it delivers a crystal clear aural experience, one that will make your drive rather pleasant. Besides the 12.3-inch infotainment screen you also get a digital instrument panel and a head-up display which even shows you navigation directions, tid bits from the music player and speed limit signs.

    The ES 300h is all about comfort and it shows the moment you settle down over the large and accommodating front seats which offer a great deal of lateral support and plenty of adjustment. The driver’s seat even comes with electrically extendable seat squab for more under thigh support. The Lexus continues to impress as you move into the back – there is loads of legroom and the seat itself feels plush and holds up well when it comes to under thigh support and backrest comfort. The backrest, in fact, is adjustable, an option that the old ES didn’t get. Even with our man, Venkat (who is six-foot tall) behind the wheel, there was ample knee room though what’s lacking is the headroom and that’s down to the roofline which tapers down right after the B-pillar - while there is enough of it for most adults, tall passengers would have to redo their hair after every drive. Overall, those seated at the back would appreciate the sofa-like seat comfort and a few thoughtful touches like the adjustable backrest, window sunshades, integrated AC and media controls on the middle armrest and the fact that the front passenger seat can be moved around via the buttons on the backrest. 

    How does it drive?

    Under the long hood of the ES 300h sits a 178bhp/221Nm 2.5-litre naturally aspirated motor which, at times, is assisted by 120bhp electric motors. Now although this setup has been carried over from the old ES, there are quite a few upgrades. For instance, the engine now makes slightly more power whereas the electric motor is smaller than before. There is also a new, shorter hybrid transaxle that arranges the two electric motors in a multi-axle configuration instead of the previous coaxial setup. Also, the nickel-metal hydride battery that powers the electric motors has been relocated from the boot to underneath the back seat. So that’s all the changes covered, but how well does this all work in truth? 

    Like before, you have four driving modes in the ES – Normal, Eco, Sport and EV. Switch to EV mode and you will be marching forward using the electric motors alone, however, there is a catch. One can only cover a couple of kilometres in EV mode before the batteries run out of juice and the petrol motor kicks in. The ES in EV mode, then, is perfect for bumper-to-bumper traffic as it can run noiselessly, purely on electricity while the petrol motor is decoupled from the drivetrain to reduce friction. In urban driving conditions, the electric motor works well with the petrol engine as there is always enough grunt at the bottom end to reel in other motorists. As for the engine refinement, this 2.5-litre unit remains smooth throughout the rev range without making too much of a fuss. 

    As you would expect, the ES 300h is dead silent at slow speeds. In EV mode you could even sneak up on other motorists, it’s that silent. With the petrol and electric motors working together, performance is strong throughout the bottom end and midrange. It goes without saying that this Lexus gets up to highway speeds with ease. The effortless acceleration, in fact, goes well with the laidback nature of the car. As for the gearbox, the 6-step CVT unit in here has been tuned in line with the relaxed nature of the car. Naturally, it is a little slow to react and hardly engaging when you are up for some fun behind the wheel. That being said, the rubber-band effect usually present with CVTs isn’t as obvious in this hybrid and also, there is a decent sensation of pace when you shift to S and use the paddle shifters as the CVT does a good job of replicating immediate upshifts. 

    The ES has always been known for its quietness and with this 2018 model, Lexus has upped the ante further. There is additional stuffing of polyurethane foam in the A pillars and thicker front fender liners. Meanwhile, sound deadening materials now cover up to 93 per cent of the floor pan, up from 68 per cent in the old ES. All of this has certainly helped the ES with overall refinement as you are well isolated from the outside world – the combination of a silky smooth engine, electric assist and the heavy noise insulation gives the ES a clear edge over its rivals. The ride quality is supple, too, with the well damped suspension absorbing low speed imperfections with decent composure – it’s only the big potholes that catch this car out as the big 18-inch wheels crash over them. The soft suspension set up soaks up low speed jolts well, but it’s at the expense of high speed manners where the ES isn’t as planted as we would like, especially under full load. As we lot (Venkat, I and a couple of guys from Lexus) blasted down the Yamuna Expressway, the ES 300h displayed noticeable amount of vertical movements over long undulations. As for the matter of shredding speed, braking performance, despite the regenerative system, is good with reassuring pedal feel and good stopping power.

    Should I buy one?

    It’s a shame that Lexus introduced the earlier ES in India when it was on the verge of a generation change. While it ticked a lot of the right boxes, something was amiss. But, with this 2018 model, the ES 300h has made a strong come back. With its longer and wider stance and that edgy styling, it looks like a million bucks and grabs eyeballs even in the company of more expensive cars. Also, the updated interior is cutting-edge and feels distinctive, so does the hybrid powertrain. Sadly, it doesn’t drive as sharp as it looks, lacking the outright punch and eager handling of its rivals. More crucially, the new ES 300h isn’t cheap. At Rs 59.13 lakhs ex-showroom, this petrol powered sedan finds itself against well-established contenders with the option of diesel powertrain as well. The ES, then, is really a more appropriate fit for those after a unique ownership experience. It also comes with Lexus’ eminent reliability which is definitely a big plus in a segment full of after-sales horror stories. 

    Where does it fit in?

    The 2018 Lexus ES 300h competes against the Mercedes E-Class long wheelbase, BMW 5 Series, Volvo S90 and the Jaguar XF. It will also be seen competing with an all-new generation of the Audi A6 that is due for India launch.

    Pictures by Kaustubh Gandhi
    Click here for our road test review of the Lexus RX 450h
    Click here for our first drive review of the Lexus NX 300h

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