MOTORING

Lexus ES250 EX: Fighting a lost cause

By Deon Schoeman 25 January 2019

www.cornelvanheerden.com

Two decades ago, the Lexus ES would have been a best seller. But today, the ever-growing demand for SUVs means that even advanced, streamlined sedans like this one battle to attract customers. Can the latest, seventh-generation version strengthen its case sufficiently to warrant its existence?

By now, it’s common knowledge that SUVs have all but taken over the motoring world. From compact to colossal, from basic people carriers to exclusive exotics, there’s an SUV for every preference and application.

And no, it’s not a uniquely South African phenomenon: the global appetite for sport utility vehicles appears to be just as insatiable.

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The impact of the SUVs rising dominance on traditional vehicle segments has been disruptive to say the least – and two of the hardest hit categories have been the station wagon and medium-to-large sedan sectors.

Both have seen demand dwindle as the fascination with SUVs has gained momentum. In the SA context, station wagons (or estate cars, as the posher versions were known) have completely disappeared from new car showrooms, while the mid-sized sedan offering has shrunk significantly.

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Of course, other factors have also contributed to the sedan segment’s malaise. In mainstream terms, motorists have been buying down for some time now, choosing smaller and more affordable alternatives, including SUVs.

Where does all of this leave the Lexus ES? Launched late last year, the arrival of the all-new, seventh-generation ES also heralds its repositioning in the local Lexus model hierarchy.

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It not only replaces the previous model, but also takes up the Lexus sedan cudgel on behalf of the larger Lexus GS, which arguably vied for a similar customer profile, but at a higher price point.

The new ES has grown in size and refinement, thanks to an all-new platform, which is stiffer and lighter, promising improvements in space, efficiency and performance. Add much enhanced cabin ergonomics and equipment levels, and it makes sense for the ES to take up the sedan fight.

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Affordability – at least in relative terms – is also a factor to consider. The ES250 EX as tested here costs less than the more compact IS300, although the latter is more powerful, and is arguably targeted at a younger audience with stronger dynamic expectations.

The need to express value has never been stronger, even for a premium marque like Lexus. Just how tough the market is right now is evidenced by the brand’s total sales, across all model ranges, which averaged less than 70 units over the past five months.

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Sales of the ES since launch have been promising, rivalling the NX compact SUV as the marque’s top seller in volume terms, and maintaining double digits. But Lexus will want to move a lot more to assist the brand as a whole.

The Lexus aesthetic has become increasingly individualistic and even striking over the past few years, signifying a stylistic confidence that’s allowed it to eschew the often derivative designs of before.

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That’s apparent not only in the almost too prominent interpretation of the typical spindle grille, but also the fastback-like flow of the ES silhouette, the boldly angular detailing, and the smoothly finished contours.

While specifically a four-door sedan, there’s enough of a curve to the roofline to suggest at least some coupé-like sophistication. It’s certainly striking in a way that may polarise opinion, but is never punished with indifference.

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The new ES is longer and wider but lower than its predecessor, with broader tracks and an extended wheelbase. It all adds up to a package that looks sleeker and more sophisticated, while also promising more interior space.

That’s indeed the case in practice: there’s a big-car ambience to the cabin that is more LS than ES. Accommodation is generous both front and rear, while the 490-litre boot is respectable in this league.

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The cabin is luxuriously appointed, and finds a pleasing compromise between plush comfort and high tech. Even the fact that the upholstery is faux leather rather than the real thing doesn’t detract from the upmarket tone – and it will please committed vegans, too.

Given its premium positioning, the ES sedan’s comprehensive equipment list comes as no surprise. Digital tech is very much in evidence, with a configurable TFT display replacing conventional analogue dials in the instrument binnacle, and a large, integrated touchscreen for the infotainment system.

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The system includes all then usual features, although satnav is a notable and disappointing exception at the ES250 EX’s price point. Bluetooth-pairing mobile devices is quick and simple, and both voice calls and audio streaming work a treat.

Accessing the infotainment system’s feature set could be simpler, given that the central touchpad is finicky to use while on the move. Voice control is a viable and safer alternative, while the multifunction steering wheel also puts key switchgear at the driver’s fingertips.

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Overall quality levels are tangible and convincing, and even fastidious occupants will find little to take issue with. A mix of black gloss detailing and metallic accents adds further class.

Even though the ES250 doesn’t get the much dearer 300h hybrid model’s Mark Levinson audio system, the sound on offer is pretty darn good. It’s made even better because you can enjoy it properly, given that noise and refinement levels are top-class.

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Refinement has always been a Lexus strength, and the ES continues that tradition with a smooth, unruffled ride and superb noise insulation, even at highway speeds. In fact, it’s so good that it can create a sense of disconnect between car and driver.

Which brings us to the driving experience. Competent is the word that springs to mind here: the Lexus completes its dynamic tasks with aplomb, but it’s not going to get the pulse of enthusiasts beating faster.

The ES250 is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that’s good for 152kW and 243Nm – output figures that are more than adequate. It’s a free-revving unit that spins with smooth enthusiasm, but in the absence of a turbo, it needs to be exercised to give its best.

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Fortunately, the new auto gearbox has eight ratios to keep the engine on the boil and in the power band, and the changes are impressively smooth and seamless. The transmission goes about its business with such ease and confidence that interfering with that process seems pointless.

Yes, the Lexus does provide shift paddles for manual gear changes, but even in Sport mode, there’s never a sense of the driver being in control of the process: the ES will always take over shift control at the earliest opportunity.

The Sport setting is one of three driving modes – Normal and Eco are the other options – but in the ES context, Normal seems to find the most suitable balance of verve and refinement. In Sport, the car’s responses are sharpened, but not enough to become truly athletic, while Eco numbs responses too much.

Even in Normal mode, reactions to throttle input are brisk, and the engine always feels eager to please, as long as it’s spinning quickly enough. ABS-controlled disc brakes all round ensure consistently incisive and fade-free braking when needed.

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The chassis set-up is a major step up from the previous model’s wafty set-up: the car feels crisper and more confident when hustled through a mountain pass, and there’s plenty of confidence and stability at speed.

The steering is keen and turn-in is quick and easy, but the action lacks the outright heft and feedback required for true driver engagement.

Granted, the ES250 isn’t meant to be a performance car, and it will always prioritise ease of use and convenience, but you get the impression that the chassis is capable of more than it’s actually allowed to communicate.

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So yes: the 250ES is a stalwart performer, be it in the stop/start crush of peak hour traffic, the twists and turns of some inviting country roads, or on wide and smooth highway tar. It mostly feels effortless and composed, cosseting its occupants in tranquil comfort.

In that sense, the Lexus ES250EX is a spot-on choice for those seeking a spacious and refined executive motoring experience. The asking price reflects fair value too, especially given the full-house spec.

Ironically, the relatively modest Lexus sales tally also means that, at least for now, the ES250 offers a measure of exclusivity that its more successful premium rivals can’t offer.

www.cornelvanheerden.com

Lexus will be hoping that the ES250 EX boosts sales volumes, and in doing so creates greater awareness of a brand that deserves more attention. But what it really needs is a vibrant model that targets younger buyers, and acknowledges the SUV trend.

Could that vehicle be the compact Lexus UX crossover, due locally in the next few months? Time will tell. DM

PROS

Sleek and distinctive. Delivers luxury and quality in abundance. Spacious, too.

CONS

Inoffensive and competent at best – lacks outright driver engagement.

VITAL STATS

Lexus ES250 EX
Engine In-line four-cylinder, 2,487cc, direct injection
Power 152kW @ 6,600rpm
Torque 243Nm @ 14,000 – 5,000rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 91.57 kW/ton
Gearbox Eight-speed automatic, FWD
Wheels/tyres 17-inch alloy, 215/55 R17 tyres
0-100 km/h 9.1sec
Top speed 210km/h
Fuel tank capacity 60 litres
Fuel consumption (claimed) 6.6 litres/100km
Operating range (claimed) 909km
CO2 emissions 150 g/km
Retail price R593,300
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