2019 Lexus ES first drive review: Better in all key ways but one

The longevity of some cars tends to sneak up on you. Case in point: this 2019 Lexus ES. Can you believe you're looking at the seventh-generation model? The ES, along with the marque's flagship LS sedan, are the two longest-running nameplates in the brand's history, having been on sale since Lexus' inception in 1989. In more human terms, that means that the ES family is firmly Generation Y -- it's a millennial.

That may come as a surprise, because throughout its life, the ES has been seen as a conservative, staidly-styled offering. Historically, it's been a model whose appeal was that it was easy to recommend to buyers "of a certain age" who prioritized qualities like a cushy ride, quiet cabin and drama-free ownership over all other attributes.

Riding atop its new GA-K chassis, the 2019 model looks set to maintain those hard-won ES-family touchstones. After spending a day driving it in Tennessee, I can confirm that it is indeed unerringly serene, and it enjoys excellent ride quality and sound isolation. Further, there's no reason to assume that the new ES will deliver anything other than sterling reliability.

But that's where the new model's AARP-friendly likenesses end. Unlike past iterations, the 2019 ES achieves its calm demeanor without resorting to the sort of overly soft suspension that ultimately yields messy handling when pressed. And it does everything wearing a bold new look.

Like that famed and much-maligned generation of people born between the '80s and the early '90s, the new ES has matured greatly. In fact, the ES and millennials share some commonly associated characteristics: The Lexus is confident, achievement-oriented and possesses a surprisingly strong family drive. As for ascribing another commonly held belief about millennials to the ES -- tech savviness -- I've got my reservations.

The 2019 ES rides atop a new chassis with a markedly longer wheelbase for better cabin room.

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Stylistically, the ES started to let its hair down a little in the outgoing generation, but not nearly as completely and dramatically as the car seen here. The 2019 ES is 2.6 inches longer, 0.2 inches lower and 1.8 inches wider than its forbearer, and it sits on a 2-inch longer wheelbase while straddling markedly wider front and rear tracks. The takeaway? The new ES features more athletic and substantial proportions, along with improved cabin room.

As before, the ES range comprises both gas (ES 350) and hybrid (ES 300h) front-wheel drive midsize sedans. New for 2019 is a third option, the hawkish-looking ES 350 F Sport.

A new-for-2019 F Sport model features a unique mesh grille, special lower fascias and different wheels.

Lexus

Style council

Non-F Sport ES models (like the burgundy ES 350 shown in these photos) will be easy to spot on the street thanks to its unique interpretation of Lexus' trademark Spindle Grille. In this application, the oversized assembly has a certain "sands through the hourglass" quality about it.

To my eyes, as seen here, Lexus' controversial styling element is less successful than in the larger LS sedan, and certainly, the company's deeply stylish LC Coupe. That said, the grille integrates far better into the car's overall design than the more timid version used on the outgoing model (which always looked like the tacked-on midyear refresh artifact that it was).

Akio Toyoda, head of Lexus' parent, Toyota Motor Co., made it clear a few years ago that boring designs would no longer be tolerated, and the Lexus team has taken that message to heart, almost to a fault. Between its larger grille, those slashing, glowering headlamps and more deliberately styled bodysides, the 2019 Lexus ES certainly looks more confident and upscale. However, I can also see how its more aggressive visage may alienate some of the car's more conservative core buyers.

The ES 350's 3.5-liter V6 dispenses 302 hp to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic.

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What lies beneath

The 2019 ES doesn't just wear a more dynamic and self-assured new jacket, it's got more muscle lurking underneath, too. Thanks in part to increased use of high-strength steels, the ES' new platform is stiffer. And while the ES shares much of its body-in-white with the more prosaic 2019 Toyota Avalon, there are a number of key differences, including increased use of laser-screw welding and structural adhesives to further improve rigidity. Notably, the ES receives a V-brace mounted behind the rear seats that improves torsional bending resistance at the expense of being able to fold the rear setbacks for added utility.

As before, the heart of the ES 350 is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6. Thanks to updates that include a revised fuel-injection system, output is up meaningfully to 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque (increases of 34 and 19, respectively). 

Just as importantly, Lexus has binned the outgoing ES' six-speed automatic in favor of a new eight-speed gearbox with a wider ratio spread for both better acceleration and improved efficiency. Throughout my day's drive in the rolling countryside outside of Nashville, the Direct Shift transmission comported itself well, with the exception of being occasionally slow to downshift (regardless of drive mode) during more enthusiastic driving.

Combined, the ES 300's burlier engine and smarter transmission yields an estimated 0-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds. That's unremarkable, but it's plenty quick for this type of car, and it's a half-second improvement over its predecessor. Estimated fuel economy numbers are somewhat oddly spread out -- just 22 miles per gallon in the city, but a much better 33 mpg on the highway, or 26 mpg overall.

The ES 300h hybrid is estimated to return up to 45 mpg -- seriously impressive for a large luxury car.

Lexus

Hybrid appeal

The ES 300h, which features Lexus' fourth-generation hybrid technology, pairs a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder with a more powerful electric motor and a new nickel metal hydride battery pack. Importantly, the latter's more compact dimensions mean that it now fits under the rear seat, saving trunk space.

Total system output is quoted at a modest 215 horsepower (+15), and a torque figure is not available. Preliminary efficiency estimates call for 43 miles per gallon city, 45 highway and 44 combined. Those are hugely impressive numbers -- Toyota says they're enough to make the ES 300h the most efficient luxury vehicle offered in the US without a plug.

Built exclusively in Kyushu, Japan (most other North American ES models will be built in Georgetown, Kentucky), the hybrid's 0-60 mph is listed as a casual-sounding 8.1 seconds, the same as last year.

Despite a rakish roofline, the rear seat offers plenty of head- and legroom. If anything, toe room is a little tight.

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Sporty? Sport-ish

None of those metrics really tell you how the new ES feels while generating those numbers, however, but the answer is "pretty darn good." Lexus makes a big deal about how much sportier this new XV70 generation is to drive than before, and indeed, it breeds driver confidence like no ES before it. That's particularly true of the F Sport, which not only adds visual drama with a blacked-out mesh grille, unique lower fascias, model-specific wheels, rear spoiler and dark-finish taillights, it also nudges the dynamic quotient upward.

Chiefly, that's because the ES 350 F Sport is available with Adaptive Variable Suspension derived from the system on the LC Coupe. Lexus says the system features no fewer than 650 individual levels of damping, which helps keep the car level, whether it's being pitched hard into a corner or negotiating a suburban speed bump. However, the standard ES with its novel new "swing-valve" passive shocks works well, too. As on all 2019 ES models, the electric power steering module has migrated from the column to a new rack mount for improved responsiveness, and turn-in is noticeably keener, and it's less numb than the standard ES, even if road feel remains somewhat muted. 

Speaking of somewhat muted -- F Sport models feature additional drive modes, including a Sport+ mode designed to augment engine noise for a more athletic feel. As Yasuhiro Sakakibara, the ES' chief engineer noted, that allowance was "needed to keep the cabin from being 'unnaturally quiet'." In my estimation, Lexus has only partially succeeded, however. While the free-breathing V6 actually sounds pretty good climbing to its 6,600-rpm redline, its tune remains too muffled and distant for my liking -- it's as if the engine is swaddled in thick cashmere blankets.

Fuel economy for the ES 350 F Sport takes a slight hit versus the standard ES 300, and is listed at 22 mpg city, 31 highway and 25 combined.

Overall, though, the F Sport is clearly differentiated from its ES siblings, delivering a significantly more engaging driving experience. 

Despite driving an early prototype, good fit-and-finish was in evidence.

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Tech travails

I'm happier about the swaddling that happens in the new interior, which feels impressively upscale. Boasting comfortable seats, good-quality switchgear and materials, it's a pleasant place to be no matter which model you're in, and despite the design's more dramatically sloping roofline, there's plenty of headroom back there for 6-footers.

On the cabin side of the equation, like any millennial worth their salt, the ES travels everywhere with a full array of tech goodies, including an optional huge and crisp head-up display that works better than most when wearing polarized sunglasses. A 10-speaker, 296-watt Pioneer audio system comes standard, but an 1,800-watt, 12-channel Mark Levinson system is optional. There's even Amazon Alexa integration and available wireless charging.

On models equipped with navigation, the interior is dominated by a 12.3-inch billboard-style infotainment screen (vehicles that go without embedded nav get an 8-inch display). All ES models feature a standard Verizon WiFi hotspot, and while Android Auto users remain out of luck, Lexus is promising Apple CarPlay on models built after Oct. 1.

I'd suggest waiting for one of those models, if only because Apple CarPlay's simplified menu structure is significantly more intuitive to operate than the native infotainment system. Remember when I said I had reservations about the ES' tech savviness? That's because Lexus' Remote Touch Interface (RTI) continues to be very frustrating to use. While improvements have been made, this trackpad-based system remains maddening -- it's my least-favorite infotainment interface in the luxury car business. I don't really even think it's much of an improvement over the outgoing ES' humpbacked mouse-style controller. As RTI use is at the heart of most of the car's functions, I recommend making a point of getting very familiar with how the system works while driving before signing on the dotted line.

A 12.3-inch display is standard on navigation-equipped ES models. Sadly, so is the Remote Touch interface.

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Even if the 2019 ES stumbles with infotainment technology, this millennial looks poised to excel when it comes to family-minded advanced safety gear. All ES models come equipped with Lexus Safety System 2.0, which includes a precollision auto-brake system with pedestrian and daytime bicyclist detection. All-speed radar-based cruise control is also part of the package, as is lane-keep assist, road sign recognition and auto high-beams. A blind-spot monitor and 360-degree camera are also available.

In it for the long haul

Overall, the 2019 Lexus ES is a significantly better car than before, with higher-fidelity handling, strong complement of safety features and a nicer cabin. I wouldn't go so far as to call the new ES truly sporty, but it is more confidence inspiring.

Lexus officials remain upbeat that the new ES will find homes despite consumers' ebbing love affair with traditional sedans (a reality that has been playing out in Toyota's home market of Japan for many years already). The company is counting on edgier styling and improved performance to give the model broader appeal among all generations of buyers, be they X, Y or Boomer. With over a million ES models sold in the US alone so far, I wouldn't bet against them.

The 2019 Lexus ES rolls into dealers this September, with pricing starting at $39,500 (just $550 more than the outgoing model) before delivery fees. With a base price of $41,310, the 2019 ES 300h is actually $510 less than its predecessor. Finally, the ES 350 F Sport, with its sportier performance and longer list of features, will ring up at $44,035.

All-in, that feels like a very fair shake for such a polished performer.

The sedan market is waning, but Lexus could pick up its share as others exit the segment, too.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Update, July 27, 7:25 a.m. PT: Official pricing and fuel economy information added.

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