NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Lexus, like a lot of other manufacturers, got caught. One of the world’s premier luxury brands, it is in the middle of rolling out a new generation of sedans when the entire market has become utility driven, pun intended. Last year light truck sales accounted for two-thirds of market sales.
Still, Lexus can’t stop its product cycle. In other words, it must launch the vehicles that are in the pipeline and it is time to launch the 2019 Lexus ES 350. With about 50,000 sales last year, the ES is the top seller in the entry luxury market.
Lexus thinks it can retain its current customers and attract some new ones. In other words, Lexus aims to gain share in the segment even though it is shrinking, at least for the next few years.
The seventh generation Lexus ES was longer, lower and wider. The car also had a wider track. We got the chance to drive all three versions: the ES 350, the ES 300h hybrid and the new nameplate ES 350 F Sport.
We started with the ES 300h. It had a new fourth-generation Hybrid Drive System coupled with an Atkinson cycle 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine with a lighter, more compact, more power dense electric motor and self-charging hybrid system. Together they delivered 215 total system horsepower and a preliminary estimate of 44 mpg in combined driving.
Lexus said the new engine incorporated fast-burn combustion technology that makes it one of the most thermally efficient engines that the brand has ever offered. The result is more power without increasing emissions or fuel consumption.
They said the ES 300h had been improved thanks to a more sophisticated hybrid system control computer that is better able to mimic the feel and power delivery of a standard gasoline engine. Lexus came close. At street speeds I found it almost impossible to tell the ES 300h was a hybrid. It wasn’t until I had to get down on the accelerator did I hear the drone of the CVT. Still the car got up to 80 mph smartly.
An all-new nickel metal hydride battery was smaller than before which allowed it to be mounted underneath the back seat so it didn’t infringe on trunk space. I didn’t look but I took their word for it.
However, I did ride in the back seat of the ES 300h and found it to be spacious. There was plenty of hip and head room. And since the wheelbase was increased two inches, there was plenty of leg room too. The interior dimensions were the same for the other two trim lines.
The hood had been lowered and that gave the 2019 Lexus ES a sleeker look and downward slant. There were two grilles. The 350 and 300h (hybrid) grilles used vertical bars that radiated out from the center which I thought looked great,
The ES 350 F Sport grille had a blacked-out pattern comprised of interlocking L shapes that I couldn’t discern as being an L but it did look good. There was corresponding cut outs at each corner of the rear fascia. This is the trim line that Lexus hopes will attract younger buyers.
We test drove the F Sport from a golf club that acted as a base to go on different loops. The F Sport is a trim package not a performance package. It had the same 3.5-liter 302 horsepower V6 engine that was mated to an eight-speed transmission as the normal ES 350. The mechanical difference in the cars is that the F Sport had an adaptive suspension and an exhaust resonator.
I set the drive mode on the F Sport to S+ and got down on the accelerator and the exhaust note was noticeable deeper than the regular ES 350 and 300h. Steering stiffened, the car revved higher, thus it built up more torque and it changed gears with snappy authority. And that’s what made the F Sport feel different.
In a break from tradition, the seventh-generation Lexus ES had a fast roofline that was meant to emphasize its lower stance and its aerodynamics. I think this is the smartest thing they did. In a phrase, the 2019 version of this car no longer looks like your grandma’s big slow stodgy sedan.
The rear end was clean and sharply chiseled, with LED tail lamps that wrapped around the quarter panels to provide a continuous styling line from any angle. F SPORT models added a rear spoiler, additional rear badging and a dark lower valance to further refine the look.
There will be three different wheel designs, standard 17-inch and two 18-inch wheels for the ES 350 and ES 300h. The ES 350 F SPORT had standard 19-inch wheels.
As many automakers do, Lexus is trying to keep its current ES customers while attracting new ones. ES owners will find the new model more spacious, quieter and safer while the luxury brand uses heightened performance, technology and build quality to attract new buyers.
For instance, the seventh-generation ES is the first Lexus product to offer Apple CarPlay™ phone functionality, enabling drivers to control their iPhones® through the dashboard display screen or with Siri Eyes Free® voice control.
The Lexus ES 350 is also Amazon Alexa® enabled; drivers can use voice commands to control a variety of functions. These include car-to-home and home-to-car commands. Owners who have Alexa enabled devices in their homes can interact with their ES 350 before they ever get behind the wheel. Or they can control things in their homes like the lights and door locks before they leave their car.
On board Wi-Fi is also standard on the ES, while the optional navigation system includes an easy-to-read 12.3-inch wide dashboard display. Along with its on-board data set, the navigation system is also capable of receiving over-the-air updates for improved routing and the latest Points of Interest (POIs). Models without navigation will use an 8-inch display and all interactions will be controlled through the Remote Touch Interface (RTI) trackpad.
The interior of our test car was impressive. That huge 12.3 inch screen dominated as it sat pushed back atop the dash. It wasn’t a touch screen because it was too far away from drivers. A slim ban beneath and in the face of the dash held the climate controls. Almost imperceptible beneath that were the small control buttons for the heated and cooled seats. And beneath that was a single disc CD player. But make no mistake, although this sounds like a stack it was a very clean and uncluttered horizontal layout.
There were deep bucket seats. The dash was comprised of soft materials. The sight lines were clear because of the lowered hood, even though they had lowered the hip point seating position. I thought there was plenty of space in the front, it was airy.
The car had push button start, a moon roof, voice controls, acoustic glass in the windshield and front side windows, a seven-inch TFT screen, a heads-up-display, the remote touch pad and eco, normal, sport and (sport +) for the F Sport drive modes.
For the new ES 350 F Sport model, an all-new kind of metallic cabin trim was developed. Inspired by Japanese sword-making, Hadori aluminum trim featured fluctuating wave patterns that gave it a three-dimensional appearance that varied depending on the viewing angle. That’s what Lexus said. I’ve never liked aluminum trim. I’m not wild about carbon fiber either. However, this aluminum trim did not look bad. That’s saying something for me.
The standard ES 350 and ES 300h will continue to offer traditional materials like Matte Bamboo, Linear Dark Mocha and Linear Espresso wood which give the ES a hand-crafted appearance that luxury buyers expect in this category.
They wanted to put a little performance pep in the new Lexus ES and they started with the chassis. They gave it a rigid front-wheel-drive chassis that rivals the platform of new Lexus coupes and sedans in terms of torsional stiffness. Various grades of high-tensile steel reduced weight while additional enhancements like an all-new multi-link rear suspension, rack-mounted electric power steering that gave the ES 350 good road feel and a V-brace mounted behind the rear seat helped stiffen the car.
All of the upgrades to the chassis were designed to deliver a sense of comforting predictability coupled with a feeling of quick response to every movement is what Lexus said. They pretty much succeeded
The adaptive suspension in the F SPORT was similar to that found on the LC coupe. AVS adds adjustable dampers at each corner of the car that feature 650 levels of damping force for control over any surface.
Another F SPORT exclusive is the sport+ drive mode that selects the most aggressive engine, transmission and suspension settings for maximum performance. A new Engine Sound Enhancement feature is also activated in sport+ mode that adds an additional layer of engine exhaust tone.
The new eight-speed automatic transmission used an ultra-thin torque converter and a multi-plate lock up clutch to more efficiently transfer power to the front wheels. Lexus said it was tuned to deliver crisp, precisely timed shifts with quick responses. It did.
Lexus is making a big safety push. All versions of the seventh-generation ES feature the new Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 as standard equipment. One such feature is daytime bicyclist detection which is part of the comprehensive Pre-Collision System (PCS).
Already designed to detect an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian, the PCS system’s ability to potentially detect a bicyclist addresses a common accident scenario. PCS has also been enhanced to help better detect a pedestrian at night by increasing the radar’s sensitivity and dynamic range.
The car goes on sale in September and it was too early for pricing. But they told us to expect the 2019 Lexus ES 350 to start around $39K.
Frank S. Washington is editor of AboutThatCar.com