The Lexus ES turns 30 this year. Toyota’s upscale brand introduced this mid-size luxury sedan in 1989 as part of its original lineup. It quickly became known for a quiet and comfortable drive and, thanks to its connections to the Toyota Camry, strong reliability.
This year’s all-new ES feels like it was developed as a stand-alone car, not a Camry derivative (that’s a compliment). Our test car came in the F Sport 2 trim, which at $54,800 is the pricier of a pair of new performance-oriented versions. When Lexus announced the sporty trims last year, we were skeptical, because this model has a reputation for a soft, quiet ride. However, these new F Sport versions prove Lexus is not messing around in trying to expand the ES’s appeal.
One of our first impressions of the new ES is that it finally boasts generous front-seat headroom. In older versions of the car, headroom was always tighter than we expected in a large sedan.
Look and feel
Lexus clearly spent a lot of time making the ES’s cabin look and feel expensive. We love the look of our F Sport 2 test car’s red artificial-leather upholstery. If you’re considering taking one home, spend some time inside it first. The sporty front seats have more aggressive side bolstering than those in other ES models, and favour slimmer people.
New gauge cluster
The new gauge cluster has a central display that physically moves when you push a button on the steering wheel. Lexus introduced this trick in the $102,000 LC sport coupe. It does not change the information shown, but rather how it is displayed. That makes this feature seem unnecessary, considering it gets its own button on the already-crowded steering wheel.
Like many modern cars, the ES displays most of its secondary functions in a central touchscreen. In base models, the screen is 8.0 inches, but certain trims, including the F Sport 2, get a 12.3-inch display. Our favourite thing about that larger screen is its split-screen function. It can show navigation and audio functions at the same time, so you don’t have to switch back and forth.
The downside is that the screen is controlled by Lexus’s remote touch interface system. It uses a trackpad on the centre console to move a cursor around the screen, like on a laptop computer. A touchscreen is not ideal in a moving car. However, most use the same pinch and swipe motions as smartphones and tablets, which we prefer to a touchpad.
The ES F Sport 2 also has a head-up display for the driver and headlights that swivel with the steering to better light the way in turns.
The key to the F Sport trims is a variable-firmness suspension that reacts to the car’s drive-mode controller. In sport and sport+ modes, the ride is firmer than any ES we’ve driven in the last decade. Even on the normal setting, the suspension feels more sophisticated in every way. Lexus has somehow made the ES feel both smoother and more fun to drive.
Set the car to one of those sport modes, which also affect how the engine and transmission perform, and the ES lives up to its F Sport label. It’s quick in a straight line, as the ES always was, but also now feels something like a driver’s car.
The engine is a 3.5L V6 that’s a bit more powerful than last year’s. It’s also more fuel-efficient, partly thanks to a new eight-speed transmission.
Our test car’s price was nearly $10,000 more than the base model’s MSRP of $45,000. Lexus also offers the F Sport 1 package, which lacks some luxury and tech features, but has the same suspension as our test car. If you’re mostly interested in getting a sharp-driving ES, that’s the least-expensive way to do it.
However, no matter which ES trim you choose, you will get better value than in most mid-size German sedans. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series are both more expensive than our ES F Sport 2, but come with less power and fewer features. The main advantage many of the ES’s competitors have is available all-wheel drive.
With its new focus on driving feel, the 2019 Lexus ES sedan invites comparisons with the E-Class, 5 Series and other European cars. We wouldn’t go that far. However, in its effort to make the ES more appealing to more people, it has made the car a lot better. We only wish it hadn’t taken 30 years to do it.
2019 Lexus ES
- Vehicle category: Mid-size luxury sedanLeadership Development Series
- Engine: 3.5L V6; 302 hp, 267 lb-ft torque
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Notable standard features (base model; MSRP: $43,990): Digital gauge cluster, Apple CarPlay and Enform smartphone connectivity; rain-sensing wipers, fog lights, 10-speaker stereo; 7.0-inch multi-information display.
- Notable standard features (F Sport 2 trim, as tested; MSRP: $54,990): Adjustable suspension; sport+ drive mode, blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert; active noise control, head-up display, adaptive triple LED headlights.
- Fuel economy, ratings (l/100km, city/highway): 10.9/7.5