The 2019 Lexus ES represents a new generation of Lexus' most popular car, and the most popular midsize luxury sedan in the U.S.
2019 Lexus ES First Drive
Newer Is Better
The old ES sold like gangbusters. In fact, more than 2 million have been sold worldwide, and the ES has consistently claimed the top spot in the midsize luxury car sales rankings. Fans probably would have kept buying the ES just as it was until the heat death of the universe. But Lexus decided it was time for a change and proved in doing so that progress is something not to be feared, but to be embraced.
Based on first impressions, the new Lexus ES seems like a better car in every way but one.
Newer Is Always Better
This new generation is slightly wider and lower than its predecessor. Still, in spite of the more aggressive profile, a lower seating position results in nearly identical headroom. A 2-inch increase in wheelbase both adds to the looks and the interior space. The trunk has also grown slightly, up to 16.7 cubic feet. That's not class-leading, but it is very generous. Unfortunately, the rear seats don't fold down, so that's pretty much all the space you get aside from a pass-through for longer items.
Lexus stiffened the car as well to improve handling, and it added oodles of extra sound-deadening material, including some hybrid-specific padding for the ES 300h that's designed to filter out the unpleasant noises particular to its powertrain. Lexus even went so far as to figure out how to make a sound-deadening wheel by creating a resonance chamber in the wheel's rim to counteract certain frequencies.
This level of detail extends to the redesigned suspension. You may not know or care about manufacturing techniques with incredibly fine tolerances, but you'll appreciate the improved ride control. On the winding roads around Nashville, the newest Lexus felt noticeably more refined than the outgoing generation.
Classy, but Not in a Bad Way
On the inside, you'll find a redesigned cabin with significantly more upscale visual cues borrowed from the LS and the LC. That said, the materials used in the ES are a step down from these Lexus flagships. Mostly they still feel great, with lots of soft-touch and textured plastics on touch points, although there are a few spots where tacky hard plastic still dominates.
The new seats offer four-way lumbar adjustment along with available heating and cooling. These seats are another improvement over the previous-generation ES, which was already quite comfortable to sit in. There's plenty of legroom in the rear, although, as with the last generation, passengers much over 6 feet tall will run out of headroom.
Altogether, these changes have universally succeeded: The new ES is sleeker, quieter and more comfortable. Ride quality and handling have both improved as well. This Lexus now competes more closely with the more expensive midsize luxury cars it routinely outsells in terms of quality, and there are fewer places where cost-cutting is evident.
Of Course There's Technology
The 2019 Lexus ES has received a total upgrade to its technology features. The headline here is — for the first time ever in a Lexus — the inclusion of Apple CarPlay, which makes phone integration as simple as plugging in your iPhone. Alexa integration is also available in case you want to use voice commands to order more Tide Pods while driving (or, you know, play your favorite song), but Android Auto remains unsupported. The old infotainment system with its irritatingly finicky joystick controller is gone, replaced by a much larger and prettier 12.3-inch screen paired with a marginally less irritatingly finicky touchpad controller.
And now we come to the one area where the new ES falls short of its predecessor. As in every other Lexus with this interface, there are generally far fewer physical buttons. Some climate control settings and radio presets are among functions that used to have physical buttons and now require more complicated interaction with the infotainment system. In a car with an easier system to use, this wouldn't be an issue, but in the ES, buyers upgrading from the previous generation might find cause to complain.
Otherwise, the technology upgrades to the new ES are positive. In particular, the new set of extensive standard active safety features and driver aids is a winner. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist with lane centering, and adaptive cruise control that can bring the car to a complete stop are all standard features now, and all work well.
More Power, Less Fuel
The technology may be new, but the powertrains, while improved, are familiar. The hybrid powertrain is more efficient and takes up less space. The battery pack has been relocated to under the rear passenger seats so that the trunk space remains unchanged. Power is up to 215 horsepower, and the ES 300h now returns an estimated 44 mpg combined, making it the most efficient non-plug-in luxury hybrid on the market.
The familiar 3.5-liter V6 has been massaged to make 34 more horsepower, now totaling 302 hp. The old six-speed transmission has been replaced by a very smooth eight-speed automatic. These changes add up to a 0-60 mph time that's down to a claimed 6.6 seconds and fuel economy that's up to an estimated 26 mpg combined (22 city/33 highway).
Also new for 2019 is the first-ever Lexus ES F Sport. The F Sport receives some unique styling cues both inside and out to set it apart. Inside you'll find an adjustable gauge cluster reminiscent of the LC's and sport seats similar to the RC F's. These sport seats place more of a premium on comfort than holding the driver in place, but that's only appropriate for a car like the ES. Ultimately, you only give up a little bit of comfort over the regular seats, and you get a lower seating position. A system to boost the V6's sound has been installed, and from inside the cabin the note is quite good — burly and just a bit aggressive, without being overdone.
The most important change to the F Sport is the adaptive suspension system. This both improves ride quality even further over the standard models and brings the handling to a level you'd never expect from an ES. Lexus engineers spent a lot of time talking about how the ES 350 F Sport is meant to handle like a rear-wheel-drive car, and they've accomplished their goal ... to a point.
Turn-in is sharp, and the car doesn't feel front-heavy when you pitch it into a turn. It grips impressively, cornering flat and giving the driver more confidence than seems proper in a Lexus ES. In fact, the F Sport doesn't remind you it's a front-wheel-drive car until you get on the gas.
Without a locking front differential, there's some torque steer under acceleration, and the front tires struggle a bit for grip coming out of a corner. Further, the eight-speed automatic has not be sufficiently retuned from the regular car, and even in Sport+ it's too quick to upshift. Lift off the gas pedal in a turn and the car has to downshift again when you're ready for some acceleration.
The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters don't help matters. In the ES, you don't select the gear you want directly; rather, you select the maximum gear the transmission can be in. That's fine when you're just worried about using engine braking on a steep hill, but it doesn't fit the F Sport's handling prowess.
Overall, the F Sport has qualities that appeal to a set of drivers who would never have before considered an ES. It certainly has a lot of strengths, but while sporty, it doesn't feel like a sport sedan. It's a shame because its biggest shortfalls seem as if they could be fixed with nothing more than software updates.
Overall, the new Lexus ES is an almost unmitigated improvement on the previous generation. Official pricing has not been released, but we expect it to remain relatively close to the current generation. Lexus told us to expect a starting price of about $39,000. The 2019 Lexus ES will go on sale later this year.