How this new Lexus ES saloon can give you a run for your money
I've put off wearing a brand new set of runners for nearly a year now. Typical meanie man: getting the last ounce from an old pair that have long passed their sell-by date. The difference is quite something and I'd say the joints are feeling the benefit.
Good runners are a bit like a car's suspension; they absorb shocks, dissipate pulls and pushes and give you pliancy. Obviously tyres play an important role, too; like runners, they are your only contact with the surface - I regard the entire area as 'suspension'.
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I became acutely aware of that whole region with this week's review car, the new Lexus ES mid-size hybrid saloon. I had the F SPORT version here, which has what they call Adaptive Variable Suspension system (AVS).
In simple terms, AVS controls the up-and-down force on all four wheels depending on the road and how you are driving. It makes for better ride comfort and stability when taking corners.
But here's the catch. I had quite recently driven the new ES in Spain without availing of the F SPORT model for any length of time. The F SPORT level is the only one to have AVS. When I did give it a run-out, it was to the airport and frankly my concentration was on not missing turn-offs. (I'm the world's worst at directions as anyone who has accompanied me will testify.)
The 'basic' car was fine on the suspension front and had drive modes to suit our mood. It is tuned, they say, for European driving tastes, so why would you bother with something on a more expensive model? Is it worth the expense?
That's what I'm here to let you know - but first let's take a quick look at the new car. The ES name is new to the Irish market but has been on sale in the US, especially, for yonks.
As such, it replaces the GS here. And in one fell swoop it has wiped out the major criticism of the latter as it has a reasonable-size boot (454 litres) thanks to the latest hybrid battery element being under the rear seats now. And this is the fourth-generation 2.5-litre hybrid system. The ES is the only car in its class that relies solely on hybrid drive. It was an excellent performer on my test drives.
It is low-slung, elongated-coupé-like with a dramatic front. I like the look of it a lot except I'm not sure of the small triangular rear-flank side window any more. It reminds me of the Volkswagen Arteon's window design. No disrespect to either but...
It's a deceptive car in that it is far roomier than you'd think. That is especially the case with rear-seat space. The cabin is now what we have come to expect from new-generation Lexus motors; smartly appointed, clean, sweeping lines, high-quality materials, excellent seats (really supportive) and decent graphics. I expected to have to crouch to get into the rear due to the low roofline. I didn't; a big, big plus.
However, it is not without minus points. I profoundly dislike the two binnacles on the info dash. And the central console touch-control pad was irksome. It was too flighty and sensitive to manoeuvre to get what I wanted. In truth it's the one thing that would put me off the car.
And then there is the 'whine' factor. The car's power is distributed via a stepped Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The only trouble is it can lag behind the speed you want to do and generate a bit of a 'whine' as if trying to catch up. We definitely noticed it in Spain but I have to say not once was I aware of it back in Ireland. Anyway, Lexus insist it is not an issue with buyers. There is a way to minimise it: slightly alter your driving style so you are not ramming down the accelerator, looking for instant acceleration.
The only thing is you might be more inclined to press on if you have the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS, remember?) version because it certainly encouraged and produced brisk driving. I felt it was at its confidence-inducing best on long bends and tighter corners; 'world first' performance dampers (front and rear) contributed, too.
For all that I think the ES still has some ground to make up on the BMW 5-series on sporty handling, but to a far lesser extent on the Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class. It more than matches them all on spec and price (it's the only one starting under €50,000). Another area the ES has a lot going for it is its sense of luxury in detail.
And that AVS could be a deal maker for those who want extra with their drive. A bit like the new runners, when you get the taste of something better, it's hard to settle for anything less.
Facts & Figures
2.5-litre hybrid: From €49,450; F-Sport tested: €55,850.
Front-wheel drive saloon, 218hp; 106g/km, €190 tax.
Spec includes: adaptive cruise control, Safety System +, pedestrian detection (day/night), cyclist detection (day), 17ins alloys, 8ins display, park sensors, 10-speakers, 7ins info display.
F SPORT adds 19ins alloys, adaptive variable suspension, performance dampers.