2021 Lexus ES Review

2021 Lexus ES - A Lexus original, the ES continues to get better over time.


An original model from Lexus' 1990 debut, the Lexus ES was most recently restyled in 2019. That marked the seventh generation for the 5-passenger, midsize luxury sedan. With the redesign, the ES now rides the Toyota New Global Architecture (TGNA) chassis, which also supports vehicles like the Corolla, Camry and Avalon. ES grew in gained length, width and weight in the redesign, but retained its front- or all-wheel drive configuration and is again offered with a gas or gas-electric powertrain. Its most direct competitors include the Acura TLX, Audi A6, Cadillac CT4, Nissan Maxima and Volvo S60.

Three distinct models are offered: ES 250, ES 350 and ES 300h. The ES 250 comes with a 203-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. ES 350 models get a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 302 horsepower. Both gas-only models get an 8-speed automatic. The ES 250 is all-wheel drive, while the ES350 is front-wheel drive. The ES 300h has a gas-electric hybrid powertrain that consists of a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, twin electric motors, 29.1 kW Lithium-ion battery and continuously variable automatic transmission. All told, the hybrid drivetrain produces 215 horsepower and drives only the front wheels.

Within each model there are Base, F Sport, Luxury and Ultra Luxury trim levels. Prices start at $47,000 and climb to more than $53,000 on fully-loaded Ultra Luxury models.

With a lusty V6 under the hood, the Lexus ES 350 provides the kind of instant go that most Americans expect. There's no wait for the turbo to spool up and no hesitation from the transmission as the engine builds power seamlessly and progressively. Lexus quotes a 0-60 MPH time of just 6.6 seconds, which is more than appropriate for the class.

If you want all-wheel drive you are stuck with the 203-horsepower 4-cylinder. It's definitely a step down in performance and smoothness. The advantages are better fuel economy -- especially on the highway -- and improved traction on slippery surfaces. The 8-speed automatic in both gas-only powertrains shift smoothly, but are sometimes caught between gears when going up hills and often pause before downshifting.

Being the only hybrid in the class, the ES 300h hybrid is a very interesting offering. Though it leans decidedly toward improved efficiency. The hybrid powertrain provides ample scoot when aggressively prodded. Zero-to-60- MPH times of about 8.5 seconds aren't all that impressive due to a serious lag in off-the-line acceleration. However, once moving the ES hybrid feels much more energetic that its 215-horsepower rating suggests. In addition, the continuously variable automatic does an excellent job of shuffling between gas and electric mode with nary a hesitation.

F Sport models get steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and adjustable driving modes that include ECO, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. When in ECO or Comfort, the all models feel a bit sleepy off the line, but shift to Sport or Sport+ and the drivetrain comes alive.  In the ES 350, the silky engine spins like a top to near redline and sounds great doing it. The transmission snaps off quick and authoritative shifts and the suspension and steering firm up. The only drawback is inherent to the front-drive nature of the ES, that ultimately handicaps it against all-wheel-drive competitors.

ES fuel economy ratings range from 22/31 MPG in the 350 F Sport to 43/44 in the hybrid. Sitting near the middle is the 250 with an EPA rating of 25/34 MPG. Thankfully, all ES models run fine on regular-grade gasoline -- a rarity in the premium-car segment. Of course, your fuel economy will depend on your right foot. Driven cautiously, most suburban commuters will see about 25 MPG overall with 350 models and perhaps 28 MPG with the 250. The hybrid can return impressive economy in the high 30s given mild temperatures and a light throttle foot.

With a stiff structure and sophisticated suspension, the ES has transformed from a cushy-riding luxury sedan to a comfortable-riding sporty sedan. No, it's not a match for an Acura or Audi just yet, but, even in base trim, the ES has less suspension float and more competent road manners than ever before. Toss in the F Sport package and the ES gets downright athletic.

Regardless of trim, the suspension does a good job of filtering out minor pavement imperfections and softening large impacts. Though improved, steering response is slow compared to The CT4 and German rivals. Still, the steering is decidedly more communicative than before. Gas models have responsive and powerful brakes, though hybrids suffer from an unusually dull pedal and a noticeable transition when shifting from regen to friction braking.

Interior noise levels are extremely low, but there's a touch more road and engine noise than in previous editions -- at least on the F Sport. Ultimately, the ES is first-and-foremost a luxury sedan and places more emphasis on comfort than sport but the compromise is nearly perfect for the heart of the premium-car market.

Interior materials and design were significantly reworked in 2019 and are significantly upgraded. The focus moves from traditional luxury to luxury-sport. Regardless of model, drivers face a traditional dial setup but the overall design changes depending on trim. All are easy to read day or night and there's an available head-up display option. The center stack is dominated by a large video screen that's controlled by a console-mounted touch pad and there are traditional buttons and knobs for the climate and audio systems. Most other switchgear is conveniently placed.

The front seats offer great comfort and ample head and leg room. In addition, there are multiple adjustments designed to suite a diverse range drivers. For those inclined, the F Sport has more supportive seat options. Rear seats are somewhat flat. However, they offer perhaps the best room in the class and the ability to sit three abreast in modest comfort. Entry exit and outward visibility are excellent.

As expected, the ES offers an impressive suite of safety and technology features. Sadly, some are part of costly option packages on the lower trim levels. In addition, and the bulky to operate infotainment system could be improved. Together, all of this feels like Lexus dropped the ball in trying to connect with younger buyers.

With 17 cubic feet of storage capacity, the trunk is one of the largest in the class. The opening is wide and the liftover is low. Though the rear seats do not fold, there is a small central passthrough. Interior storage disappoints somewhat because the center console houses a large gear shift and a touch pad for the infotainment screen.

Bottom Line -- The Lexus ES has always been long on comfort. With substantial improvements in 2019 it's now modestly athletic. No, it can't go corner-for-corner with cars like the Audi A4 or Cadillac CT4, but it can hold its own when the road grows twisty. Prices have crept upward and the ES isn't the entry-luxury bargain it once was. Still, it's more affordable than many competitors and brings with it Lexus' strong reputation for reliability. If you are looking for room, comfort and a taste of the good life, the ES might just be for you.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.