Driven: Lexus ES

Luxury to love or loathe; Lexus’ latest is divine but divisive.

Love them or loathe them, there’s nothing on UK roads quite like a Lexus. The Japanese firm is quite happy with the Marmite experience, making the fair judgement that there’s no way they’ll get everybody out of a BMW or Mercedes so why bother chasing every single customer with something competent but bland.

Bland is certainly not a word you’d use to describe the ES. It stands clear of its Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class rivals in both design and technology terms, thanks to the hybrid powertrain under the bonnet.

While there’s a plug-in hybrid available in a couple of the German models, Lexus is sticking with the so-called self-charging hybrid. This means there’s a 2.5-litre petrol engine at the front, with an electric motor bolted on that’s powered by a small battery pack. The battery is charged by recovering wasted energy, such as when under braking or while coasting, meaning there’s nothing to plug in. It means there’s no electric range as such, but brings other benefits.

Chief amongst those is increased efficiency. Rather than thinking it’s a poor alternative to an electrically-powered model, think of it as offering diesel economy with petrol refinement and performance. It all goes through a smooth CVT automatic gearbox, driving the front wheels. Driving excitement is therefore off the menu, but refinement is an all-you-can-eat feast.

New suspension ensures the ES rides smoothly at low speeds, ably coping with the potholed city roads we put up with, and it only gets better on the motorway. Lateral dampers make sure the car stays flat in corners too, preventing body roll that throws a car (and its passengers) off balance. I’ve not experienced riding on a magic carpet, but I’d imagine it’s not too dissimilar to the Lexus.

Hit the curves hard and you’ll wish you were in a BMW or Audi, but they sacrifice comfort for that engaging handling and, honestly, how often do you actually enjoy driving your large saloon car? For those that do want to go a bit quicker, the F Sport model adds adaptive suspension, bigger wheels and some spoilers and skirts. It looks great, but detracts from the strengths of the ES.

The plush interior, mixing highlights of cutting-edge Japanese tech with traditional craftsmanship, embarrasses its rivals. An active noise cancellation system makes the car near-silent, while fine leather seats and build quality not often seen this side of a Rolls-Royce leaves you wanting journeys to last just a little bit longer.

Every model is packed with kit, including heated seats, adaptive cruise control, multi-zone climate control, DAB radio, navigation, automatic lights and high beam, and four USB ports. Step up to this Takumi model and you’ll add a stunning Mark Levinson sound system, a larger infotainment screen, colour head up display, a 360-degree camera, LED headlights that won’t dazzle oncoming vehicles, and even rear sun shades that rise and fall electrically.

That comes with a rather steep £45,000+ price tag, but there’s a sweet spot in the range in the form of the ES Premium. At £38,655 you lose the head up display, and the 360-degree camera is replaced by a simple reversing camera. You’ll also have to make do with a lesser sound system, but most other losses are pretty minor, and aren’t necessarily worth an extra £7,000.

All models make some financial sense, though. Low BIK rates for company car drivers mean tax bills more than £1,000 lower than a similar BMW 520d, while improved economy and lower costs for petrol over diesel reduces day-to-day costs. It’s also less likely to be banned from any city centres in the future, which is something to consider as Cambridge keeps looking at cleaning up the city.

There’s enough substance in the Lexus ES to ensure it jumps right to the top of the class for those that want a more relaxed lifestyle. The German trio, and even the Volvo S60, looks a bit rough in comparison, and the financial benefits over its rivals adds a cherry on top. If you can get past the styling (I love it, but you may hate it) then the ES is as fine a car in the segment as you’ll find.

Model Tested: Lexus ES 300h Takumi
Price: £45,655
Range: £35,155 – £45,655
Top speed: 112 mph
0-62 mph: 8.9 seconds
Power: 214 PS (211 bhp)
Monthly PCP*: £623
Official fuel economy: 48.7 mpg
Road test economy: N/A mpg
CO2 Emissions: 103 g/km
Car Tax: £465
Insurance group: 38E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.