The Lexus marque has always been associated with premium engineering and craftsmanship, accessible only to the really well-heeled individuals or corporate figureheads who already owned a continental make or two, and who truly appreciate the finer aspects of hand-built motoring refinement. Introduced by Toyota in 1989 to an American audience, its success grew by leaps and bounds to become Japan’s finest luxury marque, finding its way into discerning owners’ homes in more than 70 countries worldwide. The other top two Japanese manufacturers were soon to follow, launching their own versions of upmarket motoring in the forms of Acura (Honda) and Infiniti (Nissan). However, of the three, Lexus has proven itself to be the most popular. To the uninformed, a Lexus is just an excuse by Toyota to charge premium prices for essentially the same car across the variants, but is that really so? Surely, continental car owners would know better, as to how good a Lexus really is, otherwise they wouldn’t own or aspire towards one.
In the past, for certain Toyota variants, all one had to do was to merely swap out the Toyota logo for a Lexus emblem, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Understandably, they were essentially the same car, where the Toyota Harrier was meant for the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) while elsewhere it was marketed as a Lexus RX. Some owners preferred to “re-label” their Japanese domestic market, parallel-imported Toyota Harriers (Toyota Malaysia did not officially bring in the Harrier for the Malaysian market) as Lexus RX for obvious reasons. For that matter, the notion that Lexus vehicles were merely rebadged Toyotas stuck fast in the minds of consumers during the boom of the Harrier as one of the most popular SUVs in the country. Also, Lexus vehicle design leaned towards the safe route, churning out large sedans one after another with not much done in the aesthetics department to help it stand out. The overall consensus among car enthusiasts when discussing the Lexus brand as a whole back then, was that one was better off spending their hard earned money on established continentals which carried the ‘wow’ factor inside out. As mentioned, to truly experience the quality of a Lexus is to be riding in one, but don’t we all know too well that appearance and image count for a lot when it comes to car buying.
Lexus ES 250 Luxury: Putting a new spin(dle) on things
Up until recently, Lexus’ best-selling variants all had a very “American family sedan” look about them; solid, dependable, huge but boring. Then in 2011, Lexus showcased the LF-Gh concept which debuted what would be the company’s new design direction and signature grille to the world. Called the “Spindle Grille”, the new 4th gen Lexus GS was the first variant to receive the new signature grille, and was met with mixed reactions. I for one, thought the new GS was inspired by the Predator movie franchise; the departure from its past traditional styling was truly night and day. You’ll either love it, or hate it. It is said that the lead designer for the GS project at the time, Katsuhiro Inatomi and Lexus division global design chief Yo Hiruta were responsible for the Spindle Grille design. A former Lexus global general manager said that “…it’s good that there are people who don’t like our design – because good design will split opinion, and it will make you love something instead of just being ok with it…”. I have to admit though, that subsequent reimagining of the Spindle Grille across the variants has given the brand much needed vigor to give it a stronger identity and unmistakable presence, to the point that I am beginning to see the design in a positive new light. The growing number of Lexus owners in the country bear testament to the brand’s welcome rebirth.
Lexus ES 250 Luxury: Subtle beauty
The ES obviously inherits the Spindle Grille, however the design of the grille for the ES is understated to reflect its status as a full-sized D-segment luxury sedan, with a relatively decent asking price of between RM259,800 (ES 250) to RM353,000 (ES 300h), and a full spec variant in the middle at RM279,800 (ES 250 Luxury). The headlights feature an aggressive arrow-shaped LED daytime running light array to jazz up the car’s frontal design, as well as projector based Xenons with auto leveling (ES 250 Luxury and ES 300h variants) and intelligent high beam reflectors that automatically switch off when sensors detect oncoming traffic. The rest of the car’s design up front can be considered very understated when compared to the likes of the GS and IS variants. Still, the Spindle Grille remains the strongest focal point of the front and the ES 250 Luxury can instantly be recognized as a modern day Lexus.
From the side, remnants of the (outgoing) 5th gen can be seen, suggesting that its overall side profile was maintained, from the rake angle of the A-pillar right down to the extended and gently sloping C-pillar for maximum rear headroom. Based on the larger Toyota Avalon platform, this new 6th gen ES should not be mistaken for the squarer and slightly shorter Toyota Camry. In essence, the ES looks more aerodynamic and well sculpted, with muscular undertones thrown into the mix at various parts of the bodyshell to invoke a sense of fluid motion, in line with the rest of the company’s variants. Looking closer, I could see that the gaps between body and doors were very tight, as are the gap lines between body and bumpers, owing to top notch assembly practices at Lexus’ Miyawaka plant in Japan. I wouldn’t expect anything less than absolute perfection from Lexus, and the test unit did not fail to impress.
In line with current trends, the rear combination lights on the ES 250 Luxury feature 3 horizontal light bars along with LED bulbs for instant and clear illumination under most driving conditions. The rear number plate housing also features pure white LED lighting for an added sense of luxury and prominence, perfect for showcasing an expensive or unique tendered plate number. The rear bumper slopes gently upwards towards the center, revealing twin chromed tailpipes (one of either side) to balance the look of the rear profile. Said twin pipes are both functional pieces, with a silencer box each to quell the roar of the 2,500cc 4-potter.
Apart from the Xenon headlamps and LED foglamps, the ES 250 Luxury is further differentiated from the basic ES 250 externally by rim design; while both offer 17” wheels, the regular ES gets dual 6-spoke wheels while the Luxury variant gets a dual 10-spoke affair. Aside from these differences, there is nothing else externally that differentiates the two any further. The rear badge of the car also doesn’t have the word “Luxury” or “L” insignia to set them apart, which is good news for those who do not want the additional features of the Luxury variant.
Lexus ES 250 Luxury: Everything but the kitchen sink
Open up the front door of the Lexus ES 250 Luxury and the first thing that came to my mind was, “Damn, this car is huge!”… Luxurious beige leather adorns the door panels and sizeable seats while the dash and steering wheel are wrapped in dark grey leather. The steering wheel gets the wood grain treatment in a color called Birdseye Maple. Birdseye Maple wood trim is also featured on the gearshift panel and shift knob, along the upper portion of the interior panels of the doors and running across the entire dashboard along the air-conditioning vents. You can also order your Lexus ES in bespoke interior colors of Black with Birdseye Maple or Light Gray with Birdseye Maple. The test unit we got came in an Ivory with Birdseye Maple combination, which to me epitomizes the signature of Lexus. However, Lexus ought to include a multipurpose cleaning fluid in a spray bottle with accompanying cloth for owners of the Ivory/Birdseye Maple combi, for obvious reasons.
A quick push of the Push Start button brings the driver’s seat forward to the last driven position, while the steering wheel tilts down and towards the driver, which means that when you switch the engine off, the steering wheel and seat move conveniently away from the driver for easy access in and out of the car. In the system settings, you can set the option for full retraction or partial retraction. Both front seats are ventilated, and you can control the blower speed and cooling temperature for maximum comfort, perfect for those long drives. First seen on the RX 350 SUV, the Lexus ES 250 Luxury and ES 300h also get a Remote Touch Controller, much like operating a computer mouse. The driver uses this to navigate the built-in 8” navigation system with high resolution EMV (electro multi vision) screen, accessing the many useful and thoughtful features incorporated within the car’s operating system. A voice-controlled GPS navigation system adds a further touch of class to the already classy ES 250 Luxury and is switched on automatically whenever the car is switched on, so it is always ready to point you in the right direction.
The dashboard takes on Lexus’ signature stitched leather design, featuring real leather with stitching to show off its pedigree. The luxuriously appointed wood grain and leather combination steering wheel incorporates volume controls, voice control, Bluetooth telephony and cruise control. The weighting is just perfect for an effortless drive, tightening up or loosening up depending on speed, while EPS (electric power steering) offers an almost perfect vehicle response. Both driver and passenger get access to their own memory settings for 10-way seat adjustments, with the possibility of storing 3 different presets (ES 250 gets memory function for driver only). A useful safety feature is the door lock, which allows the front passenger to lock the whole car from the passenger’s side without having to clamber across to do it from the driver’s side. A finely crafted analogous clock sits in between the center air vents, glowing a bright electro-luminescent white at night for excellent legibility. All ES variants come with an array of active safety features including ABS, BA, VSC, TRC, EBD, TPWS (tyre pressure warning system) and a reassuring 10 airbags (including knee airbags for the front occupants).
The back seat area of the Lexus ES series is most impressive, and it is here that the size of the Toyota Avalon-based platform begins to shine. Seat backs are well reclined for a comfortable, relaxed seating position while the deep seat squabs provide generous support after a tiring day at the office. Moreover, the seats are soft and supple, enveloping passengers without that sinking feeling, but allowing you to sink in just enough to not feel like you are riding around in a budget mobile. And for those who love to micro manage everything in their lives, you will love the rear armrest in the ES 250 (all variants) that comes with built-in remote access to common audio controls, powered rear sunshade and temperature controls for the rear vents.
The 8-speaker Lexus Premium Audio system with Class D amplification in the ES 250 variants deserves a paragraph on its own. While I do believe the 15-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround audio system in the ES 300h probably sounds that bit better, the audio setup in the ES 250 variants is already superior in its own right. I was positively gob-smacked when I plugged my reference thumb drive into the system (some may balk at the mention of ‘MP3’ and ‘reference’ mentioned in the same sentence, but do believe me when I say that for audio testing, I rip my own audio files from reference CDs that I own, ripped at the highest possible quality settings for the closest possible match to original, uncompressed discs). The Lexus Premium Audio system is by far, the best sounding OE-equipped audio system in any vehicle I have tested so far. The one in the Volkswagen Touareg comes second, while the Harman Kardon system in the Subaru Forester is a close third. Surprisingly, the system in the recently tested Toyota Vios TRD Sportivo isn’t too bad either, and is among my top ten favorite factory-fitted audio systems. Back to the ES 250 Luxury; sound staging was superb, with detailed layering of instruments across the soundstage, while male and female vocals sounded refined with no veiling. If there was one thing that I’d improve upon, would be to add a dedicated subwoofer and amp combo to tighten up the bass. Other than that, there’s really not much more that can be done to the audio without spending north of 20 grand to overhaul the entire system.
Lexus ES 250 Luxury: Silk carpet
Cruising around in the ES 250 Luxury brings out the characteristic comfort in motion that is the signature of Toyota’s and Lexus’ executive class of vehicles. Owners of Toyota Camrys will attest to the soft and supple ride comfort of their cars. However, in the case of the ES 250 Luxury, you get the same kind of plush ride comfort integrated with a tight chassis and superior damping, so there must be something else that Lexus had done to the ES’ suspension that you don’t get in a Camry. Featuring reverse-wound springs and MacPherson struts up front and dual-links in the rear, the ES 250 Luxury inherits the company’s proven suspension setup for a ride that is firm when needed, yet gentle over imperfections when the situation calls for it. However, that is not to say that the ES corners on rails, for it wasn’t intended to do so, but for a luxury mobile with a long 2,820mm wheelbase and a 1,615kg kerb weight, it sure doesn’t feel like jello on wheels like its dimensions suggest. Having said that, the ES 250 Luxury was not as refined going over speed humps as I would have liked it to be, as opposed to another D-segment contender from another marque tested recently.
Featuring a slightly tweaked 2AR-FE DOHC, 16-valve 4-potter with Dual VVT-i, the engine in the Lexus ES 250 variants are fractionally more powerful than the same engine in their parent company’s Camry 2.5V. While the former in the ES gets 183PS @ 6,000rpm and 235Nm @ 4,100rpm, the latter in the Camry is detuned to 181PS @ 6,000rpm and 231Nm @ 4,100rpm. However, with a 9% lower kerb weight of the Camry (1,480), the Camry will take the performance crown based on paper figures, drag coefficient notwithstanding. Having said that, the ES 250 Luxury is no slouch, dispensing the century sprint in a tad under 10 seconds (9.8s) on to a top speed of 207km/h. Curiously, the top of the line hybrid ES 300h with a combined output of 205PS cuts the century sprint timing by 1.3 seconds, but tops out at only 180km/h. Perhaps the use of a CVT (continuously variable transmission) in the ES 300h as opposed to a 6-speed AT with Super ECT in the ES 250s played a role in performance timings. The bottom-line to this paragraph however, is not to expect Lexus IS performance in the ES range, as the former has a 24-valve DOHC V6 205PS lump meant for a sportier drive sans the luxury accoutrements found in the latter.
The Lexus ES will grow on you, the longer you drive it. Although I had the car for 3 days and 2 nights, time whizzed by really fast, and before I knew it, it was time to part ways. The Lexus ES 250 Luxury is a lot of car for the money, and at only RM279,800, there’s not much out there that can match the ES 250 Luxury for features, size and refinement. It may not drive like a Conti, but what it does, it does so well. I am willing to wager that those who pick one of these babies up will definitely look to another Lexus in the future, so by pricing it this low, Lexus is hoping to reach out to well-informed buyers in order to build a loyal following for the future. You don’t have to take my word for it, simply pay a visit your nearest Lexus dealership and test drive the car yourself and tell me if you’re not compelled to whip out that card to make a booking.