The new Lexus ES is far easier on the eye than its subdued predecessor. Picture: SUPPLIED
The new Lexus ES is far easier on the eye than its subdued predecessor. Picture: SUPPLIED

Since its launch here in 2013 the Lexus ES has become the premium Japanese brand’s best-selling vehicle. That's no mean feat in a market that has seen so many buyers shunning sedans in favour of SUVs.

The volumes have been small, but Toyota South Africa CEO Andrew Kirby believes the new-generation ES, with its smart new styling, will do better than its anonymous-looking predecessor at attracting new buyers and taking on the German rivals.

Those rivals, size-wise, are the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-class and Audi A6, but in terms of pricing (at least for the entry-level Lexus ES) they're the 3 Series, C-class and A4 - and that's what makes the ES such an attractive prospect, says Kirby.

At 4975mm in length this front-wheel-drive Lexus has grown in length and width and the stretch-out space inside the cabin is truly of business-class spec. The boot is also a very reasonable 420l in size considering it houses a full-sized spare wheel.

But did you hear me say front-wheel drive? Yup, and this may be a put-off to some drivers in a segment where rear or all-wheel drive is de rigueur.

The ES isn't an enthusiast’s car however, and doesn't pretend to be, being built on the same platform as the deeply unexciting Toyota Camry.

At just under 5m in length the ES has a cabin of business-class proportions. Picture: SUPPLIED
At just under 5m in length the ES has a cabin of business-class proportions. Picture: SUPPLIED

At the car's media launch in Cape Town last week I stretched its legs through some curvy mountain roads and the ES displayed typically safe and polished front-wheel-drive handling characteristics. Emotion and feel were in short supply but the big sedan did the direction-changing business as neatly as anyone might expect for its size. And it has a full gamut of electronic aids, including ABS and stability control, to help keep it on the road.

Where the car excelled was in ride quality however, and the ES wafted comfortably across long stretches of varying-quality asphalt. This smooth ride, together with its hushed operation, provided the executive driving experience promised by its price tags, and a more rigid new body helps to achieve this refinement.

The latest version of the brand’s most conservative car now also has more exciting wrapping, including the spindle grille that has become the Lexus family look, along with LED lights front and rear and a more sloping roofline. The restyle has definitely given the ES more showroom appeal and presence, in its bid to steal sales from the German trio.

As before, two versions of the car are available, the ES 250 petrol and the more luxuriously equipped ES 300 petrol-electric hybrid - respectively priced at R593,300 and R843,800. The ES 250 costs just 20 grand more than its predecessor but the hybrid’s seen a huge 160 grand hike.

Neither of them are powerhouses. The hybrid, with a total output of 160kW, has enough grunt for a relaxed long-distance stride and comfortably swift overtaking ability.

Feeding the power through a continuously variable transmission, the ES 300h is claimed to sprint from from 0-100km/h in 8.9 seconds and is electronically-governed to a top speed of 180km/h. The figure worthy of most attention is the factory-claimed fuel economy of just 4.6l/100km, though attaining that in real-world driving would be an unlikely feat.

With 152kW and 243Nm the petrol-only ES 250 makes for a reasonably easy-going cruiser without any performance fireworks. The 2.5l four-cylinder engine is fairly refined too, but gets quite vocal at higher revs.

Linked to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the ES 250 is rated for a 210km/h top speed, 0-100 in 9.1 seconds, and sips petrol at the claimed rate of 6.6l/100km.

In an age of neat dashboards with tablet-like touch screens, Lexus has opted for inexplicably complex controls for its infotainment. The dashboard is a busy riot of buttons, and instead of being touch screen-operated, the multi-information display is controlled by a touchpad between the front seats which is finicky to operate.

It’s all luxury inside but the dashboard is very busy with buttons. Picture: SUPPLIED
It’s all luxury inside but the dashboard is very busy with buttons. Picture: SUPPLIED

The interior trim on the Lexus ES 250 EX is Nulux simulated leather, while the ES 300h gets genuine cowhide, mixed with old-school wood panelling. The hybrid also features Viscotecs – an unusual three-dimensional painted finish which is applied to selected leather surfaces such as the armrest and door trim.

Both the Lexus ES 250 and ES 300h have Drive Mode Select which offer normal, economy and sport programmes by altering the throttle response, steering and air-conditioning operation.

Safety in both versions is top notch and includes no less than 10 airbags, while the ES 300 also has a blind spot monitor, a lane-keeping assist feature that keeps you from wandering over the painted lines, and a Pre-Crash System which is capable of detecting oncoming vehicles and pedestrians.

Standard comforts in both models include gizmos like electrical adjustment for the front seats and the steering column, park distance control, and cruise control.

The more expensive ES 300 lays on the full first-class treatment with additional items like a high-end Mark Levinson audio system, heated steering wheel, head-up display, navigation and a wireless smart phone charger, to name a few.

Coinciding with the launch of the new ES, Lexus SA has announced a new seven-year/105,000km warranty and maintenance plan which is also applicable to the rest of the Lexus range. Service intervals are at every 15,000km or once a year.