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New Lexus ES review: Strong, silent type
AKIO Toyoda, president of Lexus parent Toyota Motor Corporation, sounds like a scary boss.
A hands-on, exacting and highly-skilled driver, he is reverentially referred to as Master Driver by Lexus staff, and he personally takes the wheel of important new cars, such as the seventh-generation ES, to approve them for production.
After a few laps on a private test track, he spoke to the car's chief engineer Yasuhiro Sakakibara about Lexus' goal to make the new ES a car that people will be keen to drive.
"You're getting closer," said Mr Toyoda.
That sounds like damning with faint praise, but coming from the big boss of Toyota, it apparently counts as a thumbs-up.
"He's not a guy who compliments people too much, so that was a very nice thing," Mr Sakakibara tells The Business Times through an interpreter at the car's global launch. "It was actually something that surprised me a little bit!"
Mr Sakakibara says he still worries to this day about whether the new ES will be a success. That's understandable, since it's not just an important car for Lexus, but a vital one.
It's traditionally the brand's best-selling sedan globally (the RX, the overall volume champ for Lexus, is a Sport Utility Vehicle).
Adding to Mr Sakakibara's pressure, the new model will take the ES into key markets such as Japan and western Europe for the first time.
Lexus is coy on the subject, but the ES is also widely expected to replace the GS, a sporty but slow-selling model. And in Singapore, the ES is the brand's single, best-selling Lexus.
In other words, big things are expected of the new ES.
To deliver, it's become a bigger car. It's 66mm longer than the last ES, and 51mm of that has gone into a longer wheelbase. That's helped to create an enormous amount of room in the back.
Headroom has been noticeably improved, and the ES has marginally more legroom in the rear than (whisper it) the LS, which is Lexus' big, sculptural, twice-as-expensive flagship.
Built on a stiffer but lighter new platform, the new ES also has (whisper it) slightly better steering feel now than a BMW 5 Series.
Why all the whispering?
Because the ES, a quiet car from inception, is more hushed inside than ever. Much of that is down to a vast increase in the amount of sound insulation used in the car.
Noise-absorbing material has now been applied to 96 per cent of the floor structure, up from 68 per cent.
That extra insulation was apparently such a pain to install that the manufacturing department initially baulked at doing it.
So Mr Sakakibara had the prototype team build two cars - one with the extra material and one without, and let factory workers ride in them so they could hear the difference it made for themselves.
Having realised its importance, they're happy to install it now, he says.
In fact, acoustics are so crucial to the character of the ES, the two different versions headed for Singapore use two different kinds of noise insulation. That's because the range-topping ES 300h's hybrid drivetrain makes creates different sounds from the base ES 250's petrol engine.
Sure enough, the ES 300h rolls along with ninja-like imperceptibility. The petrol part of the hybrid drivetrain does reveal itself if you accelerate hard, but the ES 300h is otherwise as quiet as it's possible for a car to be, this side of a Rolls-Royce.
The braking feels smoother than on the last model, and the acceleration feels slightly more direct than before. The character of a hybrid drivetrain sometimes imposes a sort of rubber band effect on acceleration, but the new car gathers speed in a way that feels more immediate.
The silence of hybrid drive tends to add plenty of refinement to a car, but the main point of pairing electric propulsion with petrol power is to save fuel. Accordingly, the ES 300h is meant to consume just 4.6 litres of petrol per 100km on average.
On an hour-long drive through a route that mixed country lanes, small town roads and open mountain passes, BT saw the car's trip computer record 4.5l/100km. It's rare for cars to match manufacturers' fuel consumption claims, let alone exceed them.
But what's more surprising about the ES is that it's become an engaging car to drive. The steering has been sharpened, and it now throws plenty of communicative feedback at the driver.
The car itself slips through bends with poise and ease, and though it's a big machine (it's longer and wider than the Mercedes E-Class), it never feels like a heavy, lumbering one.
Though grip levels from the tyres aren't particularly high, the ES has clearly gained plenty of agility. That hasn't been by accident, but by a uniquely Japanese way of doing things.
Lexus employs two takumi (Japanese for artisan) drivers who drive prototypes all day and recommend tweaks to engineers. Mr Sakakibara says chief takumi driver Yoshiaki Ito gave him a long list of changes to make after driving an early example of the ES. The tweaks included modifications to the steering rack, the suspension design and the shock absorbers.
The engineers generally don't say "no" to him, Mr Ito tells BT. Maybe it's because he has a black belt in karate.
While the experience behind the wheel is better now, the interior has also gained a number of features from the bigger LS.
The infotainment screen is now that car's giant 12.3 inch item, and the upscale Luxury variants have a similarly enormous head-up display screen. Even the steering wheel is straight out of the LS.
Luxury models also come with a 17-speaker sound system from Mark Levinson, a premium hi-fi company, and rear seats that recline by 8 deg.
For all that, what's most appealing about the new ES is the way it looks. It has a facial resemblance to the LS, while the rear flares out with a sinewy bulge. Taut, crisp edges give the flanks a well-defined and athletic look, while a lower roofline helps to create a more sporty stance for the car.
It's all very visually aggressive, and enough to give the ES a huge amount of presence on the road.
That bodes well for the car, especially since the driving experience matches the sharp new styling, without compromising on the comfort that people expect of an ES.
However the new markets take to the revamped ES, its position as the best-selling Lexus in Singapore looks secure - that is the kind of result that big boss Toyoda really wants to see.
Lexus ES 300h
Engine 2,487cc, in-line four
Engine Power 178hp at 5,700rpm
Engine Torque 221Nm at 3,600-5,200rpm
Motor Power 120hp
Motor Torque 202Nm
System Power 218hp
Gearbox Continuously Variable Transmission
0-100km/h 8.9 seconds (estimated)
Top Speed 180 km/h (limited)
Agent Borneo Motors
Price To be announced