By MARK RICHARDSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, June 8, 2018
NASHVILLE -- 2019 Lexus ES 350F Sport $45,000 (BASE ESTIMATED)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6; 2.5-litre i4 with electric motor
Transmission/Drive: Eight-speed automatic/front-wheel Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9/city, 7.5/hwy
Alternatives: Lincoln MKZ, Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class, Buick LaCrosse
Sometimes, it's best to just shut yourself away and tune everything out, especially when you're stuck in stalled traffic. If so, a Lexus is one of the best vehicles for tuning everything out because it's known for being quiet inside - sometimes too quiet. Bob Lutz, the former senior executive of both General Motors and Chrysler, once referred to the "tomb-like silence" of a Lexus and he wasn't meaning to be kind.
And so, when I found myself in Nashville recently, stuck in traffic that was waiting for the President's motorcade to pass, and with the torrential rain of subtropical storm Alberto pounding the city, I was happy to be sitting in the seventh generation of the now-all-new Lexus ES. In fact, it was the F-Sport edition, a sporty model never before available with the mid-sized sedan, which includes "active noise control" to add some growl to the engine. All I could hear was rain.
Lexus went to quite some trouble beforehand to tell me about the attractive redesign of the new ES, but those subtle changes were totally lost on everyone outside the car, which is usually the case.
The distinctive silhouette and sleek roofline mean little to most people - unless it's a lime-green Lamborghini, few cars will attract the attention of someone who is not interested. Even more so in a rainstorm.
The engineers also told me about how they'd retuned this car for a more acceptable state of quiet. After all, says Hirotaka Tsuru, who was responsible for the NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) levels of the ES, too much silence can give you a headache.
"I would target cars in a higher class, then lower the total overall sound," he says. "But if you just simply reduce all sound, it becomes this vacuum of sound and you actually start to feel sick. So, we used a preset frequency that we call 'natural quietness' and we'd continually target that frequency. The key is to find which frequency, at which level of quietness, provides the most comfortable ambience."
Some of that ambience was achieved by increasing the sheer quantity of sound-proofing in the new car: Apparently, sound-absorbing materials in the old ES used to cover 68 per cent of the floor, but now they cover 93 per cent and almost all of the dash panel. The target is for the driver to be able to speak with a passenger in the rear seat without having to raise their voice or turn their head.
I was alone in the car, in the traffic, in the rain, so I couldn't test this, but earlier in the day, when the sun was shining and the country roads outside town were gloriously clear and I was driving the hybrid-powered ES, I carried a passenger and we chatted with no problem at all. As well, Lexus tells me, I was apparently more relaxed because I was making fewer eye movements: Everything is a little better lined up for the driver's field of view. I didn't notice to vouch for this. Perhaps I was too relaxed.
There are 10 different versions of the new ES: a regular V-6 engine and a hybrid engine, each with four available trim levels, as well as two levels of the F-Sport package. The F-Sport isn't any more powerful, but it does include active suspension and 19inch wheels, as well as Sport and Sport Plus drive-mode settings to add to the regular car's three drive modes.
There are no prices announced yet, however. Lexus is holding back on committing to price for another month or so, with the ES scheduled to arrive in showrooms in September. There's plenty of competition in this segment, so the base price is not likely to be too much more than the current $45,000. Where it goes up from there, though, is anyone's guess.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
The new ES is built on the new Global Architecture - K platform, which gave designers more space all around: It's a little longer and wider and has a lower roofline, with a wheelbase that's about five centimetres longer. The hood is lower and the A-pillar pulled back, which apparently improves the driver's sightlines, although I didn't notice a difference. New for this generation is the F-Sport edition, which is no more powerful but does look more the part of a sporty car. The grille is massive and polarizing; regular versions get near-vertical slats while the F-Sport has a more attractive mesh pattern.
Truly premium, as you'd expect, and now a little more legroom in the rear seats than before, which was a criticism of the previous ES. The seats are redesigned to provide a better posture, and the seats in the F-Sport have a little more support in the sides, likely for holding you snugly while you're throwing the car through the curves. The more expensive trims have a huge 12.3-inch central display screen, as well as a 10.2-inch heads-up display that can actually be seen through polarized sunglasses. Standard models have to settle for an eight-inch central display screen.
This is the real question: How does the ES drive with its sportier platform? And the answer is: fine. Not great, not poor, but fine. The new eight-speed transmission seems nothing special, and I could never quite find the right combination of gear and speed when I tried shifting for myself with the paddles, so I gave up and left the car to make nice, sensible decisions.
There's more power in this new engine - 302 horsepower and 267 lbs.-ft. of torque - which is a boost of 34 hp and 19 lbs.-ft. from before. Even the hybrid makes an additional 20 hp and 12 lbs.-ft. But the peak torque doesn't hit until 4,700 rpm and there's not much excitement to the acceleration.
Around corners, though, the ES holds flat and - most important for any road car - when you suddenly come across a tractor in the middle of a blind curve, the car stops straight and true with no fuss at all. Don't ask me how I know this.
Technology always improves with every generation and the ES is no exception. It now includes Apple CarPlay, the first Lexus to do so as the company finally accepts that people want this connectivity to their iPhones. There's no Android Auto yet, but it will probably happen within a year and when it does, it's retrofittable software.
Safety is improved, too, with better camera and radar sensors that can now detect cyclists and help prevent collisions. Also, the forward sensors can now follow the vehicle ahead, if set to do so, and help take over in congested traffic. This is taken straight from the more expensive LS sedan, which is already about as autonomous as any of the German cars that lead the way with this technology.
There's 473 litres of luggage capacity in the trunk, which is a hefty jump up from the 430 litres of the previous generation.
It's much more of a boost for the hybrid model, which used to have a 343-litre capacity because its battery took up space in the trunk. The new ES300h now has a smaller (but more efficient) battery that's stored under the rear seats, so it has the same trunk capacity as the ES350.
8.0 A lovely car, certainly, and an improvement on the previous generation, but we can't know if it's competitive in its class until Lexus announces the price.
Sound-absorbing materials in the old Lexus ES used to cover 68 per cent of the floor, but now, in the 2019 model, they cover 93 per cent, and almost all of the dash panel.
DAVID DEWHURST PHOTOGRAPHY