Just as the automotive world was still reveling with the launch of the Lexus LS 400, the ES 250 quietly debuted for the 1990 model year. While it didn’t set the world on fire with its obvious ties to the Camry, it only needed a couple of years to find its own form and has established itself as a steadfast contributor to the brand’s sales and image. The ES has grown in size and even become a bit bold with its styling, but its never wavering commitment to attainable luxury has allowed it to be continuously refined to the point where it is now an expert in the field.
The ES’ styling is graceful with large panel shapes and curves that create a large car presence. They also bring your eye to the front of the car – if it hadn’t already grabbed your attention – where sharp details demonstrate the extra attention and effort that Lexus is willing to invest in the design. As far as the large grille, at least it feels familiar and generates the design cues that extend around the bodyside and to the rear where things get slightly more dramatic. The dominant styling line remains low and is enhanced by a chrome strip that continues around from one taillight to the other while the surface above it folds over to create a horizontal surface that then quickly curves upwards so the trunk lid’s shape is able to extend the slope of the C-pillar without creating a short trunk opening or looking too bulky. It’s a slick design but is unfortunately largely obscured by the optional rear spoiler. The lower portion of the bumper integrates gloss black and chrome trim that plays into the surface shapes but it’s also notable for its lack of exhaust outlets, real or not. Besides the spoiler, this car design is all about quiet luxury.
The interior carries its own styling theme albeit with a little less continuity. Still, there is plenty of visual intrigue and many examples of Lexus going the extra mile to deliver the luxury experience. The dash includes several tiers of curved shapes that draw the focus onto the large combi meter hood that houses an elegant arrangement of a digital display and physical gauges. The meter hood is also used to mount the drive mode knob which, thanks to its near-in-the-line-of-sight location, gets more use than if it were otherwise located on the center console.
The large infotainment display is positioned high in the dash for an easy look but currently, it remains troubled by the console-mounted touchpad which requires too much concentration to deliver the precise amount of swipe speed and swipe distance to quickly move from one menu to the next. It gains touchscreen functionality next year (2022).
The optional Mark Levinson stereo, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat and it proves to be worth the hype, especially as the volume approaches its upper limit. As an added bonus, the volume and tune knobs on the dash feel so smooth and are created with such detail that you’ll likely use those instead of the plain-jane steering wheel-mounted controls.
Other details that demonstrate its luxury car status are the deep gloss wood trim, the abundance of soft-touch surfaces, and an interior door handle that is simply a work of art and a demonstration of manufacturing prowess.
Just as how the exterior and interior convey a sense of luxury without the pretense of being sporty, the driving experience is easy to appreciate even on boring commutes. The cabin is quiet and free from any disruptive vibrations or noises. The suspension mutes any sharp road impacts and calmly soaks up large dips without losing its balance or needing any secondary motion before it’s ready for the next road imperfection. The body also remains reasonably composed when the road gets windy and low-speed maneuverability is good enough for a quick escape from the mall parking garage. At all speeds, the steering system provides the right amount of heft for a sense of feedback without feeling too gritty or too numb and the brake response is predictable and precise through the entire pedal stroke.
The “250” designation of this ES represents the venerable 2.5-liter four-cylinder that provides an ideal balance between power, efficiency, and drivability. Credit also goes to the eight-speed transmission which responds quickly to pick up the engine’s revs and delivers a prompt reaction to the paddle shifter inputs. Unique to this powertrain is the on-demand all-wheel-drive system which, although relatively simple in its design, offers the luxury of worry-free traction through the winter months.
For even more dynamic performance, the F Sport trim equips the ES (with any powertrain) with sport-tuned adaptive dampers while the V6 and the hybrid models also provide meaningful performance gains in their own right.
Taken piece by piece, the Lexus ES may not seem all too enticing of a car. There’s not any particular feature or metric that is going to grab the headlines. But the manner in which it executes its concept, with a relaxed design, refined ride, and luxurious touches – there are few cars that deliver such a collectively satisfying experience.