Now in its seventh generation, the Lexus ES sedan remains as relevant today as when it first launched as an entry point within a fledgling all-new luxury division of Toyota. The smallish ES was one of the first offerings debuting from the luxury division back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The ES sedan not only survives but thrives as domestic Big Wigs General Motors and Ford Motor Company quietly retire their once mighty four-door body styles.
Growing in length during its seven incarnations, ES continues delivering a comparatively agreeable starting price point. It’s also blossomed into several incarnations including a gas-electric hybrid version (ES 300h), a segment Toyota/Lexus have pioneered and perfected for two decades.
The now mid-sized ES debuted its longest footprint in the 2019 model year at the birth of Gen Seven. The 2023 ES lineup includes the four-cylinder ES 250 with standard all-wheel drive, six-cylinder ES 350 and the gas-electric hybrid ES 300h.
And ES isn’t through evolving. For 2023, the gas-electric hybrid, front-wheel drive product designates three distinct offerings: returning ES 300h, ES 300h F Sport ‘Design’ and ES 300h F Sport ‘Handling’ with respective starting prices of $43,690, $48,075 and $49,985 (including delivery tags). The new F Sport opportunities mark the biggest and brightest ES upgrades in 2023.
Expect reduced body role while cornering thanks in part to adaptive variable suspension found in F Sport Handling (this week’s tester), utilized in track-specific Lexus models.
The F Sport designation has adorned Lexus products for some time and now makes its way to ES, the brand’s best-selling sedan, but what exactly does F Sport designate?
Think of F Sport as delivering a factory-installed, finer-tuned chassis and calibrated suspensions adding sharper, more precise handling. The capital “F” references Japan’s Fuji Speedway where Lexus incubates and tests these concepts before mass marketing efforts.
Thus, the 2023 ES 300h combines superb fuel economy with a notable sporty drive experience despite gas-electric hybrid underpinnings. For too long, equating hybrids and sporty drives was mutually exclusive. Lexus ES merges the two together effortlessly.
Most entry luxury competitors from BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer up an electric motor or two with a traditional gas engine, but in the form of a plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV). The ES goes green utilizing self-charging hybrid technology (no wall socket needed) gleaned throughout two decades.
An inline, 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder internal combustion engine (ICE) delivers a non-so-shabby 215 horsepower when joined with the hybrid drive system’s two electric motors. It averages an impressive 44 miles per gallon in city/highway connecting up with an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission with infinite gear ratios, eliminating shift shock sometimes found when engines go hunting for traditional six or seven speed forward gears.
The hybrid drive system takes advantage of regenerative braking, recapturing electric friction during the stopping/slowing process and returning that energy back into the lithium-ion battery pack for later use. Also onboard, start/stop technology which shuts down the IC engine at prolonged idles, minimizing gasoline loss. It's a seamless switch, unlike most other all internal combustion engine set ups in which shimmies are notable. Both processes help drive the 44-mpg calculus.
For decades, Toyota and Lexus vehicles relied primarily upon nickel-metal hybrid battery packs for direct current (DC) storage. While nickel metal hybrid batteries continue primarily in bulkier Toyota’s pickup trucks, smaller, lighter lithium-ion battery packs are now utilized in the ES 300h. With location under rear seats rather than butting into the cargo region, ES 300h enjoys better front-rear balance with larger trunk volume. Lighter, versatile lithium-ion battery packs joined ES 300h in the 2021 model year.
As with the traditional Toyota Prius, consider ES 300h a ‘full’ hybrid, meaning the electric motor(s) can drive the wheels at lower speeds independent of the on-board ICE. ‘Mild’ hybrids, built with smaller, lighter battery packs; act as engine boosters, especially from a standing start. A mild hybrid may boost MPG a mile or two, but the intricate full hybrid adds up to 15 extra miles depending upon its design.
Our F Sport Handling tester started at $48,835 with a half-dozen factory options including upsized center screen package ($1,020). The bottom line with $1,150 destination charged reached $54,255 representing the most opulent F Sport Handling available.
Once behind the wheel, ES enthusiasts can’t help but notice a redesigned center console with new cup holder location, a sunglasses holder and available wireless charging pad. Gone but not forgotten: the much maligned ‘Remote Touch Interface,’ an overly frustrating, finger-activated scroll pad maneuvering an in-screen curser located between front bucket seats. Earlier versions substituted a just as wonky elevated square wiggle pad incapable of containing a curser seemingly on a constant sugar high.
The multi-function higher-resolution screen now incorporates touch sensibility. And eight-inch size comes standard with 12.3-inches optional. Both flat screens gently skew the driver’s direction. A far-left in-screen insert reveals a very welcome, old-school style analog clock complete with a round face, hands and Roman numerals.
Below the screen are two narrow, rectangular vents. Under the vents, an HVAC regions with a row of push buttons monitoring fan speed and direction. Up-down push tabs at each end raise and lower dual-zone temperature settings.
When electronically starting and stopping the engine via the dashboard push button, both the center flat screen and all-digital instrument panel blast off with purple graphics artistically exploding onto the black backdrop. A nice addition near lower HVAC controls: a dual-purpose, circular dial with an outer ring monitoring station selection and the inside choice adjusting volume.
The all-digital instrument panel includes an F Sport framed center ring that mechanically slides left with the push of a steering wheel button presenting a different information layout. The IP includes a brim cutting down above glare. The brim’s sides include a bolt like twister on each end; the left deactivates/activates traction control while the right selects between five F Sport drive modes. The inner ring also provides visual descriptors of the current lithium-ion battery pack phase: power, charge or eco.
In back, three folks enjoy the ride for short durations as two fit with optimal comfort and leg room rates above average while headroom remains tight throughout. Prone second-row seatbacks do not fold down, not unusual within hybrids and battery storage issues.
Overall, the exterior tilts conservative with one notable exception upfront. As with all Lexus vehicles, the prominent spindle grille with a diamond-like fill pattern (although Lexus P.R. insists its more reflective of a capital L) resides up front with a truncated hourglass design sinched in the middle with the circular ‘L’ logo occupying the top portion. Narrow head light housings with three be-jewed LED headlights merge with the cinch flanking the grille and wrap around to front fenders. Optional in F Sport Handing ($1,215), premium triple beam LED headlights.
Narrow A and C pillars team with a short trunk lid sporting a small edge spoiler lip. The power-operated trunk includes a convenient inside lid-located push button when closing. Hands full and can’t reach the button?; a kick sensor is available for $550. Pull-type strap handles with a cupped center indent incorporate body color and illuminate at night. Taillights include a narrow, wrap-around style with the driver’s side featuring a three-stacked, red-shaded L-format LEDs with the passenger side reversing the red L’s layout.
Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smartphone interplay come standard and the updated Lexus interface allows for dual Bluetooth phone connectivity. An available flat wireless charger locates aft of the transmission shifter between F Sport’s bolstered heated and ventilated front buckets.
Lexus set the bar creating a whisper quiet interior. While competitors from Europe and the States continue doing their collective best to mimic the secret toasted in frosting, ES 300h holds its head high especially when traveling at low speeds (below 10 mph) when the electric mode primarily engages. If traveling in the all-EV state, a green-leaf eco icon illuminates within the digital dash.
Price as Tested: $54,255
Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder
Total Horsepower: 215
Wheelbase: 113.0 inches
Overall Length: 195.9 inches
Overall Width: 73.4 inches
Overall Height: 56.9 inches
Fuel economy: 43 mpg city, 44 mpg highway
Hybrid powertrain warranty: 72-month/70,000 miles