The "Good Car" Conundrum

2016 Lexus ES 300h
2016 Lexus ES 300h – All Photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2016 Lexus ES 300h

One thing that bothered me when perusing my published reviews of the vehicles I worked with in the past are certain things I wrote about them. For example, what possessed me to call this the "forgotten Lexus?"

At the time, I made the point that while Toyota's luxury brand sells plenty of its front-drive mid-sized premium sedan – 5,000 customers bought theirs during June of 2016 – It has not always been that way. It did not take until the 1990s before it started attracting customers, in addition to its showroom-baiting flagship, the LS. From 2002 onward, Lexus customers found favor with the reasonably priced (in relative terms to the premium market) ES sedan.

While it sat in the shadow of its flashier stablemates on the same showroom floor, the ES had been a quiet warrior for Lexus. One suggested that the ES serves the same purpose Buick did before General Motors' bankruptcy. That could be seen as either a good or bad thing, if you love demographic numbers or are a hardcore enthusiast that do not care for either brand.

This gives me an opportunity to catch us up on the Lexus ES. Two years ago, Lexus announced an "all-new" ES to debut at Auto China. From further away, it appeared to be all-new, thanks to a deeper and more expressive Spindle Grille front clip. In reality, it is a mid-cycle refresh.

2016 Lexus ES 300h

Sometimes, these usually felt like the car has been completely warmed over with some deeper changes in the suspension, engine or other mechanical componentry. Others usually take a leap of faith all around to keep the vehicle fresh on consumer's minds. In all, a mid-cycle refresh kind of puts a hardened automotive journalist to sleep, while others enjoy understanding the difference between the pre- and post-facelift models.

In previous summations, I found the Lexus ES as a good car. This mid-cycle refresh was designed to keep the ES in good graces with everyone – including this automotive writer/blogger/whatever you want to me call me this minute. This, I am grateful for.

The new front clip helps the ES's cause. This is not just to align its most popular sedan with the rest of the lineup. It does create a personality that invites a demographic younger than the stereotypical ES buyer. For example, the rising executive that has a young family now has a reasonably priced premium sedan to drive. The point being is that the ES is regaining its mojo through a more outward personality up front.

The updates 2016 are more subtle on the outside. The model I drove – the ES 300h – now has a new Hybrid badge on the lower part of the passenger door, along with new taillight lenses, new wheels and some adjustments to the trim. However, the focal point is the new nose. That alone is what makes the ES more inviting than ever.

2016 Lexus ES 300h

On the inside, the updates are visible – if not subtle. The steering wheel is in line with the new RX. It is a better wheel with cleaner, more usable switches. The Remote Touch controller for the infotainment screen is now a knob. It works much better than the old "mouse" controller Lexus used for years. Everything else is what you expect from an ES – straightforward with high quality materials and easy to use switchgear.

There is one thing I truly enjoyed on this tester – the interior color scheme. On the outside is a brown-tone called Autumn Shimmer. The Flaxen soft leather upholstery is what drew me in. You could easily get this in Parchment, but the saddle-like tone of the Flaxen upholstery is sumptuous. This is a color that reminds me of a W116 Mercedes-Benz S-Class or a new Bentley Flying Spur. On this tester, it came with a metallic piano black trim instead of wood or bamboo inlays. If you want something that speaks to happiness and luxury – choose the Flaxen trim color with the right wood/bamboo trim and exterior color.

On the flip side, the ES 300h tester came no packages and options. The moonroof is standard, along with reversing camera, SiriusXM and Bluetooth audio. You get everything you expect in a luxury car…and that's it. Of course, you can start loading up on packages and options – starting with the Mark Levinson audio upgrade, the Enform telematics suite, satellite navigation, heated and cooled seats, two levels of the Lexus Safety System and its suite of active safety features, Lexus Memory system and so forth. In all, you can equip the ES to add more luxury to an already premium sedan. Yet, in this tester, you can have just what you need.

It is same situation when it comes to choosing which ES to own. When I reviewed both the ES 350 and ES 300h back-to-back in 2013, I found that it simply came down to which engine/transmission combination you choose to find the right car for you. Granted, the ES 350 has a quickened pulse and an exciting six-speed automatic, it is the Hybrid combination of the 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, the Lexus Synergy Drive system and the Continuously Variable Transmission that yields more efficiency in a very smooth manner.

2016 Lexus ES 300h

I always found no fault with the hybrid gas-electric propulsion systems developed by Toyota and Lexus. The 2016 ES 300h is actually a bit lively with what I found to be quicker acceleration and a nominal lag of power in lane changes and on-ramp entries. With 200 total system horsepower on tap, this is perhaps the best Hybrid drive system Toyota and Lexus offers – balanced, relaxed and strong.

It also helps to have a choice of four drive modes to compliment the ES 300h's driveline. Sport helps in creating faster shift points, while Eco relaxes them. The EV only mode is made for low speed driving, while Normal gives you the best of all worlds. The end result is a very economical and efficient automobile – averaging 37.3 MPG.

One thing I love about the ES is the way it drives. For me, I like an enthusiastic drive that gets me through twisty roads and quickens my pulse. Then, there are times when I want to be relaxed behind the wheel. The ES provides me with the latter. Not everyone loves a smooth, buttery ride and soft handling. During those times when you want such a drive, the ES does it better than a lot of luxury cars in its price range and above. This is why Lexus sells more ES sedans than anything else – other than the RX crossover.

To get this wonderful car, you do not need a King's ransom or a third mortgage. Well…you could, but let me explain. The base price for the ES 350 is $38,100, while the ES 300h starts at $41,020. My Autumn Shimmer and Flaxen leather ES 300h tester with no options came with a sticker price of $41,970.

2016 Lexus ES 300h

If I were to get my own, I would have to flip a coin as to which engine I would get. That is where things get a bit tricky. I know you are split on this: The V6 or the Hybrid. They both have redeeming qualities and offer their own argument. There is a strange offset between the two – the $2,900 pricing gap. The logic is simple: I would assume that I would be saving money on gas by selecting the ES 300h over the ES 350. But, am I really going to save $2,900 worth of gas? Not really.

No matter which ES you…or I…choose, you get a very lovely car that is designed for those of us who prefer to chill out, enjoy the commute and any long drives that are ahead in our lives. I understand that it is perhaps the right car for my age – whether I feel like it or not. While Lexus dangles their GS F, RC F, LX 570, LS 460 L and RX 450h F Sport in our faces, I hope you have not forgotten how great of a value the ES truly is.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales USA

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