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2019 Lexus ES First Drive Review | Entry-level luxury that wants to have fun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For 2019, the Lexus ES is all new and marks the seventh generation of the Japanese nameplate's entry-level luxury four-door. We're happy to report that the redesign brings some very welcome attributes, and the 2019 Lexus ES does everything you'd want an entry-level luxury vehicle to do. Performance, no matter which of the two drivetrain options you choose, is respectable, interior comfort is on par with a Restoration Hardware sofa you'd spend real money on, handling is communicative, and most important for a Lexus, it's serenely quiet inside. While these are great attributes, there are a few places we wish Lexus had spent more energy revamping.
Through the humid hill country just outside Nashville, on a mix of the congested city arteries and the flowing switchbacks of Tennessee's forested interior, we put the ES through its paces. The 2019 ES is based on Toyota's TNGA platform, which underpins both the latest Avalon and Camry models. Perhaps that'd constitute a knock in a previous era, but the new Camry chassis is a rollicking peach compared to some others in its class. It's rigid enough for a windy road dance, but compliant enough for daily-driver duties. Even better, Lexus engineers improved the TNGA platform for use in the ES. A 200 percent increase in stiffness over the previous ES is due in part to a liberal use of structural adhesives and laser-welded screws. The front strut towers are reinforced, and topped with a brace between them.
2019 Lexus ES First Drive Review | Entry-level luxury that wants to have fun
This extra attention to detail pays dividends that include a smoother ride and better handling. New adaptive Dynamic Control Shocks quietly smooth out bumps and undulations, allowing us to wind through the rural backcountry roads confidently, and the steering gives better feedback than we'd expect from a vehicle like the Lexus ES. Pushing the big sedan into one of the many hilly, and often blind, corners along our route elicits only a minute amount of body roll. But chassis improvements aren't the only upgrade from the previous model. The 2019 Lexus ES comes standard with a 3.6-liter V6 delivering 302 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. This represents a bump of 34 hp and 19 lb-ft from the previous generation's V6. The engine is coupled to Lexus' new eight-speed automatic transmission, which is encased in a housing smaller than the brand's previous six-speed automatic.
The transaxle has been tuned to provide drivers with a more linear and smooth power delivery, thereby increasing the overall luxury feel of the ES. More environmentally conscious customers can opt for a 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid. While its 215 horsepower figure is sufficient, its big selling point is an average fuel economy of 44 mpg. The electrified powerplant is hitched to the brand's Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission, which is packaged more efficiently just like the non-hybrid's eight-speed automatic. While either engine option will tackle winding roads like those we encountered in Tennessee without issue, the bigger V6 pulls like a champ and is certainly the better option for driving enthusiasts. While we were legitimately impressed by its cornering capabilities, there's a tradeoff to consider. The new ES is smooth enough to satisfactorily iron out pitted pathways and rough roads, but it doesn't feel as plush as competitors like the Lincoln MKZ or Genesis G70.
We're also not convinced that the interior is different enough from the Toyota Camry and Avalon to justify its expected price premium — Lexus was fuzzy with the numbers but gave us a ballpark. Though the ES does receive a new trim texture based on the finishes of a samurai's katana, if you were to compare interior shots of the Camry and the ES side by side, you'd find that the steering wheel, instrument display, starter button, transmission shifter, and lower console are interchangeable. It's only the infotainment screens, and some slightly higher-quality materials such as the leather seats, that differ significantly. This interior parts-sharing quandary has always been a fact of life for the ES, but these days it's hard not to drive an ES and cast a glance at the Avalon, if you can get past the badge. What's more, recent Lexus models like the LC 500 have really impressed us with excellent materials, design, craftsmanship, and attention to detail, and it's disappointing that more of the LC's special sauce didn't make it to the ES.
Still, during a particularly winding stretch through Natchez Trace State Park — which could be a lovely super-stage rally course — the Lexus ES actually urged us to bury the accelerator and have fun behind the wheel. That's not something we would have felt from the last ES. It may not be aimed explicitly at driving enthusiasts, but the 2019 Lexus ES handles well enough not to turn them off, has good power in V6 guise, returns fantastic gas mileage in hybrid form, and offers a comfy interior for the route to and from work. Ignore the Camry and Avalon, as we expect most Lexus buyers will, and the result is an admirable take on what could've likely been a bland offering served up to an undiscerning crowd. We just wish Lexus had been able to work in a bit more upmarket mojo inside.
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