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The 2019 Lexus ES is longer, wider, lower and is available with two powertrain choices. (Lexus)

Lexus soups-up seventh-generation ES sedan

Sedans and any configuration of a “car” might be a tough sell at the moment, but Toyota’s upscale Lexus division certainly wasn’t going to let that stop it from launching a new, seventh generation of the ES midsize sedan, which by a large margin just happens to be the brand’s best-selling car (51,398 last year in a shrinking car market). The ES typically accounts for nearly half of Lexus’ car sales.

Considering that kind of sales critical mass, it’s tough to say the ES has been injured by its reputation as being the softer “cruiser” of the Lexus car lineup, but the company seems to continually strive to inject more sporting character into the midsize sedan. Such is the case with the new 2019 ES—there are two variants, the ES350 with a 3.5-L V6 and the ES300h hybrid that went on sale in the U.S. in September—although refinement and isolation remain at the expected high levels.

New platform, more size
The seventh-generation 2019 ES is built on Toyota’s GA-K (global architecture – K) platform, which itself is a derivation of the wide-ranging TNGA architecture. So the new ES remains front-wheel-drive (strangely, Lexus continues to resist an all-wheel-drive variant), directly related to the current-generation Toyota Camry and Avalon and tangentially connected to other TNGA-underpinned models such as the Prius.

Chief engineer Yasuhiro Sakakibara summed the differences between the new ES and its GA-K platform partners by saying “there are a lot of custom parts,” adding that its not about the number of changes, but the sum of the alterations that help fashion a different character for the ES.

“Take the same piece of steak, but give it to two different chefs,” is his analogy.

Chief among the changes for the 2019 ES is a new “V-brace” behind the rear seats that enhances torsional stiffness, with the intent of imparting sportier chassis response—and make the ES feel more like a rear-drive car. And new, Dynamic Control Shocks for the front strut, rear independent trailing-arm suspension have a special auxiliary-valve design to deliver improved response without unwanted stiffness.

For F-Sport and Ultra Luxury trim levels, there’s a new horizontally-located damper at the front to enhance torsional stiffness in the quest to provide better cornering, while the electric power-steering motor now is rack-mounted instead of on the steering column. For the F Sport, there is the standard Adaptive Variable Suspension and its 650 discreet automatic adjustment settings; all ES models have driver-adjustable drive-mode settings.

And in a now-common chassis-stiffening measure, the 2019 Lexus ES increases the use of structural adhesives by 142%—engineers say the car uses some 65 f (19.8 m) of the stuff.
All this combines to good effect, as the ES does seem to be palpably more composed in hard corners, although Automotive Engineering can’t vouch for much improvement in steering feedback, which remains practically non-existent.

Meanwhile, the new ES is 2.6 in (66 mm) longer and 1.8 in (46 mm) wider, plus there’s a 2-in (51 mm) hike in wheelbase. As a result, Lexus is claiming best-in-class rear-seat legroom of 39.2 in (996 mm); a visit to the rear seat will have few disputing the assertion. But all the newfound size (does any lasting nameplate ever get smaller?) and added refinement measures—25% more sound-deadening material coverage for the floorpan, for one example—mean the 2019 ES 350 is no lightweight at 3649 lb (1655 kg), despite an aluminum hood and front fenders.

Two drive options
Internal-combustion powertrain development may be funnelling itself inexorably towards 2.0-L turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, but Lexus didn’t get that message for the ES: standard power remains Toyota’s 3.5-L V6 with the D4S port- and direct-injection fueling setup that helps summon an additional 34 hp—for a healthy total of 302 hp—compared with the non-D4S-equipped 2GR-FKS V6 used in the previous ES.

The engine’s sophisticated variable valve-timing on the intake side helps enable high-expansion Atkinson-cycle operation when possible. Torque output now is 267 lb·ft (362 N·m), up 19 lb·ft (26 N·m) and thanks to strategic lightweighting to many of the engine’s reciprocating components, redline is increased from 6,200 rpm to a tastier 6,600 rpm.

Backing the V6 is Toyota’s 8-speed “Direct Shift” automatic transmission that uses a nifty, ultra-thin torque converter and a multi-plate lock up clutch to essentially eliminate slippage in most driving situations. Toyota said it combines the snappy sensation of a dual-clutch automated manual and a conventional torque-converter automatic. It works wonderfully and is plenty responsive even in the car’s “Normal” drive mode, much less the “Sport” setting.

The ES300h’s hybrid system—now in its fourth generation—is substantially revised and might make the ES300h the thinking-person’s choice for most versatile of the ES model range. Lexus said the electric 29-kW (39 hp) drive motor now is smaller and more power-dense; combined with the revised 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine, total power output increases by 20 hp to 215 hp in total.
Lexus continues with nickel-metal-hydride chemistry for the ES300h’s 1.6-kWh battery pack, although the smaller footprint enabled placement under the back seat, freeing an additional 4.5 cu ft of trunk space (although the new V-brace means the rear seats cannot be folded). A new multi-axle design for the hybrid system’s complex transaxle and close attention to matching engine speed with road speed is claimed to curtail the rubber-band sensation of the continuously variable transmission (CVT).

At 44 mpg combined, Lexus claims the 2019 ES300h is the most fuel-efficient luxury vehicle of any kind that doesn’t feature plug-in capability. The figure is 4 mpg better than the previous-generation ES hybrid’s combined fuel economy.  

Stuffed with safety
Standard for all 2019 Lexus ES models is the Lexus The Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 suite of driver-assistance features, including pedestrian and bicyclist detection, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning and assist automatic control for high beams and adaptive cruise control.

Lexus may be discreetly backing away from Toyota’s “native” app system in the driver interface, offering for the first time Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, while Android users now can use the Amazon Alexa voice interface for some functions. An excellent, high-resolution head-up display is optional and choosing the navigation system brings a large 12.3-in. central control interface, commanded by the still-controversial Remote Touch Interface mouse-like controller. Continue reading »