Sitting in the back of the Lexus ES300H — as company officials fervently insisted I do — I found myself nodding off, catching blurry, indiemovie glimpses of trees flying rapidly past. I could see myself in the movie, old and grey, tranquil, but with a Tarantino past. The new mid-size sedan update from Lexus is a unique take on the segment. While the Teutonic competition from Audi, Mercedes and BMW trip over each other to make their designs taut, straight and creased, Lexus took its criticism to heart and went bonkers. The company has been criticised for being too conservative — boring even — in terms of design. That’s clearly no longer the case.
The ES300H is a lengthy, imposing vehicle. The visual drama is very different from what we’re used to in this space, because there’s so much of it. It’s like they skipped the chain of command that would have edited the flair down, and went straight to sheet metal. The car looks long, even though there’s plenty of ground clearance. There’s a little go-faster spoiler out back, and a very swoopy roofline with a coupe-like profile to the greenhouse. The front grille, which Lexus have adopted as their signature these days, is massive, and a complete antithesis of what they’ve done in previous years. When we walked into the unique space that Lexus created to show off their new car and ply us with ale, we were pleased with the crisp — if a little loud — music playing seemingly everywhere. No speakers were visible in the all-glass structure. Impressive and elegant, we thought. Walking closer to the car is when we realised the music was output entirely by the ES300h’s prodigious Mark Levinson branded music system. The 17-speaker, 1800w system was not just room-filling, it was hall-filling. Again, not at all conservative. When stationary, there’s no way you can miss the lovely satin/ chrome finish on the wheels, which look sporty but grown-up. We are told that the wheels have a special hollow channel within them to cancel out road noise.
Lexus is targeting a fairly young audience for the ES300h — 40-50 years old, they guess and they’ll mostly be chauffeured around, with the odd self-drive occasion. This is just as well, because this car really is designed around ensuring rear seat comfort. You don’t get the business-class seating of top-shelf sedans, but it’s pretty close. There’s so much legroom in the back that you can probably fit your carryon in front of your knees and not be uncomfortable. Two of the three passenger spots also have reclining. backs, which give you about 8 degrees to play with. There’s a fold-away centre console with music controls and seat warmers (but not coolers, for some reason). The transmission tunnel is there, but it’s not terrible, and you’re unlikely to cram the ES300h with your party crew anyway.
Continuing the coddling, the ES300h comes with active noise cancellation, using a couple of microphones to pick up, and then have Mark Levinson cancel out all those ugly outside noises. It works very well, and the cabin is exceptionally quiet. We were told that over the course of the week, several rear passengers — staffers, journalists — just nodded off. I had a chance to put that to the test and can confirm that the rear seats are a very tranquil place to be, with one caveat.
Move to the driver’s seat and things are good, but this is clearly not a driver’s car. Lexus have taken care to tick all the right boxes: the powered seat controls and bolstering are excellent, the steering wheel has a 3D cross-section to feel good in the hand in any position, and the cockpit does feel driver-focussed. There’s a generously-sized colour HUD (one of the larger ones we’ve seen), but the way this car’s drivetrain is configured, that’s where the driver-focus ends. The ES300h in India comes with a 2.5-litre inline four petrol motor which makes about 176hp, with the rest of the 215hp total supplied by the electric hybrid part of the powerplant. Lexus considers this a hybrid-electric vehicle, and the motor does shut off when you have enough charge and you’re just pottering about, coming alive only when you need brisk acceleration. It’s paired with a 6-speed CVT gearbox, and there’s the tranquility caveat.
Despite all the exceptional materials, active noise cancellation, 93 per cent underbody coverage and sound deadening tricks, the CVT gearbox does play spoilsport when you put your foot down. There’s no getting around that annoying drone that CVTs make, and you have to back off or put it in cruise control if you don’t want to wake the sahab seated in the back. Acceleration itself is adequate, but with a petrol motor and CVT, you don’t have that push-back-inyour-seat thrust of the diesel competition. It’s a very linear, continuous, gentle feeling, picking up speed all the way to the limited 180kph top.
Whether driver or passenger, ride quality is exceptional. It’s comfortable, never crashy and tuned on the softer side. There’s some body roll on quick lane changes, as a result, but if weaving through traffic is your schtick, there are other Lexuses (Lexii?) for you. Rounding out the opulence is the excellent interior, which uses great materials and feels like quality craftsmanship. Leather is lovely, the colours are well-chosen and cuts and panels, precise. This part is conservative, and classy. It gets a bit weird in the dashboard area, though. Lexus has chosen not to use a touchscreen, relying on traditional metal-finish and plastic buttons for everything. Personally, I like this approach, because it keeps your attention on the task at hand — making sure you and the sahab are safe. As a nod to modernity, there’s a touchpad to navigate the menu system, and it works well.
Feature-wise, it’s a nice package. You get the obligatory LEDs, a powered hands-free tailgate that actually works — you don’t look like an idiot trying to kick your own car, muttering obscenities. The boot opens and closes when it sees your shoe. It’ll even pause in-between if you so choose. There are airbags of course — ten of them. We do wish that seat cooling was offered to rear passengers as it is to the front, and this is an unusual choice for India.
The Lexus ES300h is attracting interest and selling well, according to company officials. We’ve certainly seen a few on the roads of South Bombay. The younger demographic and sheer novelty value of the distinctly Japanese aesthetic should ensure we see a few more, despite the Rs 59.13 lakh ex-showroom price.
2.5L Inline four cyinder petrol
8.4 Seconds 0-100KPH
ON THE INSIDE
17-speaker, 1800 watt Mark Levinson audio system, reclining seats, cooled front seats, leather interior, auto 3-zone climate control
10 airbags, ABS with EBD, hill start assist, adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning and assist
Rs. 59.3 LAKH (ex-showroom)
WHAT WE LIKE
Superb interior, excellent rear space, great sound system
WHAT WE DON’T
CVT is noisy, not particularly rewarding to drive