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In a fleet exclusive, we take an early drive in Lexus's hybrid-only ES to see if it can credibly rival BMW's 5 Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Jaguar's XF.
17in alloys, Lexus Safety System+, cruise control, two-zone climate control, 8in screen sat-nav, heated electric-fold mirrors, Bluetooth, USB and AUX, multfunction camera
19in alloys, 12.3in Premium Navigation system
218hp 2.5-litre petrol-electric
F-Sport, F-Sport+ (plus others TBC)
CVT auto only
The ES executive saloon is a new name to UK punters, but the version Lexus is finally bringing to our shores is actually the seventh generation, with a history that can be traced back to the birth of the marque in 1989. The Mk7 ES sits on a new front-wheel drive platform and effectively replaces the slow-selling, rear-wheel drive GS four-door coupe in the UK.
The first bit of good news for style-conscious UK fleet drivers is that Lexus's 218hp 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid-only model is wrapped up in an eye-catching new shape - no opinion-splitting Toyota Prius looks to see here. Fronted by a more curvaceous three-dimensional grille accentuated by vertical bars, the ES's body offers pleasantly tweaked classic saloon proportions. It is longer (by 65mm), lower (by 5mm) and wider (by 45mm) than the Mk6, and with a stretched wheelbase (50mm longer) to create more space inside.
Material quality in that space is also good, with fine fit and finish, and decent, egalitarian ergonomics. Passenger and driver get electrically adjusted seats, while aircon controls are physical, not screen-based. Less good is the second-generation remote touchpad that controls the infotainment screen (8in is standard and 12.3in comes with the F-Sport trim). The pad's settings are still too fast to use easily at speed and the graphics a little reminiscent of an '80s video game. It is possible to adjust this touchpad's speed to 'slow', but it's still way faster than I'd have on my laptop, when all I'm doing is using a computer, not driving. I'm sure practice would improve usability over time, but this aspect remains Lexus's weakest link.
Brisk and precise
Much better is the new hybrid's driving ability. The standard model accelerates briskly and steers with new-found precision. Gearshifts are quick and easy via the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The noise of gear changes and the overall engine note sounds solid and reassuring, rather than whiny and confused, like the Mk1 Lexus CT200h. The Lexus staples of comfort and quietness remain intact.
F-Sport trim dials up the ES's driving skills further. A knob unusually situated on the side of the driver display cowl (but easy to reach and adjust) twists through Eco, Normal and Sport modes to enable the most responsive engine, transmission and suspension settings. Eco mode throttles back the accelerator a little too much and aside from the odd fun Sport excursion when roads were empty and twisty, we preferred Normal. F-Sport also adds adaptive variable suspension, which works well at keeping the car steady and poised, even when poor road surfaces and cambers conspire against you.
The ES's estimated 106g/km CO2 figure should bring a strong 22% BIK tax band which betters all direct-rival petrols and diesels, given the 4% penalty currently added to even the best-performing Euro6 diesels. As the ES is a 'full hybrid', rather than a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), its pricing should be keener. Expect a range starting at £36,000, rising to £45,000 for a performance-oriented F-Sport+ or luxury-angled equivalent trim, which has yet to be named.
Standard kit is also yet to be confirmed, but should include 17in alloys and the second-generation Lexus Safety System+ that now includes 'daytime cyclist detection' for the first time. Higher trims get the 12.3in screen and a plusher cabin.
UK sales aspirations are still low - perhaps 1,000 in 2019, with Lexus expecting about half of those to go to fleets - but, given the car's keen pricing, right-time, right-place powertrain and improving brand image, that estimate might be conservative. Overall, the ES doesn't handle quite as well as a regular 5 Series or XF, but its design and driving manners are now really good. With its full-hybrid credentials, it offers a greener image and tax band than all its diesel and petrol-only competitors, and more cost-effective pricing than most premium PHEVs. Definitely worth a test drive.