Lexus ES 300h: The silent killer
I heard a clinking from behind me. This light, high-pitched clink-clink-clink-clink, like a metronome gone haywire. Strange. I remember glancing around the backseat as I fastened by bag in with the seatbelt before I set off— it was empty. Was it from under the car? No, this sound was too close and too sharp to be from the outside. Had something rolled out from under the seat? I pulled over to investigate, only to find the backseat exactly as I had left it. A little poking and prodding led me to the source — the two metal zips of my bag were dangling close together and were clinking every time they touched.
That is how silent the cabin of the Lexus ES 300h is. Those darn zips probably have at it everyday in every car I drive, but only in the Lexus do they sound like two champagne flutes coming together. It’s unbelievable how little sound permeates into the cabin when on the go, but then again, that has been a hallmark of the Lexus brand. Right from the first Lexus (the LS400 back in 1989, if you’re nerdy about these things) rolled up to stick it to the luxury sedan establishment, these cars have been lauded for how quietly they go about their business. Thirty years on, not much has changed.
Before we proceed, I need to get a few things out of the way first. Space isn’t a strong point of the ES. It is a luxury car, and it does promise you plenty of that. But if your idea of self-indulgence is stretching your tired CEO bones in the backseat, you’re going to be better off in an E-Class. The Lexus has a very different approach to luxury. It focuses on making you feel special. That is achieved with a combination of its exclusivity, sharp design, the supremely high quality of materials used and well, the sheer isolation you feel from the outside. The other thing you need to know is that the ES isn’t remotely sporty. Yes, it does have a ‘Sport’ mode, but there’s a reason why the knob is so far out of reach above the instrument cluster. It’s a front-wheel drive car with a CVT, for crying out loud. If there was a spectrum of sporty drivetrains, this one wouldn’t even be featured on it. If you want to be closing deals in the week but closing the door on your driving buddies on the weekend, go find yourself a 5 Series.
I was gliding around town, and I could tell all eyes were on me. This thing draws in attention like nothing else this side of an R8. The glittery spindle-grille grabs your attention first, and then the aggressive silhouette. The Deep Blue Mica paint does a fabulous job of blending into the night, leaving the razor-sharp LED headlamps to slice through the darkness. Every single line on the car has a restrained aggressiveness to it — it’s almost like the designers pinched the front end and clawed backwards along the length of the car to give it its shape. A lot of that shape has been actually designed to enhance aerodynamic efficiency and reduce wind noise from the surface of the car. Even the wheels, which are bloody gorgeous, are designed to reduce wind noise.
But this obsession with silent operation runs deeper. The platform that underpins this seventh-generation ES is the Global Architecture-K platform that it shares with Toyota. However, you can tell additional work has gone into it to make it an isolating experience. The suspension mounts, the dampers and the engine mounts all contribute in this regard as well. But all this is tied together by the drivetrain. You’ve got a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine under the hood, and remember, this is a hybrid. So in addition to that, you’ve got an electric motor and a Nickel-Metal hydride battery. Lexus still hasn’t made the switch to lithium-ion just yet. Together, they have a total output of 214bhp, but it also has a full EV mode. You start the car up and at low speeds, it will glide around on pure electric power. Perfect for sneaking the car out of home without the wife finding out. But pick up speed, or floor it suddenly, and the petrol motor fires up and seamlessly adds to the mix. This isn’t a plug-in hybrid either. There’s no cables and charging or anything of the sort. The battery charges through regenerative braking and you don’t have to worry about a thing.
It’s a supremely refined combination and there are times you forget that there’s an actual petrol motor pulling this barge around. You see, the ES has a smart little trick up its sleeve. It senses the engine rpm, and along with a dedicated microphone, produces an opposite phase sound from the speakers to cancel out the engine’s. So much better than pumping fake engine sounds into the cabin. I’m looking at you, BMW. The electric motors aren’t just around for full EV operation though — they supplement the engine on the go, and fill in torque so you actually do have rather sharp throttle responses. I’m not a fan of the CVT, there’s a hint of that rubber band effect, but then again, this isn’t a car you want to be hustling. Just cruise around and you won’t find it too intrusive.
The suspension works well to enhance the isolation from the road. It’s very composed and deals with most undulations well. It glides over an undulating road, but you do have to slow down for bigger bumps and breakers. The suspension can thud uncomfortably for a sharp bump, and you don’t want to be grating the underside of your bumper either. Again, it is set up for comfort, so don’t expect some dynamic brilliance from it. The suspension’s abilities are focussed on keeping you cushy on the inside and not to feed your adrenaline addiction.
What really makes the ES 300h special, though, are the interiors. It’s wrapped in soft-touch, expensive feeling materials — leather, wood and brushed metal. Everything you lay your hands or even your eyes on, looks special and inviting. The seats, ventilated and heated, are supremely comfortable. The steering wheel mixes up wood and leather, and there’s plenty more of that on the centre console. The Mark Levinson music system fills up the silence in the cabin with the most brilliant sound. It’s almost perfect. Almost, because the infotainment system is a pain to use with its touchpad controls and unintuitive interface.
The Lexus, then, is a left-field alternative. It takes a formula popularised by the Germans and rewrites the rules. It doesn’t try to wear many hats. It has a singularity of purpose, and that purpose is to envelop you in a soft embrace. It combines modern hybrid technology with Lexus’ DNA of making ultra-cosseting vehicles to arrive at a package that is all the more luxurious. The German trio are, dare I say it, run-of-the-mill in comparison to the exclusivity the Lexus promises.