In this on-paper comparison, we match up the best-selling Lexus ES against competitors we’ve previously driven
The ES is Lexus’ best-selling car, and it’s a best-seller in the shrinking “near lux” sedan segment it helped define. The segment’s original formula was to take a squillion-selling midsize sedan (Toyota Camry, in Lexus’ case), tinsel it up, and slap a swanky badge on it. Infiniti’s I30 was a dolled-up Nissan Maxima; Acura’s Vigor was an extensively revised Honda Accord; Lincoln’s MKZ (née Zephyr) was a costumed Ford Fusion. The world has moved on.
Today Lexus bases the ES on larger Avalon underpinnings and is extending the model’s appeal with both a performance-oriented F Sport variant and a new Ultra Lux package. The Infiniti Q50 has no mainstream Nissan counterpart on our shores. The Acura TLX/Honda Accord relationship remains fairly distant, and the Lincoln MKZ no longer shares any major sheetmetal with the Fusion. We’re also throwing the Buick LaCrosse in for consideration. It primarily targets Toyota’s Avalon, but in its swankiest new Avenir trim, it’s priced and positioned to fight the Lexus.
After spending a week in an Ultra Lux 2019 Lexus ES 350 (an ES 350 F Sport is shown in this story), we’ve rounded up some relevant specifications data, reviewed our notes from earlier drives of the key competitors, and are ready to make a few predictions on how a full comparison of the major players might shake out.
As all of the original contenders have evolved, the Infiniti and Acura entrants have shrunk. The Q50 measures 6.3 inches shorter in length and 1.6 inches narrower than the ES, which tightens its rear seat and trunk somewhat, but the front seat boasts 2 inches more head- and legroom, so overall space is down just 1.6 cubic feet overall. Similarly, the Acura TLX gives up 4.2 inches in length at a cost of rear legroom and trunk volume while adding front-seat space. The Buick is larger in all exterior dimensions, but the payoff is just a slightly larger front-seat compartment—the trunk and rear seat are slightly smaller than in the Lexus. Lincoln matches Lexus almost to the tenth on overall interior and trunk volume while measuring 2 inches shorter in length and 1.2 inch taller. But Lexus remains the benchmark for space, boasting the biggest trunk (16.7 cubes) and back seat (by a nose at 46.6 cubic feet).
Lexus offers your choice of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid electric with an e-CVT good for 215 hp or a 302-hp 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a conventional eight-speed automatic. Both powertrains spin the front wheels. Most of the competition now offers a choice of all-wheel drive (usually for no more money than our front-drive ES 350 Ultra Lux), which I rather missed as mid-February snow- and ice-storms bedeviled my week with an ES on all-season rubber. Acura offers a 2.4-liter 206-hp four-cylinder and eight-speed automatic or a 3.5-liter 290-hp V-6 and nine-speed auto, and honest-ta-goodness torque-vectoring all-wheel drive can be had with the V-6. Infiniti sells its older, fixed-compression-ratio 2.0-liter turbo-four (208 hp) and a choice of two twin-turbo V-6s producing 300 or 400 hp. All three engines spin the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic with all-wheel drive optional on any engine. Lincoln sees Infiniti’s 2.0T and pair of V-6 twin-turbos powering the front or all four wheels through a six-speed automatic and raises with a front-drive hybrid/e-CVT.
The Buick offers an eAssist 2.5-liter mild-hybrid good for 194 hp paired with a six-speed automatic or a 3.6-liter V-6 that sends 310 horses to the front or all four wheels via a nine-speed automatic. So Lincoln wins on breadth of offerings, but if you don’t need all-wheel traction, Lexus remains tough to beat in terms of buttery drivetrain refinement, and its hybrid fuel economy tops the Lincoln’s (44 mpg to 41 (5.3 L/100 km to 5.7), EPA combined—the LaCrosse eAssist ranks way lower at 29 mpg (8.7 L/100 km)).
Let’s face it, cars in this class are meant to be driven in a stately manner between stately manors. So there’s little shame in Lexus not really contending for pink slips. After testing a mechanically identical Toyota Avalon of nearly the same weight (stay tuned for a instrumented track test of the 2019 ES 350), we found the V-6 needs just over 6.0 seconds to hit 60 mph, about the same as the AWD Acura V-6, a few tenths behind the Buick V-6, and well in arrears of the 400-horse twin-turbo V-6 Lincoln (5.2) and Infiniti (4.5). Thanks possibly to its 148-pound (67-kg) weight advantage, the ES 300h hybrid outruns the MKZ 2.0H, 7.8 to 8.7 seconds (we haven’t tested a LaCrosse eAssist mild-hybrid).
Neither ES is particularly enthusiastic about cornering or braking. Where’s the fire? Endeavor to leave a few minutes earlier, and you won’t need to tear around so. Opting for the ES 350 F Sport variant adds adaptive dampers that minimize body pitch and roll, but don’t expect lap times to drop much. Basically, we find the Ultra Lux approach to be more in keeping with the ES’ natural role as the regal and aloof “adult” in this class, with the Buick a very close second. You surely don’t need us to tell you that Tail of the Dragon runners will find greater joy with one of the twin-turbo V-6 options or even the Acura SH-AWD (or better still, an Alfa Giulia or Genesis G70).
When you line up the standard features lists for the top-tier offerings in this class, the equipment is pretty extensive, with most offering supple leather and real wood. Buick and Acura offer few if any additional options on their top-shelf offerings, but Infiniti, Lexus, and Lincoln buyers can further gild their lilies with numerous pricey option packages. We find it slightly obnoxious that Lexus’ Ultra Lux customer has to drop another $1,900 USD to get the blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, park assist, and a surround-view camera system, considering many of these features come standard on much cheaper cars than the $50,959 USD of our loaded 2019 ES 350 tester.
We don’t begrudge automakers for charging for top-shelf audio—$3,000 USD for Mark Levinson at Lexus and $4,000 USD for Revel Ultima (bundled with a pano roof and LED lamps) at Lincoln. That lets talk radio listeners save the cash. An interesting $950 USD option on our Lexus—18-inch wheels with sound-absorbing rings inside. It’s nice to see wheel options that add quietness instead of subtracting compliance with thinner sidewalls, and they (along with acoustic front side glass and more) do lend a library-like atmosphere at speed. As for how cosseting and pleasant the cars are to live in, the Buick looks stunning in photos, but the materials let it down. The Acura and Infiniti are more businesslike and purposeful. Lexus delivers great materials marred slightly by a busy design, wood stained so dark it’s unrecognizable as wood, door pulls that are hard to reach if belted in with the door fully open, and that touchpad user interface that none of us has truly bonded with. Lincoln’s multi-contour seats with Active Motion are pretty impressive, its wood looks like wood, and its Sync 3 system is a breeze to live with.
After a week in the Lexus I understand why the ES continues to outsell these four competitors by between 40 and 212 percent (Q50 and LaCrosse), and why its rate of sales decrease year-over-year was less than half what the others suffered from 2017 to 2018. It looks good from all angles except the front, and it goes about its business without any attention-grabbing engine or tire noises, automatically turning on its heated steering wheel and seats, then automatically turning them down about 10 minutes into a journey. It’s a faithful automotive valet—solicitous, never argumentative, seen but not heard. Toss in a strong record for reliability and resale value, and what non–car enthusiast could resist? So in a consumer-focused Big Test focusing on packaging, safety, reliability, refinement, and the like, I boldly predict that Lexus would grab the gold. Second place might be hotly contested by a heavily optioned 300-hp Q50 Luxe AWD and Acura TLX SH-AWD. I see a Lincoln MKZ 3.0 Reserve II AWD finishing a close third and Buick’s LaCrosse Avenir AWD bringing up the rear. Stay tuned to check these predictions against a future test—unless the category shrinks to complete insignificance before we get around to it …
|2018 Acura TLX SH-AWD A-Spec||2018 Buick LaCrosse Avenir||2016 Infiniti Q50S 3.0t (Red Sport 400)||2019 Lexus ES 350**||2017 Lincoln MKZ 3.0T AWD (Reserve)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$45,765||$47,480||$57,475||$50,959||$59,740|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.5L/290-hp/267-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6||3.6L/310-hp/268-lb-ft* DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.0L/400-hp/350-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.5L/302-hp/267-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.0L/400-hp/400-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed automatic||9-speed automatic||7-speed automatic||8-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,804 lb (60/40%)||3,681 lb (59/41%)||3,872 lb (56/44%)||3,761 lb (60/40%)||4,293 lb (60/40%)|
|WHEELBASE||109.3 in||114.4 in||112.2 in||113.0 in||112.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||191.5 x 73.0 x 57.0 in||197.5 x 73.5 x 57.5 in||189.1 x 71.8 x 56.8 in||195.9 x 73.4 x 56.9 in||193.9 x 73.4 x 58.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec||5.6 sec||4.5 sec||6.1 sec||5.2 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.5 sec @ 96.6 mph||14.2 sec @ 99.7 mph||13.0 sec @ 109.2 mph||14.6 sec @ 98.4 mph||13.7 sec @ 102.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||123 ft||105 ft||122 ft||108 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.92 g (avg)||0.84 g (avg)||0.93 g (avg)||0.82 g (avg)||0.94 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.8 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)||26.4 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)||25.6 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||26.8 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)||25.1 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||20/29/23 mpg||21/30/24 mpg||20/26/22 mpg||22/33/26 mpg||17/26/20 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||160/112 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/102 kW-hrs/100 miles||198/130 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.83 lb/mile||0.80 lb/mile||0.87 lb/mile||0.75 lb/mile||0.96 lb/mile|
|**ES 350 track test data reflects MotorTrend numbers from a mechanically identical Toyota Avalon of nearly the same weight.|