Executive wheels: Lots of Lexus luxury, but little distinction

If I'm paying this much for a sedan, I want more

2015 LEXUS ES 300h SEDAN

Driving luxury cars these days has become something of a head-scratcher for me. These two Lexus sedans are both wonderful vehicles, full of all the latest luxuries and technology, and they drive beautifully. I have no complaints on these scores. I can say with certainty that if someone gave you either of these vehicles, you would drive it, enjoy it and have no complaints either.

So the question is, would you – or for that matter should you – buy one? I’m not sure I have the answer for you, but frankly, I wouldn’t.

The head scratching part is why would Lexus have these two vehicles in the line-up? They are nearly identical cars, except for the obvious difference here that one of them is a hybrid, although you can get the hybrid in the other. The wheelbase of the GS is 112.2”; the ES 111”. The length of the GS is 190.7”; the ES comes in at 192.7”. The exteriors look the same, the interiors look the same, and the driving is virtually identical. At base, the main difference is that the basic GS is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, while the basic ES is a front-wheel-drive vehicle. This particular GS featured AWD, and apparently you can’t get that in the ES.

Oh, and there’s one other big difference: the base price on the base model of the GS is $48,600 (with a 306 hp, 3.5-liter V6), while the base price of the base ES is $37,700 (with a 268 hp, 3.5-L V6). Okay, so the GS does feel a bit heavier, but only slightly, and I just don’t understand why they sit side-by-side in Lexus showrooms. And the buying public apparently feels the same way, as the ES has been the Lexus sales leader for 15+ years. Duh.

The ES sedan traces its lineage way back to 1989, the year Toyota introduced its luxury Lexus line, joining the flagship large sedan LS 400 in the debut. At first, it was a compact sedan, but over six generations it has become first a mid-sized sedan and now a full-sized sedan – the Lexus IS has taken the smaller, entry-level position in the ensuing years.

The GS, launched in 1993 as a mid-sized sedan between the LS and the ES, has obviously evolved into a full-sized vehicle too, and while you can get a few more bells and whistles I suppose to justify the price difference (AWD being one), when you get to luxury cars – hell, even non-luxury cars like Toyotas – there are so many bells and whistles anyway that it’s hard to tell. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that both the ES and GS I drove here, back-to-back, had every modern comfort (leather seats, etc.), safety feature (blind-spot monitoring, rear-view cameras, multiple airbags, etc.), and technology (hook-ups to smart phones, Bluetooth, nav, yadda, yadda). As I said, I drove them one after the other and the differences were so slight that they aren‘t worth mentioning.

I almost said “modern conveniences” when I was writing about all the luxury stuff here, but I think Lexus fails to make the grade on “convenience.” When you drive a tricked-out Toyota, there is a touch screen and all that, but the access to all of the many luxury features is rather simple and straight-forward. But car designers these days feel as though they need to trick-out their real luxury vehicles with seemingly upgraded features just to make a difference statement, and here, on both of these vehicles, it has fallen short.

To access all of the things like navigation, maps, Bluetooth, and especially the radio and sound system, they have a computer-mouse-like device that can hardly be referred to as convenient. It’s distracting, inconvenient and, well, a pain. At least they have put in some default buttons to bypass the mouse: there’s a button for “audio” that brings the audio system screen up without having to go through the mouse (although you can), but then changing stations takes the mouse. Inconvenient. And just about every auto-maker has listened to the public and has separate, default buttons for the climate controls so you can change the temp and the fan speed and direction without having to mess with all the electronics. That is convenient.

The GS I drove featured the 3.5-liter V6 putting out some 306 hp, and with the AWD here it is rated at a respectable 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway. This engine coupled with a very smooth 8-speed automatic transmission, is very quick and very powerful. The handling is sublime.

The base price on this version of the GS is $50,850, and here they have added another $9k in options, most notably the $4,640 F-Sport package that, among other things, features what the Lexus website calls “Dynamic Rear Steering system (allowing) the rear wheels to automatically turn up to 2 degrees while cornering, aiding turn-in and stability.” As I said, the handling is sublime. The bottom line is $59,755.

The ES I drove is the 330h, a hybrid, that pairs a 2.5-liter in-line 4 with an electric motor for 200 hp, and it is rated at 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway. Frankly the power felt like more than 200 hp. We took this ES up into the mountains for some fall color viewing and the power, coupled with a continuously variable transmission (smooth) was excellent. The handling here was also sublime. Also, because it’s a hybrid, the batteries are behind the rear seat and, thus, the trunk is smaller than the non-hybrid versions; just FYI.

The base price on the hybrid ES is $40,430, and they tacked on another $8,000 in options – most notably $1,515 for the addition of blind-spot monitoring and lane departure warning, $1,795 for hard-disc drive navigation, voice commands, a larger screen and some other things, and $2,435 for the Ultra Luxury package including bamboo trim interior, memory/heated/cooled seats, sun shades, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel and ambient lighting. The bottom line here was $48,605.

These are undeniably beautifully rendered vehicles that will operate for years in luxury and all that. But, as I mentioned, they were virtually identical feeling cars, and a friend of mine summed up my feelings quite succinctly: I picked him up for a golf outing and, as usual, he asked me about the car (in this case the ES 300h), and he said, “I know it’s a Lexus and all, but frankly, it’s boring.”

I agreed. If I’m going to spend that much for a luxury car, I want more distinction.


2015 LEXUS GS 350 4-DR SEDAN: 3 wheels (out of four)

2015 LEXUS ES 300h SEDAN: 3 wheels (out of four)

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