Smart, practical, comfortable, well-priced and will likely last until the end of time.
At some point during the development of the current ES, a spark flew across Lexus’ boardroom. What if they could claw back against SUVs by giving their long-standing sedan the option of all-wheel-drive? With the sedan form factor fighting for its life, senior management must’ve thought all-weather traction was worth a shot. And hey, why not add a bit of an appearance package to it as well to make it look sportier? Thus, the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD F-Sport was born.
To add a dose of visual athleticism to the ES, Lexus have darkened the trim, fitted a cross-hatch grille, expanded the faux intakes in the front bumper, added a diffuser-like styling element to the rear valence, tossed on a rear spoiler and bolted on a stylish set of 19-inch wheels. Even with a smattering of F-Sport emblems, it’s still a very tasteful visual package.
Of course, it certainly helps that the current Lexus ES is already a fairly handsome car in standard form. It cuts a classy silhouette with a low hood and sloping roofline and features some interesting play between light and shadow, particularly where the bodyside’s main character line and bulged rear wheel arch converge.
On the inside, the F-Sport treatment adds a wonderfully supportive set of front sport seats that feature heating, cooling and shoulder bolsters that bring the driver’s arms into a more comfortable position. Although they look racier than the standard seats, side bolstering is still conservative and they’re no less comfortable than the standard seats, a key indicator of Lexus’s intent with this car.
It’s a comfy luxury cruiser with a little extra visual appeal. With that luxury bent comes a variety of positively lovely interior touches. How about a delightfully detailed analogue clock set into the dashboard? It’s a wonderful dose of old-school luxury with a modern, zinc-countertop twist to it. Also wonderful are the interior door handles, which sprout out of the door cards with no bezels at all. They’re pure modern sculpture that you interact with every time you use the car.
One place you will find a bezel is in the digital gauge cluster. It’s been a decade since the LFA debuted, and Lexus’ digital cluster with a physical bezel that actually moves depending on cluster view is still one of the coolest gauge packages in the entire industry. It shows a deep understanding that luxury is physical, not digital.
As expected, the vast majority of interior materials are of the highest quality available for the price. While there are some hard plastics on the lower parts of the door cards, almost everything the driver can see is leather, metal, soft-touch plastics, stitched materials or otherwise an interesting colour or texture. The bezel for the stereo controls is a wonderfully complex texture and the climate control display is animated to roll temperature numbers back and forth like an old-school alarm clock.
Arguably the highlight of the whole centre stack is how Lexus has laid out the volume and tuning knobs. They’re close to the driver and concentric. Twist the smaller knob for volume, twist the ring closer to the dashboard for tuning. It’s so simple but so brilliant that anyone who uses it will wish that these concentric controls were in every single car.
With such a complete interior, the only real disappointments relate to the limited options mix on ES 250 AWD models. Navigation, for example, isn’t available unless you go up to the ES 300h or ES 350. While it’s true that Waze is better than most OEM map systems, having factory-equipped navigation is better than the alternative, which is serfdom.
Also unceremoniously absent is the availability of a Mark Levinson audio system. A killer sound system is a key part of any true luxury car, which makes the absence of one here that much more frustrating. While the standard unit is very alright for base audio, Lexus shoppers deserve more than very alright, especially when the Toyota Camry AWD can be had with a JBL system that blows the ES 250’s stereo out of the water. Thankfully, measures to address this are being considered, so true Lexus aficionados may want to hold out for 2022.
To create the ES 250, Lexus has struck a Faustian bargain, trading two cylinders for two driven wheels. I don’t think most consumers will mind though. While the two and a half-litre four-cylinder engine certainly doesn’t have the charisma or oomph of a V6, most Lexus ESs simply never get flogged hard enough for the difference to truly matter. What’s more, the addition of all-wheel-drive is a killer app, giving drivers the psychological security of all-weather traction.
In addition, the fuel economy bump is fantastic. I averaged 7.7 L/100km over a week of driving, a good tick better than the government’s combined rating of 8.4 L/100km. However, don’t think for a moment that this gives the ES 250 a jumbo jet-like cruising range. For one reason or another, Lexus has decided to fit the ES with a curiously small fuel tank. It’s not massively undersized, but that 60-litre tank is several litres smaller than what most competitors have to offer. Unlike other luxury sedans though, the ES 250 doesn’t require premium fuel which saves a healthy few dollars at the pump.
As for the all-wheel-drive side of the equation, it’s a fairly standard slip-and-grip system that shunts power rearward when slip is detected at the front tires. No surprise there, as many front-wheel-drive-based all-wheel-drive cars feature similar systems. What is a surprise though, is the gearbox. In lieu of a CVT, Lexus has given the ES 250 AWD a conventional eight-speed automatic that’s smooth, reasonably responsive and features long, economical ratios.
Eighth gear is just 0.67:1, so the engine is barely more than idling whilst loping along at highway speeds. Because this particular ES 250 AWD is the F-Sport model, said transmission comes with paddle shifters which are unusually satisfying to use. They’re ergonomically symmetrical, unlike some carmakers who think consumers are idiots and give one paddle shifter an annoying bulge or series of ridges to differentiate left and right. They’re also very well-damped with reasonably positive action and a long, engaging throw length.
On the ride and handling side of things, Lexus has actually changed some things up with the F-Sport. The suspension is a touch lower and stiffer than standard, a change with surprisingly little effect on overall comfort. The ES 250 doesn’t just cruise, it wafts, ironing out all manner of gnarly road imperfections and pummeling road noise to a hushed murmur via extensive sound-deadening measures.
Few sedans left in this price range have the same level of sheer highway comfort as the ES, and Lexus’ mid-sized sedan is all the better for it. Yet despite its serene ride and impressive size, the ES doesn’t feel like a pudding in the bends. It certainly lacks the level of sharpness and athleticism found in a Kia Stinger GT, but it feels no less of a fish out of water than the Volkswagen Arteon. The steering, while dead for feel, is reasonably precise. The great suspension that irons out freeway imperfections also irons out mid-corner camber changes and the all-wheel-drive system does an admirable job of preventing the front end from washing out early.
In conclusion, the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD F-Sport is smart, practical, comfortable, well-priced and will likely last until the end of time. Really though, anyone who’s ever owned a Lexus ES would be able to tell you the same thing. That’s part of the car’s uniqueness, it strikes such a great balance that many current owners will simply replace their current ES with a newer one when the time comes for a change. That level of model loyalty is a rare thing these days, and it’s easy to understand why the ES has it.