Long-distance journeys may have settled into your mind, in this time of sheltering in place. One day we’ll be able to drive far, far away—and for that day your shopping list could start and begin with the 2020 Lexus ES 300h Ultra Luxury.
If you can avoid the lure of a crossover SUV, the 2020 Lexus ES stands out among four-door sedans. We give it a TCC Rating of 8.0 out of 10, and in one of the few cases of any car we review, we’d choose the ES 300h hybrid over its gas-only counterpart.It’s simple, really. The ES 300h doesn’t give up much in straight-line acceleration, but overdelivers in fuel economy. And even if gas costs less than $2 a gallon today, the ES hybrid’s 44-mpg combined EPA rating still strikes us as common sense, in the longer term.In a week I spent with an Ultra Luxury-trimmed ES, racing to get from Atlanta to the Gulf Coast before everything shut down, here’s what else hit and what missed over a few hundred miles of increasingly eerie silence.
Hit: The hybrid drivetrain. The ES 350 rates well enough on its own, and offers available all-wheel drive. We’d still pick the ES 300h hybrid, which swaps the 6-cylinder for a 2.5-liter inline-4 paired with an electric motor and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Low-emission, high-speed cruising is the ES 300h’s forte, and though its 215 horsepower net rating barely shames a Kia Forte, it’s fine for merging into interstate traffic or slipping between slowpokes who should be at home anyway.
Miss: Nearly any hint of engagement. It might have been the long interstate cruise that left me completely forgetting what the ES 300h was like to drive. The long glide path from Atlanta to the Gulf Coast takes up 350 miles and descends only 900 feet, so even an Alfa Giulia would feel calm and collected—but the ES 300h went almost completely numb once we sailed through the single curved road on the route, a high flyover that puts Montgomery in the rearview mirror.
Hit: Ultra Luxury. You’re ready for luxury, but are you ready for Ultra Luxury? You better damn well be, if you’re interested in driving this ES 300h. It’s inlaid with bamboo on the steering wheel and on the dash, the Lexus equivalent of Volvo’s wistfully gray driftwood interior. You can choose a green-gray that looks strikingly close to the actual color of money, but why when a Champagne gold (a.k.a. Moonbeam, for all those hippie Lexus converts) still is on the menu? Give me a Champagne-gold Lexus and comfortable shoes and there is no distance I cannot travel. Thoreau wrote that, or maybe I dictated it into Apple Notes in hour four of my drive. The mind grows hazy after two weeks in confinement.
Miss: Lexus doesn’t do subtle anymore. The 2020 ES hybrid wears the big spindle grille that’s now instant recognition for Lexus, and the asymmetric dash has fast become a calling card, too. For our money, the 2021 Genesis G80 takes some of the same cues and knits them together in a more self-assured way—ironic, since Lexus taught the South Koreans how to wheedle their way into the big leagues with sterling reliability and go-quietly, go-deep looks.
Hit: Greetings, Earthling. As I cross over from Flomaton, Alabama, into Century, Florida, the ES 300h spoke to me. It actually beeped into my Presidential podcast (during Grover Cleveland, natch, the very essence of presidential interruption) and wishes me a “Welcome to Florida.” It’s so low-key good; “Welcome to Florida” is practically Lexus’ mating call, anyway.
Miss: Cooled front seats. This isn’t specific to the Lexus ES—most vehicles with cooled front seats have to wedge a box fan in the bottom seat cushion. The ES’ installation made me feel like a parakeet sitting on a perch. The cooled seats can only be avoided on the base ES 300h without the Luxury or Ultra Luxury moniker. What’s the point in that, I ask?
Hit: That big EPA combined number. The ES 300h’s EPA combined rating of 44 mpg would be an epic achievement for any automaker. I didn’t have to stop at all on my five-and-a-half-hour drive. I didn’t have to stop grooving to the podcast or a playlist of late-’60s psychedelia. It’s fitting since the ES is peak Lexus, in a way its Woodstock; if you’re looking for its Altamont, head over here.
Miss: Infotainment agita. As it does in the 2020 Lexus RX 350 AWD, the touchpad interface that controls the ES 300h’s infotainment is a scalding mess. It comes with Apple CarPlay, a useful override, but the decision to mimic mouse-style movements over the surface makes the setup more confusing and more interruptive than a simple high-mounted touchscreen. Make the most of it by opting for the 12.3-inch screen that includes navigation and Mark Levinson audio, but be prepared to avoid the touchpad with steering-wheel controls, and to warn your front passengers about inadvertent hand contact.
Hit: All the safety. It’s a Top Safety Pick+ and gets five stars overall from the NHTSA—and the 2020 ES 300h has standard automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise, and adaptive lane control.
It’s hard to fathom a $55,000 Lexus that doesn’t have “LS” as its initials, but the 2020 ES 300h Ultra Luxury earns its keep and its name. My test vehicle came with navigation, blind-spot monitors, LED headlights, a head-up display, wireless smartphone charging, all for $53,295. Even now, the ES hybrid has me fantasizing about more long trips to come, in better days to come.
2020 Lexus ES 300h Ultra Luxury
Base price: $42,835 (before Ultra Luxury package)
Price as tested: $54,590
Drivetrain: 215-hp 2.5-liter inline-4 with eCVT, front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy: 43/44/44 mpg
The hits: Hybrid efficiency, luxe interior, premium audio, safety gear, and audible good wishes.
The misses: The danged touchpad, the only faintly sporty impression, cooled-seat comfort.