The Lexus ES 250 is not the sort of car that normally gets a lot of veneration in the automotive press. The ES, after all, is a front-wheel-drive Lexus sedan traditionally aimed at the kind of buyers who once would have bought cars like the Buick Park Avenue: luxurious but decidedly uninvolving four-doors made to make the act of driving as low-energy as possible.
The ES 250 version, new for the 2021 model year, adds all-wheel-drive to the mix — but it does so at the cost of power, replacing the 302-hp 3.5-liter V6 under the hood of the ES 350 with a 2.5-liter inline-four making just 203 horses. Even for a car with a more relaxed mission brief, a 33-percent drop in power seems like a potential dealbreaker.
But not always. The roughly 1,300-mile trip from New York City to Detroit is one of few opportunities for playful driving; once out of Manhattan, it’s all highway all the way to the Spirit of Detroit monument. To make that drive — especially in the cold of November, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has you hoping to minimize interactions with your fellow humans — you want a ride that’s smooth, spacious, fuel-efficient and confidence-inspiring in all sorts of weather.
And the ES 250 turned out to fit that bill even better than I’d hoped.
Thankfully, the skies remained clear and the roads stayed clean during both legs of the trip, which meant the all-wheel-drive system could remain in reserve. Still, given that the route carried us through the rolling mountains of Pennsylvania and within the lake effect snow shadow of Lake Erie, the threat of inclement weather hung over the trip almost as much as the threat of coronavirus casting a six-foot sphere of danger around every person we saw.
The inline-four proved more than adequate at keeping up with traffic, even when taking into consideration my leaden foot and the fast-moving flow of traffic on the Ohio Turnpike, where packs of cars doing 85 miles per hour were easily found (and quickly joined). When prodded, the eight-speed automatic quickly snaps through its gears to put the engine in the heart of the powerband; and while the sound of the inline-four is hardly worth writing home about, the Lexus’s ample acoustic insulation meant most of the noise was blotted out. And even the F Sport version’s sportier suspension proved as adept at smoothing out pavement blemishes as the front seats were at averting discomfort over dual nine-hour stretches.
More notably, the four-pot turned in delightful gas mileage figures, considering it was dragging more than 4,000 pounds of car, mammal and gear at cruising speeds usually volleying between 75 and 80. I saw an average of almost 32 miles per gallon over the trip, according to the on-board computer — close to the 34-mpg EPA highway estimate that’s set at speeds that induce a good bit less drag. That meant we could easily knock out 350 miles in a single blast with fuel to spare, enabling us to do the dash with only one pit stop.
The ES is among the most affordable members of the Lexus lineup, with its base price of $41,350 ringing in at just $900 more than the IS sedan and a few grand more than the UX and NX crossovers. Yet unlike all three of those vehicles, it certainly doesn’t feel like it lies at the bottom of a luxury car portfolio. It’s less a matter of materials or quality than simple size; while the IS, UX and NX are all compact to the point of cramped, the ES has domestic-first-class accommodations for four inside. (And, as we discovered after sliding a dozen bags and a large painting into the trunk, a very big boot.)
It’s based on the same platform as the latest Toyota Avalon, itself a delightful full-size car; indeed, the biggest difference between them is that the ES offers a far more attractive design and a more luxurious interior for a few dollars more.
The ES still has its share of issues, of course. The multimedia system remains more difficult to master than most other infotainment systems, thanks to its free-floating cursor and lack of touchscreen capability (the latter being remedied in newer versions of the system that haven’t reached the ES yet). Over the course of 20 hours of drive time, though, I found a workaround: avoid it at all costs.
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It took a few (frustrating) minutes when the car was parked to program all my presets into the radio, but it paid dividends on the drive; I was able to plug in my iPhone and leave the screen on CarPlay the entire time, toggling between satellite radio channels using the thumb controls on the steering wheel. (The system still has manual knobs for volume and tuning, as well as hard buttons to skip tracks and should the passenger need to fiddle with them.)
Indeed, the ES thankfully makes it possible to largely avoid the infotainment system for many tasks other carmakers hide behind their systems. The drive mode selector is a twisty knob on the hood shading the instrument panel; the seat heater and climate controls all have physical buttons, as do the cruise control, automatic high beams, screen brightness adjusters, etc. If you use CarPlay or Android Auto, odds are good you’ll almost never need to futz with the infotainment system’s irritating controls at all.
So while it might not be my first choice in cars at its price — or yours, for that matter — the ES 250 isn’t the kind of car that should be dismissed outright if you’re looking for dependable year-round transportation for a family. Fact is, thanks to the addition of all-wheel-drive, it just might be able to win over some buyers who might normally be inclined to buy an SUV...and even this comfort-minded Lexus is more fun behind the wheel than many of them.
They're much more practical than this one.