In the few years following the launch of the game-changing LS 400 in 1989, Lexus created for itself an image of being the purveyor of some of the world’s most comfortable and reliable cars. As significant as this image was, it also made it difficult for the Japanese brand to be seen as an alternative to performance-oriented cars made by many of its German and American rivals. It was stuck with the perception of a brand that creates products that are built for people who don’t particularly care for cars. However, under the stewardship of Akio Toyoda, president of parent company Toyota Motor Co., Lexus has been making genuine efforts to distance itself from this image. Determined to “never see the words, ‘boring’ and ‘Lexus’ used in the same sentence ever again,” Toyoda has spearheaded a revolution that has seen the LC Coupe and the flagship LS saloon bring a dash of excitement and dynamism into its cars.

Now, Lexus wants to apply the same formula to the ES saloon. Well, I can’t imagine anyone reading that line without a raised eyebrow! That’s understandable as the ES has always epitomised utterly reliable dreariness. What you saw was what you got, much like its name, which, quite unimaginatively, is an acronym for Executive Sedan! Not developed new from the ground up like the LS 400, the first few generations of the ES were based on the Toyota Camry’s platform. But with the smaller IS taking the entry-level spot, Lexus got a chance to move the ES more upmarket from the sixth generation onwards, building it on the larger Avalon’s platform. And now, for the seventh generation, it seeks to add some sporty pretensions both in terms of design as well as its mechanicals.

 

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Photos: Stefan Lindeque

Based on Lexus’ GA-K platform, which is derived from Toyota’s New Global Architecture that underpins the latest Camry and Avalon, the 2019 ES is by far the best looking ever. It looks like a smaller version of the LS, but seems to have smoother, more graceful lines. The spindle grille, which is the dominating feature up front, looks more naturally integrated than in the previous version, and there are several sharp lines and creases across the length and breadth of the car, in contrast to the slab-sided design of its predecessor. This is an actually aggressive and sporty design, especially in the F-Sport trim, which is being introduced to the ES line for the first time. The lower height and the fastback-like roofline combined with a lower bonnet and shorter front overhang lend the ES an overall hunkered down stance.

The cabin is also a striking departure from the previous model’s. Styling cues have been taken from the new LS’ cabin, although a bit more subdued and less polarising than the flagship saloon’s. It has considerably more character than the plain interiors of the sixth-gen, and the materials and craftsmanship are top notch. The dashboard and the centre console are all intuitively laid out, and a large display screen takes centre stage, but the infotainment interface is still controlled by the much-maligned track pad. While wood, real or faux, is generally the trim of choice in this class of car, our F-Sport tester comes adorned with metallic cabin accents, apparently inspired by “Katana”, a traditional Japanese sword. The deep red and black upholstery is exquisite in look and feel, and the seats are comfortable and well bolstered. The seats come with ample adjustment options, and finding the perfect position in front of the steering wheel is a breeze. There’s plenty of room in here, including enough headroom at the back for passengers with above-average height despite the sloping roofline.

Safety has been bolstered thanks to the Lexus Safety System+, an advanced package that includes Pre-Collision System (with pedestrian detection during daylight and certain low-light condition, all-speed range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with a new feature called Lane Tracing Assist, and two-stage adaptive high beam system. It also comes equipped with 10 SRS airbags, Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Anti-lock Braking System, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Blind Spot Monitor, and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert among others.

 

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Photos: Stefan Lindeque

Power comes from the familiar, silky smooth 3.5-litre V6 block, which is good for 301 horsepower, mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. Although its powertrain is the same as that of the standard ES 350, the F Sport version feels sporty, thanks to the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) similar to the one found on the LC coupe. Flick the LFA-style stalk above the instrument hood to Sport or Sport+, and the engine, transmission and suspension settings change to more aggressive settings. In Sport+ mode, the sound enhancement mode also kicks in, funnelling more of the engine’s sountrack into the cabin. The steering is also precise in the sportier settings.

Does this make the ES 350 F-Sport a sports saloon? The answer is “No”. However, it’s an infinitely better car visually, dynamically and technologically than the one it replaces. Starting from Dh195,000, it will go a long way in altering perceptions not only for the ES nameplate, but also for Lexus as a brand.