Unable to harpoon the entry-level, $35-50K luxury automobile segment to the same level of success that, say, BMW has had with its 3-Series, Lexus has adopted a strategy that brackets the segment with two utterly antithetical cars—the tidy IS sport sedan and the sprawling, tranquil ES. Now, I could pitch one against the other here and tell you which one is best, but honestly, in this case, everybody wins.
Both are essentially brand-new cars; the V-6-powered ES350 and its hybrid ES300h twin were brilliantly redesigned for 2013, adding gobs of style and top-shelf substance like semi-analine leather and sexy bamboo trim to what had been a rather matronly proposition in its past iterations. The much smaller, rear-wheel-drive IS250 and IS350 are all-new for 2014, lunging for the 3-Series’ jugular with absolutely gorgeous steering and handling, revvy and conspicuously sonorous engines and decidedly intimate—if a touch over-styled—cabins. Both share Lexus’ new spindle-shaped grille and arrow-like LED daytime running lights, but while the ES looks like Mister Responsible, the IS is a bratty little punk that happens to be wearing a business suit.
Divergent as they are in the way they get down the road, there’s plenty of overlap in other areas. Both cars offer Mark Levinson surround sound audio systems, comfy leather seats (the ES, being more like lounge chairs, those of the IS being rather snug), a joystick-like Remote Touch screen interface and a full suite of Lexus Apps, including OnStar-like destination assist, local gas prices and more. Materials are a little hit-or-miss inside both cars—the beige ‘metallic’ plastic trim found in most every Lexus model today is particularly appalling—proving that the Germans still do the best job of covertly sneaking in the cheap bits without anyone noticing.
Both get excellent fuel economy, particularly on the highway; while the IS numbers weren’t made public at the time of this writing, the trip computer on the prototype I drove for a week told me that I averaged 32 mpg on the freeway down to San Diego one day, and 26 mpg during the week I drove it. The ES350 gets 21/31 city/highway, while the ES300h hybrid hits an impressive 40/39 city highway.
So, whether the IS or ES is better for you depends on which end of the introvert/extrovert spectrum you resemble most. Whether you’re the calm, quiet type or the shameless extrovert, this year you’re more likely to find something you love at the Lexus store than ever before.