Looking at the 2019 Lexus ES, it’s really hard to decide what actually constitutes a luxury car anymore, or if there’s a continuing need for this kind of car. Recently, Autotrader published a list of luxurious cars from non-luxury brands. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Impala Premiere, Mazda CX-9 Signature and 2019 Toyota Avalon Limited sure look and feel like luxury cars, but they’re sold by decidedly non-luxury automotive brands. Certainly, brand determines much of our perceptions about luxury, but that’s a very small measure.
Today, asking "What am I really getting?" by spending an extra $10,000 to $30,000 on a luxury car is a completely fair question.
More Than Features
That’s the tough part for luxury automakers like Lexus. How do you compete with cars that are far less expensive, offer the same or similar features all the while building cars that have some kind of structural or mechanical relationship to clearly non-luxury parent company Toyota vehicles? The Lexus solution seems to be to double down on offering "that certain something," making the unknowable aspects of luxury tangible. In short, this makes their cars and trucks all the more Lexus-y. That there is an identifiable "Lexusness" is a victory all its own.
This isn’t really new. Decades ago, a Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz had a wholly unique look and feel, each bragging about technology and performance in a way that really meant something to luxury car buyers.
Brands like Volvo heavily emphasize design while American automakers over-index on muscle and performance. Meanwhile, Lexus has gradually changed from the "more for less" luxury brand to a clear and obvious choice based on its own merits, and not just because the cars are "less expensive than a Mercedes."
One of those merits is Lexus making the purposeful choice to include design details that have a specific Japanese look and feel (I predict this kind of thing will become a more common theme from several automakers over the next five years). This first became obvious with the redesigned Lexus LS.
As soon as I saw the LS, I knew the ES would have to be a "Baby LS" in order to survive. And that seems to be exactly what Lexus did with the ES. The changes aren’t just in spirit, the new ES is actually bigger. It’s both wider and longer. At first glance, the center part of the dash seems to suggest the ES’ similarity to the Toyota Camry — there’s something about the way the padded dash material cut across and under the heating and A/C vents. But the 12.3-inch screen (on cars with navigation), long center storage box/arm rest, touch pad, shifter and digital gauges are all Lexus. If anything, some of the patterns and textures from the Avalon have more of an LS feel than even the ES, specifically on the door panels of the higher trim versions. Thankfully, the ES has Apple CarPlay. No Android equal for Lexus owners yet.
It all goes back to that "What am I really getting?" question. Lexus can’t really offer features and performance above and beyond all other vehicles. This isn’t a knock against Lexus, as it’s true of all luxury automakers. Ten years ago when I first used adaptive cruise control in a Jaguar, I was really impressed. Today, you can get that feature on a Subaru.
All New Lexus ES
In Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Lexus officials pulled a silky sheet off the new Lexus ES. The car doesn’t feel like Lexus interior designers went as far with the themes of origami, cut glass and a specific Japanese-ness as they did with the LS, but that could be because the ES typically has a much broader appeal (and is less expensive). The exterior has that hint at Japanese craftsmanship that the LS fully embraces.
Inside and out, the new Lexus ES has a more emotional, more dramatic look, things no one would really say about previous versions of the Lexus ES. There’s even an F-Sport version of the ES now. Something many think spells the end of the Lexus GS.
That thick, almost tangible fog of sedan unpopularity hung as heavy as the evening fog rolling over the Palos Verdes Pennisula. It’s true, consumers are far less interested in sedans than SUVs these days. But I can’t imagine a luxury automaker selling cars in the US without a luxury sedan in the lineup. Even Lexus acknowledges "There are now flagship cars and SUVs in the luxury marketplace." Then again, maybe two sedans are enough. Right now, Lexus has four plus and handful of coupes. Granted, they have plenty of proper luxury SUVs too. Personally, utility vehicles can never fully carry the luxury torch for a brand — they’re just so, well, utilitarian. "Seating for six" is the opposite of luxury in my book.
When asked about the future of luxury sedans in general, Cooper Erickson, VP of Marketing for Lexus, said, "While SUV sales have grown in recent years, the size of the luxury car market is significant. Our forecasts show the sales mix for cars will stabilize around the 40 percent level. In 17CY, cars made up 43 percent of the luxury market — that was over 920K units." It’s a fair point. Roughly a million cars is significant, especially considering luxury cars transact at higher prices than non-luxury cars and can typically mean more profit per vehicle for automakers like Lexus.
The brilliance of what Lexus has done with the ES is that they’ve broadened its appeal, since it will likely be one of fewer and fewer luxury sedans offered. Yet, at the same time, they narrowed the ES’ focus to the point where it now seems more luxurious. The key to real luxury is to get very specific with textures, design, colors and driving dynamics. The real trick here is that the Lexus ES now has that specific luxury aesthetic, but it’s combined with mainstream appeal. That unlikely combination will prove the 2019 Lexus ES very popular.