A decidedly OK sedan, now with AWD
THE GOOD
  • Big and comfy rear seats
  • Decent handling
  • Looks nice on the outside
THE BAD
  • Slow without the fuel economy to compensate
  • Relatively small trunk with seats that don’t fold down
  • Infotainment

On the list of features most likely cited as must-have by the typical Canadian car buyer, all-wheel drive ranks pretty high.

Lexus is heeding the call by finally powering all four wheels of its midsize ES sedan. But instead of simply adding an electric rear axle to the hybrid version, as AutoTrader.ca editor in chief Jodi Lai has suggested, it’s gone the conventional route and applied a mechanical all-wheel drive (AWD) system to the least expensive and least powerful trim to create the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD.

Styling: 8/10

With a sleek shape and the brand’s aggressive signature grille, the ES is a stylish sedan that’s enhanced by a handful of optional F Sport touches like gunmetal grey 19-inch wheels, unique shift knob and steering wheel, a darkened grille, and a trunk spoiler. The ES has always had a certain long, low, and conservative look, but the F-branded changes make this current one a significantly more youthful sight to behold.

On the inside, the ES is a relatively simple and elegant space. A couple of cool, small touches reminiscent of more prestigious Lexus products include interior door handles that resemble those found in the flagship LC coupe, as well as temperature readouts that change with an abnormally amusing rolling animation just like they did in the old GS sedan.

Safety: 7.5/10

The Lexus ES comes standard with adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beam headlights, 10 airbags, and a back-up camera (the latter is mandated by the federal government). Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, however, only comes with the optional Premium package, or the F Sport bundle that was equipped on this tester.

When it comes to semi-autonomous highway driving, the ES is less capable than the average entry in the segment. The lane-keeping system struggles to negotiate most curves in the road, while the adaptive cruise doesn’t feel as natural as most other systems on the market.

Outward visibility, however, is great, and the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded the 2021 ES 250 AWD a five-star overall rating for crashworthiness.

Features: 7/10

Before digging into the options menu, every ES 250 AWD is equipped with a sunroof, power, heated, and ventilated front seats, keyless entry with push-button start, dual-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch wheels, an eight-inch infotainment screen, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

There are two options packages available: the $4,200, luxury-leaning Premium pack, and the sportier $4,700 F Sport pack that came with the car you see here. Choosing either adds memory, folding, and automatic reverse-tilting mirrors, a power tilt, telescopic, and heated steering wheel, blind-spot monitoring, and rain-sensing wipers. The Premium pack is the only way to get an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a big 12.3-inch infotainment screen, and built-in navigation; while the F Sport includes the brand’s nifty LFA-inspired digital instrument that features a circular tachometer that physically moves left and right. Lexus’ great upgraded audio system is not available in this base-engine ES 250, but the 10 speakers here sound good enough that they could probably fool quite a few people into thinking this was a premium unit.

Overall, the level of equipment on offer here is... fine. ES 250 owners won’t exactly be slumming it, but other than that cool gauge cluster, there’s also nothing here that can’t already be had on a well-equipped – and less expensive – mainstream sedan. There’s no head-up display or ambient lighting, and the fact that the ES 250’s most expensive F Sport trim goes without the upsize centre screen or built-in navigation is frustrating. But, the ES does have a CD player, so there’s that.

User Friendliness: 7.5/10

Par for the course for a car that caters to those who still listen to CDs, the 2021 Lexus ES’s infotainment displays are not touchscreens. Instead, this sedan uses the company’s ever-finicky console-mounted touchpad, which isn’t very easy to use and a weak point Lexus fully recognizes (the refreshed 2022 ES will be getting a new touchscreen-enabled system).

Physically, the Lexus ES’s cabin is laid out logically. Buttons, switches, and knobs are clearly labelled and, like the bigger LS sedan, Lexus has efficiently incorporated the tuning knob as a ring that circles the volume knob.

Practicality: 7.5/10

If you didn’t know, this car’s name stands for “executive sedan,” and like any executive sedan worth its salt, the ES’s back seat is generously sized both in terms of leg- and headroom. Most adults should fit comfortably back there, while the front row feels fairly roomy as well. The trunk is big enough to hold 394 L of stuff which, for comparison, is a bit bigger than the trunk of the similarly sized Acura TLX but significantly smaller than that of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class – despite that car’s rear-drive architecture – as well as that of the Toyota Camry equipped with AWD.

Another ding against the ES’s practicality is the fact that its rear seats can’t be folded down. There is, however, a narrow pass-through in the centre of the bench to accommodate long and adequately skinny items like skis. Overall, Lexus says the addition of AWD has not affected rear-seat legroom or cargo capacity.

Comfort: 9/10

Historically, supreme ride comfort has always been a hallmark of a stately Lexus sedan like this and, despite this ES’s inherently sportier demeanour and tighter F Sport suspension, it’s still a very comfortable car. Road and wind noise, and even the harshest of bumps are kept at bay, while the faux-leather F Sport seats are well-bolstered and comfortable.

The steering wheel is heated as part of the F Sport package, while three-stage heated and ventilated front seats with an automatic setting are standard equipment.

Power: 7/10

The Lexus ES 250 AWD is powered by a 2.5L four-cylinder making 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Those figures would be fine if this were a tiny sports car or lightweight hatchback, or if those figures were accessible at low revs, but none of that applies here. The ES is a relatively hefty luxury car, and the fact that it makes those numbers without turbocharging means peak torque is only there from 4,000 to 5,000 rpm, and peak power doesn’t come in until 6,500 rpm – areas of the tachometer not often explored in everyday driving.

As a result, the AWD ES is not a quick car by any sort of modern standard, nor is the engine here particularly charismatic. It gets by alright in the city, but on the highway urgent merges and timely passes will require a bit of planning.

The big story with this particular ES is, of course, the addition of all-wheel drive, which has clearly been implemented in a way that introduces as little drawback as possible. To save fuel, for example, the AWD system isn’t actually engaged when extra traction isn’t needed (i.e. most of the time), rendering this car front-wheel drive for the majority of situations. When faced with sketchier surfaces such as heavy rain or snow, however, the AWD ES can send as much as 50 per cent of torque to the rear axle. Lexus says the transition between front- and all-wheel drive shouldn’t be noticeable to occupants and, if AWD did indeed ever engage during testing, I can confirm this claim to be true.

Driving Feel: 7.5/10

Like the Toyota Camry this shares a platform with, the Lexus ES has come a long way from the floaty, boring barge it used to be. Steering is decently responsive and the whole car is naturally more substantial-feeling than that midsize Toyota. The F Sport package even equips the ES with sport-tuned suspension.

However, Lexus hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, because the ES is still an extremely smooth cruiser, gliding its way through highway duty with a quiet pleasantness Lexus buyers have come to expect. The brake pedal is appropriately soft and squishy but still reassuring to use and easy to use smoothly through stop-and-go traffic.

Fuel Economy: 6/10

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the ES 250 AWD is rated for 9.5 L/100 km in the city, 7.0 on the highway, and 8.4 combined. After a week of testing, the onboard trip computer showed a frankly disappointing 11.0 L/100 km.

Even if the ES 250 had hit its official efficiency rating, 8.4 L/100 km is still just OK for a machine with 203 hp, mostly due to the fact that this powerplant does without any turbocharging or electrification. For contrast, the hybrid ES 300h is rated for an impressive 5.3 L/100 km and even beat that during testing, returning 5.0 L/100 km.

Value: 7/10

Despite it being the only one available with AWD, the ES 250 is the cheapest Lexus ES you can get, starting at just $47,345 including its non-negotiable freight charge of $2,095. Throw in the $4,700 F Sport bundle, and the red vehicle tested here stickered for precisely $52,145 before tax.

That price puts it right in between base, no-option examples of stuff like the Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5 Series, which start in the mid-$60,000s, and well-optioned mainstream family sedans like the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, which go for about $40,000.

Just like this car’s fuel economy, then, its list price isn’t terrible nor is it amazing considering the overall luxury experience on offer. It’s just OK.

The Verdict

As a whole, the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD is a perfectly fine luxury commuter that’s priced fairly appropriately. It doesn’t really excel in any one area, but infotainment aside, perhaps, it doesn’t have many truly fatal flaws, either. If you’re looking for a decently styled and comfortable luxury sedan and are okay with it not being the fastest or fanciest one out there, the ES can be a great choice. Also, it being a Lexus, it’ll probably last a long time, while the addition of AWD only sweetens the deal.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $45,250
Peak Horsepower 203 hp @ 6,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 184 lb-ft @ 4,000–5,000 rpm   Destination Fee $2,095
Fuel Economy 9.5 / 7.0 / 8.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $52,145
Cargo Space 394 L  
Optional Equipment
$4,700 – F Sport 1 Package, $4,700