The Lexus ES: History, Generations, Specifications
A brief history of the Lexus ES, and tons of info about the company’s first-ever entry-level luxury car.
Lexus ES Essential History
Most of us know of Lexus' first flagship car, the LS, which came on the scene for the 1990 model year and single-handedly changed the luxury-car business in the U.S. But not everyone realizes the LS did not go it alone—right beside was its faithful entry-level sidekick, the Lexus ES.
Toyota, Lexus' parent company, had concerns about launching a new brand with just one high-priced car, so it created the ES to give dealers a better shot at clinching sales. The front-wheel-drive ES was based on the Japanese-market Toyota Soarer, a car that shared pretty much everything but body panels with a certain volume-selling family sedan. Our sister publication MotorTrend dubbed the 1990 Lexus ES 250 as the "country club Camry," a reputation the ES would spend the next 30 years trying to shake off.
The first-generation Lexus ES 250 shared its 156-horsepower, 2.5-liter 24-valve V-6 with the Camry, and amazingly it could be had with a five-speed manual transmission. Reviews were lukewarm; the interior was built to the same high standards as the LS, but most critics saw it as too Camry-like, though sales were quite good.
The second-generation ES of 1992 was an attempt at further differentiation. The ES was still based on the Camry, with both cars growing into the mid-size category. The new ES 300 moniker denoted a bigger, 185-hp, 3.0-liter V-6. Though still clearly a Camry derivative, the ES 300 had at least established its own personality, and it became Lexus' best-selling vehicle. Lexus facelifted the ES 300 for 1995, but the car was fundamentally unchanged.
Lexus introduced the third-generation ES, still called ES 300, for the 1997 model year, though its 3.0-liter engine was now up to 200 hp. Little was done to change a successful formula; the new ES was a bit more rakish but fundamentally similar. A mild restyle followed for 2000.
By the time the third-generation ES hit showrooms for 2002, Lexus had launched its sporty IS, and that allowed the still-Camry-based ES 300 to emphasize luxury over athleticism, a role in which the ES never really excelled. The new car was notable for its bigger headlights and smaller taillights, though the overall rounded shape remained. A new 3.3-liter engine meant a new name (ES 330) for 2004, and the 2005 version got its expected styling refresh.
More of the same for 2007 as Lexus launched the fourth-gen ES 350, now with a 272-hp, 3.5-liter engine that made it significantly quicker. Lexus continued to offer features found in its higher-end models, including radar-based adaptive cruise control and rain-sensing wipers. The fourth-gen car was facelifted for 2010 and, as expected, received few significant changes over its model run.
When the sixth-generation, 2013 Lexus ES arrived, we finally saw something a little different. The car grew significantly, and it was now more closely related to the larger Toyota Avalon than the Camry. Alongside the ES 350, Lexus introduced a hybrid variant, the ES 300h, which paired a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with the Hybrid Synergy Drive system employed by other Toyota and Lexus hybrids. Both models were built in Toyota's Georgetown, Kentucky, plants, the first Lexus models entrusted to a U.S. factory.
For 2019, Lexus moved the seventh-generation ES to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform and introduced a new F-Sport model, a sign that the ES was trying to shake off its stuffed-shirt reputation. The new ES was indeed more athletic, though still not exactly a driver's car. The ES 350 upgraded to an eight-speed automatic, while the hybrid got a little more power from its four-cylinder engine and was rated at a remarkable 44 mpg in the EPA combined cycle.
Lexus ES Highlights
Unlike the Acura Integra, the Lexus ES never really gained a devout following; instead it has spent all of its career trying to throw off comparisons to lesser Toyota models. But the ES has been a solid seller for the brand, a car that offered all the expected Lexus comforts to a buyer base that didn't care about having the latest-and-greatest road-going technology like it would in the LS models.
Though the early ES had some sporting pretentionciousness—you could even get it with a stick-shift in early years—once Lexus launched the rear-wheel-drive IS in 1999, the pressure to perform was taken off the ES. This hindered the brand as a whole, though, and Lexus tried to restore some of that driver-friendly image with the 2019 ES 350 F Sport.
Incidentally, Lexus wasn't the only Japanese brand to launch its headliner luxury car with a cheaper stablemate. Acura supplemented the Legend with the affordable Integra (which turned out to be a surprise hit), while Infiniti's Q45 sat side-by-side with the M30 and, a year later, the G20.
Lexus ES Buying Tips
It should come as no surprise the ES has attracted very little interest from collectors, but for buyers looking for luxury on a budget, the ES is a good choice. It's an exceptionally robust car that will run for hundreds of thousands of miles if well cared for, and since it shares internals with Toyota, the ES is much less likely to drown its owner in expensive repair bills than an aging German car might.
For die-hard Lexus fans, we think the first- and second-generation cars have the most collector interest, especially if you can find one with a five-speed manual (and if you can, bring it to Los Angeles so we can drive it). If you're a posh pauper looking for a cheap luxury ride, any ES built in the last 10 years or so—heck, maybe even 20—with less than a quarter-million miles on the clock should fit the bill just fine.
Lexus ES Articles on Automobile
Lexus ES Recent Auctions
Lexus ES Quick Facts
- Launched as a sidekick model to the 1990 Lexus LS400
- Original base price: $21,050
- Based on the Japanese-market Toyota Soarer
- First Lexus model built in the U.S.
Lexus ES FAQ
Is the Lexus ES a good car?
If by good you mean quiet, upscale, luxurious and reliable, then yes, the Lexus ES is an excellent car. Reliability is its strong suit, as an older Lexus will cause far fewer headaches than an older car. If, however, by "good" you mean interesting to drive, then … no, it really isn't.
What does the ES in Lexus ES stand for?
According to Toyota, when ES was coined, it stood for Executive Sedan.
Is the Lexus ES better than the Lexus GS?
Lexus positioned the GS higher in its lineup than the ES. The ES is meant to be an entry-level, front-wheel-drive car that puts an emphasis on value and comfort, while the GS is meant to be a larger rear-driver aimed at premium German sedans like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5-Series.