If you’re buying a premium luxury vehicle, you’re likely looking for more than just a good drive experience, you also seek a vehicle with a strong brand identity. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Maserati, Alfa-Romeo, even Tesla have established a certain reputation. Drivers who seek a car with that particular personality head to the car-maker’s lots to check out the offerings. Lexus, the premium upmarket Toyota brand, is also in this category and for the most part, the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD offered a premium finish, high levels of comfort, and a beautiful exterior. But I couldn’t help wondering about the personality of a Lexus, and spending a week behind the wheel of the first all-wheel drive ES series Lexus gave me a chance to appreciate the car, but didn’t really help me identify the Lexus mojo.
Living in Colorado where we have all sorts of weather, often in the same day, a safety feature like all-wheel drive is essential, so that addition is a boon for the ES line. There’s no reason to worry that the addition of AWD drags down the fuel efficiency either, as the 2021 ES 250 AWD has the best fuel ratings of any gas model in the ES lineup. Toyota has excellent hybrid technology too, of course, and you can indeed buy an ES Hybrid, but if that’s more tech than you are ready for, this one offers a combined 28 mpg.
But, as always, let’s start with an exterior shot:
This is “Atomic Silver” and you can see the aggressive front grill which garnered both positive and negative comments. Not quite as bad as the weirdly out-of-place front grill of the BMW 430i I just drove, but it’s hard not to look at it and think about the cowcatchers on the front of old steam trains. I mean, if you drove into a really big potato would you make french fries? 🤪
Overall, though, the lines are beautifully sleek and the curve of the back window into the trunk I found reminiscent of the higher-end Audi A7. With the entire front end drawing to the point of the Lexus logo on the grill, there’s also a sense of speed about the parked ES 250 AWD that’s unusual for a luxury sedan. So how luxurious is it? Here’s the interior dash:
There are touches that do remind me of the Toyota design, but the ES 250 is very nice, even if the materials are a bit downmarket for a sedan costing over $52,000. I was expecting some wood panels, perhaps a buried LED that gave the dash a cool illumination at night, something, but the only real touch of personality in the dash area is the swooping dashboard molding that cuts across the center climate control area. The strangest bit of design? The two knobs sticking out the sides of the main gauge area. The left dial lets you disable traction control and the right dial – where a lot of drivers are going to have to hunt to find the control – lets you switch between Sport, Normal and Eco drive modes. Why there, Lexus? Why not have that dial on the center armrest area, where the driver’s already trained to look due to the gearshift and Lexus Remote Touchpad?
Driving so many different cars, it’s interesting for me to observe where things trip me up. Sometimes it’s hunting for the lever to open the gas cover, sometimes it’s enabling auto-folding side mirrors (or disabling it!) and in this instance, it was trying to figure out how to switch from Eco to Sport modes. You do get feedback on drive mode on the main gauge, with the gauges actually changing color as is now a common practice. Here’s Sport mode:
The top left might just be a bit overloaded with tiny icons, but overall, a clear and sporty display with everything you might want, from outside temperature and time to current and average fuel efficiency. Notice that it might be rated 25/34 but my best was 25.7 with highway driving in the mix. I mostly drive in Eco mode too, since I’m always interested in the efficiency of the engine.
Going back to the dash, the Lexus Multimedia System with 12.3-inch screen and Mark Levinson Audio Package (a $2900 upgrade) was pretty sweet:
Yes, there’s the trademark Lexus analog clock. They’re in every single Lexus and are somewhat of a quaint trademark item at this point in the brand’s history. Back to that Mark Levinson audio system, because it’s pretty impressive. It’s pushing out 1800 watts of sound through the 17 speakers located throughout the vehicle. When you blast the music that car’s a-rockin’ and it sounds terrific. Is it worth $2900? Yes, definitely, unless you’re the type that listens to podcasts to the exclusion of everything else. If you let your teens drive this ES 250, they’ll definitely love, love, love the sound system.
The climate controls were a bit awkward with the rounded up/down dial, but they worked perfectly well once I got used to them. The Radio/Media/Seek Track buttons? I don’t think I touched them a single time, with all the redundant controls on the steering wheel.
The hardest element to master is really that controversial Lexus Remote Touchpad. It’s just a weird interface element for a moving vehicle. Parked, it makes sense (though is a bit overly sensitive), but if you’re driving on any but the smoothest of roads, the chance of a bump causing you to accidentally make a choice that you then have to back out of is frustratingly high. Gotta say, I’m not a fan to the point I highly encourage you to try this user interface out before you make a purchase decision for a Lexus vehicle. You might find it’s terrific, but you also might find it darn frustrating.
The 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD had another interesting upgrade: A Qi wireless charger that was located in the armrest. If you want to charge your phone while driving, you won’t be able to see it. If the vehicle included wireless CarPlay or wireless Android Auto, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but it doesn’t. So you either plug your smartphone into the USB port located behind the gearshift and use CarPlay/Android Auto, or you’re rather out of luck if your phone’s a bit low on juice. Which makes that wireless charging upgrade one that probably won’t see too much use with a modern driver.
Rear legroom was good, though as always, a tall driver definitely eats into that space:
There is a very nice fold-down armrest to separate the backseat passengers and give them cupholders, as shown. Helpful, particularly with younger passengers in bad moods.
There’s also a decent amount of trunk space:
But I noticed something very weird. This car included the trunk mat + cargo net + wheel locks + key gloves upgrade, but the trunk mat isn’t cut properly for the trunk space itself. You can see what I mean in this closeup:
Seems like a really odd problem to encounter in a luxury vehicle and I wonder whether the dealer prep somehow resulted in the wrong mat being dropped into this trunk? I’d be curious to hear from other Lexus owners if their mats have the same awkward fit or are they form-fitted, including the curves of the wheel wells, etc?
This brings us to the drive experience. Turns out that the 2.5L 4-cylinder 8-speed automatic with its 203hp is plenty to power this vehicle and it’s a fun and peppy drive. Still a bit of hesitation from a stop, but winding through the ‘burbs or navigating highway traffic is all good and it’s a low center of gravity that helps you hug the road on higher speed turns too. The 2021 ES 250 AWD is lovely and has some punch, kind of what you want from a luxury sedan in the modern era:
At the end of the day, my biggest gripe might be the Lexus Remote Touchpad interface, but while it’s comfortable and attractive, is it luxurious enough to justify the premium price tag? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
CONFIGURATION: 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD in Atomic Silver, featuring a 2.5L 4-Cyl Engine with 8-speed automatic transmission. MSRP: $39,900. OPTIONS include blind-spot monitor, 10.2-inch heads up display, triple beam LED headlamps, Mark Levinson audio / navigation system, hands-free power trunk, premium package for drivers seat, outside mirrors, etc, rear spoiler, heated wood and leather trimmed steering wheel, wood trim with ambient lighting, all-weather floor liners, etc, etc, etc. AS DRIVEN: $52,900.
Disclosure: Lexus loaned me the 2021 ES 250 AWD for a week so I could test drive and then write about it. Thanks, Lexus!