“Good” isn’t always “memorable,” something the 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD F Sport proves to be a forgettable reminder of. Neither as enthusiastic as the smaller IS, as lavish as the LS, or as ubiquitous as the RX and NX, the midsize sedan feels generally as solid and conscientious as you’d hope from the Lexus badge on the gaping grille. It just struggles with personality.
Maybe that’s not so big a deal, mind. The 2021 ES starts at $40k, though this ES 250 AWD F Sport nudges that up to $45,700 and a handful of options – including the excellent Mark Levinson 17-speaker, 1,800 watt audio system – takes it to $53,400 including destination. Better value, arguably, than what the similarly-scaled Germans would command.
All-wheel drive is, unusually, standard on the ES 250. Lexus pairs it with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, devoid of turbocharging, supercharging, or hybridization. The result is an underwhelming 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, a far cry from the 302 hp and 267 lb-ft that the ES 350’s 3.5-liter V6 commands. Then again, the V6 only comes with front-wheel drive.
Is traction most important, or is speed? Nobody will confuse the ES 250 for a sports sedan – and, to be fair, neither does Lexus bill it as such – with 0-60 mph in a leisurely 8.6 seconds and a top speed of 131 mph. Toyota offers the same engine in the Camry, paired with an 8-speed automatic as in the ES, but the humdrum performance seems a little easier to stomach when the sticker is $20k+ lower.
What you get instead is dependability: the ES 250 cruises smoothly, with light steering and a generally serene drive. The F Sport package adds special suspension tuning, among the visual fancies, but active dampers are a separate option and weren’t on my review car. Even without them, though, it’s a compliant and cushy ride. Sure, you can twist the drive mode knob – perched up at the side of the instrument cluster – into Sport mode, but it just makes things louder and courser, without really having any noticeable benefit on overall pace.
Better, then, to settle back and treat the ES 250 in the manner it so clearly prefers: a relaxed steed with attainable cosseting. Lexus’ adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance work well, and there’s plenty of active safety tech as part of the Safety System+ 2.0 package. The only oddity is blind spot monitoring being an extra, added here as part of the F Sport haul.
Where the bigger LS took an experimental stand with its cabin aesthetic, leaning into Lexus’ Japanese heritage, the ES is a little less upfront with its local craftsmanship. Accommodation front and rear is spacious, and the F Sport seats – heated and ventilated – are plush and supple thrones. Ignore the sporty billing and just enjoy them for their road-trip excellence. The dashboard errs on the stolid side, with reassuring switchgear that’s light on frivolity but feels like it will last.
Only the door speaker grilles, perforated organically with a pattern reminiscent of some strange mushroom, add a touch of levity. You can enjoy them as you fuss your way through Lexus’ annoying infotainment system, here with the bigger, 12.3-inch screen courtesy of the $2,900 Mark Levinson and Navigation package. Regardless of whether you get that, or just the standard 8.0-inch screen, you’re stuck with Lexus’ touchpad to scroll through it.
It’s not that a touchpad is automatically a bad way to interact with your car. Acura seems to have done just fine with its system. What you get in the ES, though, is singularly frustrating, and it feels like it takes twice as long to swipe and scoot around its icons and menus as it would in rival cars. Lexus, for its part, seems to have finally conceded defeat, and there’s a new, touchscreen-based update coming to future models. For now, better to plug in your phone and use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
The dreary infotainment isn’t the ES’ only annoyance. The 13.9 cu-ft trunk isn’t bad, but the rear seats don’t drop down to expand it. Opting for the low-power engine only gets you reasonable economy figures, too. The EPA says you’ll see 25 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 28 mpg combined; I saw just shy of 26 mpg in my own, mixed use.
2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD F Sport Verdict
The 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD F Sport is just fine, and whether that’s reassuring or a crushing indictment probably depends largely on whether you see your car as an extension of your personality or a necessary appliance. It is, much like the Camry it shares a platform and drivetrain with, dependable and sturdy, and the standard all-wheel drive throws in a little extra confidence along the way.
Problem is, it’s also significantly more expensive than the Toyota, and while the V6-powered ES 350 may lack the ability to push half its power to the rear wheels, the rest of the time it’s a much more enjoyable experience from the driver’s seat. The fact that you can get a pretty darn fancy Camry these days, without breaking the bank, means you have to really want whatever cachet you attach to the Lexus badge to pry open your wallet so much further here. The 2021 ES 250 is a good car, but its biggest achievement may be highlighting just how improved its Toyota cousin is.