Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: February 7, 2021
The Toyota Camry and Avalon received all-wheel drive for 2021, so it only made sense that its luxury-oriented stablemate, the Lexus ES, received the same treatment given they share the same platform and internals. Previously front-wheel drive only, the ES is now better equipped to traverse inclement weather, as well as stopping sedan owners from jumping ship into SUVs. Because like Toyota, Lexus claims many of its customers are switching to the more popular NX and RX partly due to the need for four-driven wheels.
While we’re not a huge proponent for AWD as it adds unnecessary weight and complex parts - FWD with proper winter tires is usually enough for the job. The widened safety net that it provides to consumers, both mentally and physically, is apparently worth Lexus’ time and money. They’re not the only ones either. Nissan has installed AWD on their Altima sedan. Dodge has done the same with the Charger and Challenger, not to mention the Subaru Legacy which has been in the AWD game longer than most. Most of the Lexus ES’ direct competition like the Infiniti Q50, Acura TLX, and Volvo S60 have it as well.
Sharing an all-wheel drive system with the Camry also means sharing an engine and gearbox, hence the ES 250 badge. That refers to a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. It’s actually the same engine used in the ES 300h hybrid but total output here remains a measly 203 hp and 185 lb-ft. That’s a 99 hp deficit from the V6-powered ES 350, and 12 hp shy of the hybrid. It weighs 40 kg more than the V6 model as well, so don’t expect a rocketship.
The ES 250’s AWD system can send up to 50% of torque to the rear axle but cannot apportion them to the individual wheels. What it can do though is disengage the rear axle when AWD isn’t required, like on long highway stretches, to save fuel. More importantly though, Lexus says that even with the added parts, rear seat floor height and trunk floor height are identical to the FWD variant.
Starting at $45,050, the ES 250 AWD actually rings up at the bottom of the trim ladder, sitting below the more expensive ES 350 ($49,450) and the ES 300h ($51,450). There are two main packages to opt for, a Premium Package ($4,200) that focuses more on luxury amenities, wood trims, extensive use of leather, and road comfort, and an F Sport 1 Package ($4,700) that adds a sport-tuned suspension, more aggressive exterior sheetmetal with exclusive paint colours, a rear spoiler, and F Sport seats and steering wheel.
During our multiple road tests of the standard FWD ES 350, did we ever wish for more grip and four-driven wheels? Absolutely not, but then again we were never blessed with being buried in knee-deep snow or have a cottage country road to frequent. Proper winter tires will do the trick just fine but like many things in life, the perceived benefits of added tools and improvements heavily outweigh its actual real-life performance. And that won’t stop owners from paying a little extra for an automotive guardian angel.
That said, there really are no distinctive penalties from its AWD system, other than the horsepower penalty. Grip is applaudable around slippery right-hand turns, and we really couldn’t notice the added heft from the AWD mechanicals either.
The four-cylinder engine is adequate for daily duties and provides ample acceleration but don’t expect the immediate thrust brought forth by the more potent V6. Highway overtakes may take more preemptive planning, though the low-end of the powerband feels adequate. It huffs and puffs, stretching out the breadth of its lungs when you’re gunning it into the high RPMs, and it’s in this realm that the real weakness of the small displacement motor begins to show. The good news? There’s no brash and whiny CVT like in the Subaru Legacy. The bad? The powertrain is still a bit noisy. Even the liberal use of cabin insulation doesn’t mute out the unwanted noise, and the engine excessively reverberates and whines when it’s cold. The ES 250 AWD is an exceptionally comfortable road cruiser, though. Performance aside, the ES was always a smooth operator, never one to prioritize top speed over perfectly negotiating pockmarked roads.
The interior of the AWD variant is your standard fare ES, which means loaded up. It will steal your money away with swaths of leather, metal textures, high glossy plastics, a soft headliner, and not to mention the swoopy door handles ripped straight out of the LC 500. In fact, the ES provides a more upscale vibe than many other top-tier luxury models. Lexus have always designed some of the most visually appealing and ergonomically sound steering wheels too. Not only is it comfortable to grasp but its cozy 90-degree position and embedded buttons and dials feel exceptionally premium. The seats are plump and supportive, and the rear seats are spacious enough to fit three six-foot adults. The trunk is cavernous as well, and even though its entry portal may not be as convenient or as sizable as the RX for loading larger items, it is perfectly usable for weekly errand runs.
The AWD-equipped Lexus ES 250 is not the most exciting variant, nor is it the quickest or most fuel-efficient, but it is the most affordable and the best equipped for tackling inclement weather. Whether or not you truly need the AWD is always going to be up for debate, but if it’s a simple choice of more grip or more power, I would personally lean towards the latter. Still, listing just under $50,000 makes the ES 250 incredibly appealing, and the thought of an AWD guardian angel will surely make owners think twice before jumping ship to the more popular RX SUV.
Model: 2021 Lexus ES 250 AWD
Paint Type: Matador Red Mica
Base Price: $45,050
Price as Tested: $49,750
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,975 / 1,865 / 1,445
Curb weight (kg): 1,695
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower: 203 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.5 / 7.0 / 8.4
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.4