WHEN Lexus introduced its first car – the LS400 – to European hacks it’s fair to say there was a degree of scepticism about its claims to be a viable rival to long-established luxury badges like BMW and Mercedes. To prove its point, the company had a neat trick up its sleeve.

As a crowd of eager journalists gathered around a Lexus engineer opened the car’s bonnet and asked if anyone had a 50p coin.

After a fair bit of rummaging around (journalists have legendarily deep pockets, especially when it comes to buying a round of drinks), someone came up with a 50p which was then placed on top of the LS400’s V-8 engine balanced edge-on. At the same time, an engineer started the engine and revved it to the red line (6,000 rpm).

The coin didn’t budge. The Lexus’s engine was so beautifully balanced and smooth it didn’t even so much as shimmy.

We were slack-jawed with surprise at such a powerful visual demonstration of technological prowess. Lexus wasn’t just in Europe to make up the numbers.

The Lexus marque has been renowned for its buttery-smooth engines and comfortable suspension ever since.

It may not have a BMW’s incisive steering and chuckable handling, or Mercedes’ badge snobbery, but if you need to cover big miles in supreme peace and quiet, a Lexus should be high on your shopping list.

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The ES (for Executive Sedan) saloon is classic Lexus: a good-looking alternative to established mid-sized executive favourites like the BMW 5 Series, the Audi A6 and the Mercedes E-Class, which majors on peerless build quality, legendary reliability, and comfort.

It can trace its lineage back to the ES250, which arrived the same year as the LS400 in Japan and North America but has only just reached these shores where it takes up the cudgels from the GS saloon.

One of the (very criticisms) aimed at the original Lexus line-up was their bland styling. Not so the ES which stands out from the crowd thanks to its ‘spindle’ grille, complex flowing bodywork (just look at how the headlights wrap around the front wings), and a coupe-like sloping roofline. Subtle it ain’t, but there was no mistaking the admiring looks it attracted during the test.

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In common with every vehicle in the Lexus range you can only buy the ES as a petrol-electric hybrid. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is claimed to be the most thermally efficient powerplant in the world. This is paired with an electric motor and a battery with drive sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable (CVT) transmission – more of which anon.

This lot is good for 215bhp and yet that super frugal engine can still return more than 50mpg in everyday conditions. During a long run on the motorway, I saw almost 60mpg – a real selling feature when the price of petrol is setting new records almost every day.

The battery sits beneath the rear seat, so the Lexus doesn’t compromise on boot space, and it is possible to run on electricity alone if you enter a clean air zone.

In cruising mode, the Lexus is extremely quiet. I could barely hear the engine and the car just lapped up the miles.

But I’m not sold on that CVT transmission.

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Although Lexus claims greater involvement, thanks to electronics which mimic six gears, the old CVT bug bear of too much noise under acceleration remains (albeit much reduced compared to the majority of cars with this type of powertrain). The din when you plant your right foot comes as more of a shock because the ES is so very quiet in every other respect.

However, if you don’t have a particularly heavy foot (and with the price of fuel who does any more?) then you may never discover this particular fly in the ointment.

The interior is beautifully made from high-quality materials. The seats are fashioned from leather and electrically adjustable with a memory feature so your driving position isn’t mucked up if you share the driving with a significant other. The steering column is also electrically adjustable. Lexus uses dark ash wood veneer and chrome trim to give the cabin a visual flourish and the digital instruments are beautifully clear. If you press a button to access the main instrument settings menu, the speedo glides silently to the right to reveal another colour digital screen. Classy.

And if you can’t – or don’t – want to look at the instruments there’s a full-colour head-up display which ‘paints’ key info just below your eye-line.

There are more buttons and knobs than you’re used to in a new BMW or Audi but that’s a positive in my book. Adjusting the volume of the music system or switching radio stations is as simple as twirling a knob – so much more elegant (and safer) than prodding at a myriad of touchscreens.

In the back there’s plenty of legroom but the tallest of passengers may find the sloping roof cutting into their headroom.

Naturally, the ES boasts more gadgets than PC World, including a high-end stereo, sat-nav and full smartphone integration. You interact with the infotainment via a mouse-style touchpad which I found more intuitive than a touchscreen.

So should you buy an ES300h?

As an alternative to a BMW or an Audi I think it makes a lot of sense. Driven sensibly it is probably more refined than either of them and the hybrid tech makes it feel a little more future proof.

The only question I have is: why has it taken Lexus so long to bring this car to the UK?

Want to know more? You can find the Lexus ES300 page here