Hybrid Lexus Dishes Design, Great Mileage

Njuguna Kabugi | 6/19/2013, 3 p.m.
In the Lexus automobile lineup, the ES series does not stand out in any particular category
The 2013 Lexus ES marks the seventh generation of the model that helped to establish the Lexus brand and remains one of the marque's best sellers. (Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales)

In the Lexus automobile lineup, the ES series does not stand out in any particular category. It is not as sporty as the smaller IS series, neither is it as luxurious as the GS or LS. But like the sibling who’s often overlooked but still manages to curve out an enviable niche, the ES distinguishes itself in the category that matters most in the auto business – it is the leader of the pack in sales. As a matter of fact, the ES has been the marque’s best seller since the brand’s launch back in 1989.

In earlier generations, the ES was a thinly veiled Camry, with both cars developed together on a common platform. But with every passing redesign, the parent company, Toyota, has made an effort to distinguish the two. For this year, the ES has truly outgrown the Camry in length.

The ES is roomier inside, offers more features and for the first time has adopted a blunter nose, a taller greenhouse enclosure, a longer hood and a shorter trunk. The new proportions make the ES look less like a Toyota and more like one of the family with the new Lexus spindle grille shared by all the siblings.

We test drove the new hybrid version. Virtually identical to the V-6–powered Lexus ES350 in every respect but its powertrain, the ES300h is the brand’s first entry into the growing entry-luxury hybrid segment. Under the hood is the same 2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive system that powers the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the new Toyota Avalon Hybrid. Toyota quotes the total system horsepower at 200. The ES300h features three drive modes, just like its V-6 sibling: Normal, Eco, and Sport. Unlike its sibling, the hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission. While I have trashed CVTs in many of my reviews, I was pleasantly pleased with this one. In every mode, the ride is quick, and the CVT system complies without fuss.

The ES300h offers a good argument why one should consider a hybrid. Whether one is in it for eco posing or for the nobler goals of environmental friendliness and efficiency, the ES300 nearly doubles the mileage output of the gasoline only engine – from 21 mpg for city driving to 40. I managed 35 mpg during a week of mixed driving in the Washington area; that’s 4 mpg better than what I got in the non-luxury Camry hybrid.

The ES300h offers great build quality, a quiet, stable ride, a very comfortable interior and plenty of entertainment and safety gizmos to go with it. I was particularly pleased by the leather-trimmed cabin highlighted by tasteful wood and metallic accents. It’s the kind of car I would love to buy were it not for that journalist-scale salary I take home. The V-6-powered ES350 starts at $36,995, while the new ES300h hybrid model rings in at $39,745.

While the ES300h offers a good value for a Lexus, it faces stiff competition, both from the expected rivals from Audi, Infiniti, and Acura badges, and also from its platform-mate: the freshly re-launched and redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, which offers a nearly identical level of comfort, efficiency, and technology for thousands of dollars less.