Lexus ES 300h — Frugality wrapped in luxury

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Lexus introduced the first entry-level ES luxury sedan in 1989 and now six generations and hundreds and thousands of sales later it has rolled out a larger, more passenger friendly sedan and for the first time with both a gasoline and a hybrid variant.

The first five generations of the ES shared the Toyota Camry platform, but for 2013 the new ES is now closer in size to the larger Toyota Avalon. It sports a 1.8-inch longer wheelbase, and overall length has grown by one inch. Even this seemingly insignificant increase results in a more spacious interior including 4.1 additional inches of rear-seat legroom.

The ES 350 carries on with the same drivetrain found in the 2012 model and in the current Toyota Camry — the 3.5-liter V-6 making 268 horsepower mated to a six-speed transmission. The engine and transmission have been reworked to provide slightly better gas mileage. But a Lexus official admitted there was some give and take. What was taken to gain the extra mileage was about two-tenths of a second from 0-to-60, now estimated by Lexus at 7.1 seconds. We believe more buyers will embrace the gas mileage than fret over the inconsequential loss in the launch time. Gas mileage went from 19/28 to 21/31.

The headline however for the 2013 ES is the new 300h hybrid model — the first ever for the ES. The 300h is identified by the unique blue badge of the “L” logo, an exclusive rear design with hidden exhaust, an integrated rear spoiler and LED daytime running lights and combination rear lamps. Fog lamps are integrated into the sculpted lower front bumper fascia. And it is powered by the Lexus Hybrid Drive — a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine that runs on regular unleaded fuel and an electric motor. Fuel economy is excellent, EPA rated at 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway and 39 mpg combined. The system generates a total of 200 horsepower.

Mated to an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) the Lexus is an example of what a good CVT should be. It doesn’t sound like it is whining nor is it winding itself to death. A good CVT doesn’t make you realize you’re driving a CVT.

As you would expect the 300h doesn't quite measure up to the performance of the 350, but we discovered that it's no slouch and very capable of merging and passing without drama. Accelerating is not a problem with a timed 0-to-60 run of 7.8 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 15.7 seconds and nearly 90 mph, so it’s comforting to know that there is adequate performance on demand. It will take a sedate driving demeanor to accomplish 40 mpg, although we lead-footed guys still managed to bring home the 300h at nearly 38 mpg.

The new ES, regardless of powertrain, features enhanced NuLuxe seating surfaces that reduce environmental impact. Genuine leather is available for a more refined look. A new 10-way adjustable power seat is standard on all ES models and an available 12-way power seat allows the seat cushion to extend by 1.4-inches for better leg support.

With enhanced sightlines and visibility, user-friendly controls and new cabin materials the new spacious interior has been designed to provide a feeling of openness.

The second-generation Remote Touch Interface allows users to operate the climate, audio, phone controls, optional navigation system and more. But for us there is still too much distraction when attempting to perform a simple task such as change a radio pre-set.

Standard in the ES 300h is the Lexus Premium Sound System that comes with eight speakers, automatic sound balancing, in-dash CD player, USB/iPod connectivity and an integrated SiriusXM Satellite Radio receiver. Too civilized for you? Then consider the available 15-speaker 835-watt Mark Levinson system that features an eight-inch display screen, HD Radio with iTunes tagging, DVD audio/video and a SiriusXM Satellite Radio receiver. Exclusive GreenEdge technology from Mark Levinson doubles the output of the amplifier while reducing energy consumption by 50 percent.

Perhaps the big question for people who have decided to purchase a 2013 ES — is it worth an extra $2,750 to buy the hybrid over the comparably equipped ES 350? The most important numbers are 39 and 24, the combined city/highway mileage of the 300h and the 350 respectively. Figuring 12,000 miles a year and $4-a-gallon gas you would save $770 annually with the hybrid meaning it would take about three-and-one-half years to break even.

Our option-loaded ES 300h test car carried a base price of $39,745 and a bottom line of $49,065.

Base price: $39,745; as driven, $49,064
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: 200 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 156 lb.-ft. gas engine, 199 lb.-ft. electric motor
Drive: continuously variable transmission
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 111 inches
Length: 192.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,660 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 39 highway, 40 city
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Lincoln MKZ hybrid, Toyota Camry hybrid, Ford Fusion hybrid

The Good
• Fuel-efficient
• Spacious cabin
• High-tech interior

The Bad
• Controls can be distracting

The Ugly
• Options can quickly inflate price