First Drive: 2013 Lexus ES 350 and ES 300h Hybrid

The Lexus ES, the brand’s popular entry-level luxury sedan since its introduction nearly 23 years ago, is all-new for the 2013 model year, following the introduction of the latest Toyota Camry last year.  Equally as important for the sixth-generation ES is the introduction of a hybrid option for the first time: the ES 300h.  For Lexus, the brand that made the hybrid luxury vehicle a green commodity, some of its recent efforts (see: the recent fate of the HS250h) did not bear copious fruit. Is the market clamoring for an ES hybrid? Lexus recently invited Autosavant to sample both models at a regional event in northern New Jersey.

In an effort to harmonize styling across the brand, the ES now wears a less aggressive version of the “spindle” — read: trapezoidal — grille first offered on the larger, more expensive GS sedan.  The 2013 model now sits on the chassis of the Toyota Avalon, as opposed to the Camry, but maintains a profile within the shadow of its predecessor.  Overall, the slightly more rounded exterior styling strikes an elegant balance reminiscent of its American and European competitors.  Think Saab 9-5 meets Kia Azera: striking, but well-proportioned and sophisticated. Hybrid models receive blue badging and feature a modified rear exhaust setup.

The interior, while neither styled edgily nor adventurously, is a pleasant place to spend time.  In a departure from previous ES interiors, which were based heavily on the design of its less posh cousin, the Camry, the 2013 model’s features a wide dashboard with a surfeit of amenities and customizable settings. While the interior’s sharp, new design is a welcome departure from ES models’ past, some of the plastics, materials and surfaces were not consistent with the paradigm Lexus established decades earlier for quality.

The center stack is dominated by a seven-inch screen that houses an all-encompassing infotainment system, controlled either by a joystick or by voice commands. For Lexus’ target customer over 40 years old, there exists a significant learning curve to embracing the full functionality of the Lexus system. For technophiles, however, the system’s responsiveness is impressive, and the optional Mark Levinson audio system delivers crisp, clear sound.

The ES 350 is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 — the same engine that also powered its predecessor — that musters 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque.  Its six-speed automatic transmission is unflappable, managing to produce alacritous acceleration on the highway when called upon. The ES 300h has the same powertrain setup as the Toyota Camry Hybrid: a 2.5-liter, 156-horsepower four-cylinder engine, complemented by a nickel-metal hydride battery for a total of 200 net horsepower. Thanks to clever calibration, the ES hybrid achieves the magic 40 mpg figure, placing it squarely among competitors like the Lincoln MKZ hybrid. Like other Toyota hybrids, the ES 300h also offers an “EV-only” mode, which enables electric-only travel up to approximately 25 mph, before the gas engine cuts in.

Power delivery, however, is tuned for comfortable, leisurely cruising. With a heavy foot, there is plentiful off-the-line wheelspin, but aspirations of track days dissipate quickly as speed builds.  Even in the sportiest of the three selectable chassis settings, the ES demonstrates reflexes tuned for harmony.  Steering effort is light, the brakes are strong, and the suspension is neither overly stiff nor mushy.  A significant amount of road noise crept into the cabin on the highway — not enough to disrupt a conversation, but noticeable enough for a Lexus.  Overall, the ride was smooth and compliant, if not disconnected, over a selection of northern New Jersey’s highways and back roads.  Think of it as a lightly anesthetized luxury cruiser.

Pricing has not yet been announced, but it’s a safe bet that the ES 350 and ES 300h will remain comfortably around the $36,000+ price tag of the 2012 ES. With a critical mass building of new or redone midsize luxury sedans from Japan, Korea and the United States, the ES will once again face a competitive market.  But thanks to stand-out styling and a competent hybrid option, the ES looks to distinguish itself as a worthy competitor.

Lexus provided access to the vehicles reviewed as well as a few tasty meals.

Author: Jeff Jablansky

Jeff Jablansky was born with his hands planted firmly at 10 and 2. He has written for automotive enthusiast publications in the United States and abroad. His favorite road trip memory involves a Hyundai, a winding desert road and a herd of sheep. He is convinced that there is a car culture that goes beyond taxis in his current city of New York.

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