The Lexus ES, originally a part of Toyota’s effort to penetrate the luxury market by adding high-end features to a reliable lineup of sedans. As time went on, and Lexus reached into the upper echelons of the luxury market, the ES grew distant from its Camry underpinnings on the surface, but retained a position as a solid competitor to domestic and import brands. For 2013, the ES moves to a platform shared with the larger Avalon, and the lineup also expands to include the ES300h, the first ES hybrid. Is the ES hybrid the car the luxury market was asking for?
To find out, after attending the regional launch of the new ES lineup this summer, I borrowed an ES300h for a week’s worth of flogging. The answer, however, came about as a result of a weekday, cross-town jaunt in Manhattan.
On the penultimate day of my ES hybrid loan, I found out that I had an unscheduled meeting on the other side of the island of Manhattan — the Upper West Side, to be precise. That same day. In the middle of the afternoon. And it was close to 42ºF, and all I had was a light jacket. (First-world problems, I know.) Given several attractive options for transportation, including a trip by subway that would include two transfers and sloughing through the residue left by a rainstorm, I decided to drive. The trip of approximately 3.5 miles would occur during rush hour, would require a jaunt through Central Park, and would likely involve a heavy amount of stop-and-go traffic.
A perfect environment, then, to test out everything that the ES was intended to do: provide a relaxing setting for driving, while sipping fuel as opposed to guzzling it.
I exited the parking garage in the deliciously brown ES hybrid on 40th Street off First Avenue and set the navigation system toward 83rd Street. Although the navigation has some obfuscatory menus and settings, voice control ably handled my requests – although not as clearly, perhaps, as a cab driver might have interpreted my cross-street request. The first mistake that the navigation system made was routing my journey west along 42nd Street, before heading north toward Columbus Circle, and up Broadway to my destination. Any Manhattanite worth his $6/grain salt understands that Times Square is a bustling, chaotic mess, and is best avoided at busy hours.
No problem, then: a flick of the wheel diverted the journey up Third Avenue to avoid the jams. The steering in the ES hybrid, like many of its primary functions — accelerating, braking, and handling — is light and somewhat overboosted. While this level of comfort will appease and satisfy a target audience looking for a leisurely driving experience, it frustrated my Type-A personality rather than calmed it. Instead, I cranked up the stereo and set it to classical music, which was delivered with the quality and confidence of a much more expensive system.
I looked at my watch, and then looked up at traffic. It looked as if Third Avenue was coming to a standstill, so I ducked west up a side street in the mid-50s, and made a right on Park Avenue. The nav system politely suggested I take 59th Street, a useful conduit littered with horses and buggies, but I refused. My ignorance led me to turn off the system entirely, and nearly miss the left turn on a clear and open thoroughfare. The ES300h’s continuously variable transmission, which made an irritating sound on the highway on a weekend road trip, was consistent in power delivery and provided the boost necessary to squeeze in between cabs.
Things were looking up, until I checked my watch again. By no fault of the ES, it looked like I was going to miss my meeting. By this point, I had reached Columbus Circle, and was about to enter the harrowing, messy roundabout that had consumed the rims and sidewalls of friends and family. Even though the ES rides on a larger platform than before, it still handled like a midsize car, and played nicely with taxis and gypsy cabs alike.
A deadline to make, I snuck west several avenues and booked it up the free and clear West Side. With two minutes to spare, I dropped the ES with a garage attendant and miraculously made it to the meeting. I watched as the attendant raised the window and marveled at how quiet the Lexus was, as I had, throughout the 45-minute trek uptown.
The ES hybrid, then, provides a careful compromise between the attributes that make its traditionally powered sibling a top seller, and the dull perception of owning a hybrid. The 300h delivered superb fuel economy, due in part to its CVT and stop-start hybrid system, and was no less luxurious than its stablemate. With the herd of luxury hybrids and diesels thickening, however, incumbents from Europe may pose a renewed threat to the brand originally designed to beat them on price and quality.
Lexus provided the vehicle tested, as well as insurance and a tank of gas. Thanks to the hybrid’s extended range, that tank went a long way.