YOU may never believe your eyes when you see the new 2013 Lexus ES series, because the styling is so modern, so clean, and so handsome that you swear you are looking at an expensive European luxury car costing twice as much.
In particular, it's significant this year because - for the first time since its debut - the new sixth generation ES series also includes the hybrid version called the Lexus ES 300h.
Hybrids are a growing market trend and command an increasing share of both Toyota and Lexus sales these days. Yes, generally the initial purchase price is more and there's a cargo space sacrifice in order to make room for the hybrid's battery pack. The attraction of hybrids also goes beyond simply fuel economy savings, especially for an affluent buyer who's paying more than $40,000 for an ES 300h.
It's cool and gratifying to be part of the green movement these days.
More and more consumers are opting for the green choice, on lots of products, even though there's usually an extra monetary outlay involved. In the case of Lexus ES, the 300h (hybrid) costs $4,400 more than its gas-engine-only partner, the ES350.
On the other hand, you can also make a financially sound case for buying a hybrid if you believe the price of gasoline will continue on an upward trend and the hybrid model will maintain a higher value at the end of your ownership period. Both are reasonable assumptions.
The ES 300h sports the new, more aggressive look of Lexus on the outside and has a longer wheelbase that allows more interior room. It's most apparent in the rear seat area where there's a considerable increase (104 millimetres) in legroom and some extra (18 mm) headroom. In addition, there are electronic and connectivity improvements, new safety features and new
steering and suspension upgrades that significantly enhance the driving experience.
The new front suspension has opposite-wound coil springs that provide better straight-line stability and the rear suspension geometry has been revised. Its new steering gear has a quicker ratio (14.8: 1 compared to 16.1: 1) and a more responsive feel.
The rear-mounted battery pack in the hybrid also gives the front-drive ES a more balanced feel on the road.
The base ES 300h comes with environmentally friendly NuLuxe upholstery and both semi-aniline leather and genuine leather are available in upgrade packages. The option packages can also pile on lots of premium luxury features like a heated wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel, window shades on the rear doors, a power rear window sun shade, a one-touch power trunk closer and both heated and ventilated front seats.
A modern sedan shape with a sweeping roofline, the new ES has a lower and slightly longer profile and noticeably shorter body overhangs front and back, due to its 45.7-mm longer wheelbase. Overall, the new look of Lexus is more sculptured and shapelier, yet still includes the characteristic horizontal spindle grille.
Daytime running lights are a string of LEDs that form a clever and distinctive "L" shaped pattern. While the ES 350 has dual exhaust pipes sticking out the back, there's no visible exhaust pipe on the ES 300h. What it does come with is a trunk lid spoiler (for improved aerodynamics), plus unique 17-inch alloy wheels and distinctive badges with blue shading.
No surprises here, the emphasis is decidedly on comfort in a cabin that also provides a nice sense of openness and refinement.
My test 300h came with a Leather Package ($6,550), which added wood trim that was also on sections of the steering wheel. Navigation and an absolutely awesome Mark Levinson audio system were also included.
I generally don't comment on audio systems unless they are exceptional and the optional Mark Levinson system certainly falls into that category. It offers 12channel DVD audio through a 835-watt amplifier and 15 speakers. You'll hear sounds that you've never noticed before in tunes that you've heard a million times.
The Leather Package also includes Remote Touch Interface (RTI), which can be used to operate climate, audio, phone, navigation and more, with a mouse-like controller on the centre console. It's a second generation system that gives the user a unique tactile feel, called "haptic" feedback, as it locks on to usable screen icons. Functions can be configured by the driver and the "enter" command is now accomplished by simply pushing down the controller.
While the trunk of the ES 300h is smaller (by 87 litres) than the ES 350, it's still a good size and big enough for
most owners. Fold-down rear seatbacks are not a feature offered on either vehicle, however, a small pass-through flap (for long skinny objects - like ski equipment) is offered on the ES 350.
One disappointment was the black material used on the front seatbacks, which was at odds with an otherwise refined cabin décor. I'm sure most buyers, who do pay extra for leather upholstery, would prefer a matching-colour leather panel.
The ES comes standard with class-leading 10 airbags. Knee air bags provide extra protection for both the driver and front passenger and there are seat-mounted side air bags front and rear. The selection of optional safety features include Blind Spot Monitor (with Rear Cross Traffic Alert), Lane Departure Alert, automatic high beam dimming technology, and even a pre-collision system that uses sub-millimetre wave radar.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call the ES 300h a "sport sedan," it's certainly no couch on wheels.
Unexpected driving delights included quicker responding electric rack-and-pinion steering, rock steady straight line directional control on the highway and driver selected performance modes that change engine, transmission and steering settings.
The emphasis is on a relaxed driving experience when you get behind the wheel of an ES 300h.
Its controls are clearly marked, easy to find and uncomplicated. A supple suspension does a superb job of cushioning road irregularities and suppressing outside noise and it's complemented by the smoothest hybrid drive system that I've had the pleasure to drive.
Basically it's a Lexus version of the Camry hybrid drive system. An Atkinson-cycle 2.5-litre, four-cylinder gas engine that can produce 156 horsepower is linked to an integrated hybrid electric motor/generator. Together they can produce a total yield of 200 h.p., when needed.
The transmission is a CV (continuously variable) type and there's a 245-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack stored behind the rear seats, in the trunk.
The ES 300h is heavier (by 50 kilograms) than the ES 350 and apparently about a second slower to 100 kilometres per hour, yet can be surprisingly quick off the line from a standing start. The extra weight is in the back, which actually helps the overall balance of the car and improves handling.
Around town a driver can use an EV (or electric only) mode at speeds up to 40 km/h, until battery charge is depleted. Exceptionally good fuel economy is possible in an urban setting or during a heavy traffic commute, where this mode and the hybrid drive system can be used to their full potential. It transitions between electric or gasoline power, or both, almost seamlessly.
City fuel consumption in an ES300h is about half that of the ES 350 (4.7 litres/100 kilometres versus 9.4 l/100 km), based on Natural Resources Canada ratings. Or to express it another way, CO2 emissions from an ES 300h are estimated to be 1,610 kilograms lower annually.
Fast facts - 2013 Lexus ES300h
Price (as tested): $43,900 ($52,801)
Trim levels: ES300h
Power: 2.5-litre I4/electric motor - 200 horsepower
Transmission: CVT automatic
Fuel consumption: 4.7/5.1
litres/100 kilometres (city/ highway)