To be honest, the Lexus ES is a hard car for me to get excited about. I've always sort of thought it as an overpriced Toyota Camry for old folks with a few extra bucks to spend on leather seats.
The new 2013 Lexus ES strikes back at my expectations with a handsome design both outside and inside. I'm particularly pleased by the leather-trimmed cabin highlighted by tasteful wood and metallic accents. I'm also a huge fan of brown cars, so I was happy to see our 2013 Lexus ES 300h arrive in Fire Agate Pearl, which is fancy-pants automaker speak for pearlescent brown. Don't turn up your nose, it's a gorgeous color.
However, the freshly relaunched and redesigned Lexus ES faces stiff competition, both from the expected rivals bearing Audi, Infiniti, and Hyundai badges, and also from its platform-mate: the freshly relaunched and redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, which offers a nearly identical level of comfort, efficiency, and technology for thousands of dollars less.
2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy workhorse
The Lexus ES 300h's engine room is familiar to me. Lift the hood and you'll find the same 2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive system that powers the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid. Total system horsepower is quoted at 200 ponies, of which 156 are provided by the Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine at the system's heart, which puts out 156 pound-feet of torque. The total combined torque of the gasoline and electric engines is not published by Toyota.
Torque travels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) on its way to the front wheels.
Near the ES' shifter stalk is the three-mode Drive Selector, which gives the driver a degree of control over the sedan's attitude. Twisting this knob to left of the baseline Normal mode activates the Eco drive mode, which detunes the driver's throttle inputs for smoother acceleration at the expense of some responsiveness. This mode also adjusts the climate control to be more efficient. Both the Eco and Normal modes display a Hybrid Power Monitor and bathe the instrument cluster with blue light when you're driving efficiently.
Twist the Drive Selector to the right and the ES shifts into Sport mode, which throws efficiency out of the window -- at least, as much as this sort of wimpy power train can. The instrument cluster glows red and the Hybrid Power Monitor is replaced by a tachometer. The throttle map is boosted for better accelerator tip-in and the electronic power-steering system's responsiveness is increased. The ES 300h's CVT also features a Sport mode accessed by pushing the shifter stalk to the left from Drive (there's also a manual shift program) that holds at a higher rpm, further boosting responsiveness.
The engine note from the 2.5-liter hybrid system sounds a bit like a 200-horsepower vacuum cleaner during full-bore, Sport mode-enhanced acceleration. The fact that the CVT simply holds the rpm at one droning point rather than sweeping through the range is good for efficiency, but is also enough to discourage much "sporty" driving in the ES 300h.
Finally, the ES f300h has an EV mode that attempts to use purely electric power to motivate the vehicle. The system will disable EV mode if you attempt to accelerate too quickly, if you exceed about 40 mph, or if the battery level drops too low, so this mode is probably best saved for parking lots or the last mile home in residential areas.
Our tester served as our primary transportation as we road-tripped from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the 2012 LA Auto Show. The ride down Interstate 5 was extremely comfortable and the Lexus did a good job of isolating us from road, wind, and engine noise and soaking up bumps in the road. The power train didn't seem to be straining at all to hold our slightly higher-than-average cruising speed.
The ES feels like it was designed for crowded cities such as Los Angeles. Its accelerator pedal feels responsive in the sub-50-mph world of city driving. In LA's stop-and-go traffic -- both on the highway and on surface roads -- I was surprised by how willing the hybrid was to keep creeping along on little more than electric power, even in its Normal drive program. Electric-power-to-gasoline-engine transitions were silky-smooth, almost imperceptible in most situations if you weren't looking for the switch, and the light (if not slightly over-boosted) power steering was good for avoiding driving fatigue and maneuvering silently through parking garages with one hand free for sipping a latte.
The EPA estimates the ES 300h's fuel economy at 40 city, 39 highway, and 40 combined mpg. Under the lead feet of CNET's editors, our tester averaged about 36.2 mpg after about 800 miles of highway cruising at a less than ideal 75-to-80-mph average and a few days of LA traffic.