Thumbs Up: Perhaps the best long-distance commuter car on the planet, for now.
Thumbs Down: Not much here for driving enthusiasts.
Buy This Car If: Your idea of an easy commute is 100 miles round-trip.
When it comes to luxury, few manufacturers understand how to coddle buyers in its cars and showrooms quite as well as Lexus. Its build quality is beyond reproach, its cars are ever-increasingly stylish and its dealers treat customers like extended family members; in short, we’d have a hard time naming an automaker that works harder to be atop the luxury pile than Lexus.
Its parent, Toyota, has arguably the best success in the industry in building and selling hybrid vehicles. You could, we’re convinced, put the Prius name on just about anything and watch it fly off the showroom floor, and its years of experience building parallel hybrids have proven that the technology is both sound and reliable.
Ironically, when you combine the two, success has been anything but guaranteed. Take the Lexus HS 250h hybrid, for example; by the time the automaker killed it off in the United States, dealers were selling just a handful per month. Even the CT 200h hybrid hatchback soon outpaced its bigger brother, likely due to its lower cost of entry. Only the RX 450h hybrid crossover has sold consistently well for Toyota’s luxury division.
That’s about to change, courtesy of the new-for-2013 Lexus ES 300h hybrid sedan. We’ll preface this by saying we typically view hybrid automobiles with the same disdain reserved for oral surgery, Brussels sprouts and political advertising, but here’s the cold, hard truth: under the right circumstances of joyless highway mega-mile commuting, we’d be hard-pressed to name a better choice than the 2013 Lexus ES 300h.
The “why” is simple: the big sedan is a comfortable place to soak up the miles or the hours, depending upon traffic flow. It’s quiet as a tomb inside, and the optional Mark Levinson audio system will please even the most die-hard audiophiles. On the highway, the ES hybrid delivers a truly impressive 39 mpg, though we’ll admit to seeing an indicated 40 mpg plus at speeds we’d rather not cop to in print. Around town, the Lexus does even better, upping that number to 40 mpg.
It’s easy on the eyes, too, though admittedly we’d take it in a color other than beige (or “Satin Cashmere Metal,” as Lexus calls it). Up front, the ES wears Lexus’ spindle grille, while a surprisingly aggressive lower fascia attempts to add some sport to the car’s lines. Narrow headlights are accented by LED Daytime Running Lights, giving the sedan a contemporary look.
In profile, the gentle sweep of the roof line into the C-pillar is gives the car an upscale feel, and we like that fact that Lexus didn’t go overboard in trimming the daylight opening with too much chrome. Even the “Hybrid” badging on the rear passenger doors is subtle; enough to remind the neighbors that you care about the environment, but not enough to be tacky.
The conservative styling carries over to the rear as well, which is graced with thin tail lights, a tasteful deck lid spoiler and a surprisingly bold rear fascia, which we’re sure has more to do with reducing drag at speed than it does with styling. Overall, the look of the car is handsome, without being bland, and as far as we can tell that’s exactly what Lexus buyers want parked in their driveways and garages.
The interior, we’re happy to report, is typical Lexus fare. The dash uses a multi-tiered design that puts the navigation screen as close to the driver’s line of sight as possible. The low-glare black top is bisected by wood and metal trim (bamboo trim, in this case), while the dash lower is color-coordinated with the rest of the interior. On the console, Lexus’ controller for the infotainment system falls readily to hand, and like everything else about the car, you realize that an engineer spent serious time sweating the details on its placement. We’re not fans of multi-surface steering wheels (since the change in friction makes spirited driving that much more difficult), but the average ES buyer will likely be sucked in by the perceived elegance of premium wood and leather.
Instruments consist of a power gauge, temperature gauge, speedometer, fuel gauge and driver information display, which can illustrate when the ES 300h is being powered by batteries, its Atkinson-cycle engine or both. The display will even demonstrate when the onboard batteries are being recharged via coasting or regenerative braking. That’s redundant, since the power gauge will show in the “Charge” range when the batteries are being powered, in the “Eco” range when the car is being driven to optimize fuel economy or in the “Power” range when you mat the accelerator.
As you’d expect from Lexus, the front seats remain comfortable no matter how much time you spend sitting in them. Our Ultra Luxury Package-equipped car came with semi-aniline leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats and a powered thigh extension for the driver’s seat. Both driver and passenger get inflatable lumbar support, making the ES a superb choice for long-distance comfort.
Those relegated to the second row will have few complaints, as headroom and legroom abound. The seats are spacious and comfortable for extended periods, even if they lack the adjustability and climate control of the front chairs. Included in the Ultra Luxury Package is a powered rear window sunshade and manual door shades, ensuring that rear seat occupants remain comfortable no matter what angle the sun is at.
Under the hood lies a hybrid powertrain shared with the Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Toyota Camry Hybrid. In a word, it’s superb, delivering enough combined power to provide reasonable acceleration while returning impressive fuel economy. The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine works in conjunction with an electric motor to deliver 200 combined horsepower, and an unspecified-by-Lexus amount of torque. That’s good enough to get the big sedan from 0-60 in a tick over eight seconds, although it feels even quicker than that. The EPA says to expect 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 40 mpg combined, which isn’t too far off the mark of our 38.7 mpg in combined driving. If we had to give points off for anything, it would be the car’s CVT, which is a further nod towards maximizing fuel economy.
Perhaps the ES 300h’s best achievement is how much it feels like a conventional automobile. Unlike the needlessly-complex HS 250h hybrid, driving the ES 300h is as simple as climbing in, starting it up, throwing the (conventional) shift lever in Drive and pressing the accelerator. Since starting the car really just turns it on (the engine doesn’t fire until you drive off), it does take some time behind the wheel to adjust to the eerie silence.
The ES 300h comes with Lexus’ Drive Mode Select feature, too, but let’s be honest here: the ES 300h is too big and too underpowered to deliver much entertainment value in Sport mode, while Eco mode feels almost dangerously slow to us. Most owners will choose to leave the car in Normal mode, which delivers satisfactory performance and good fuel economy.
While the hybrid sedan wouldn’t be our first choice for navigating a twisty mountain road, it would be near the top of our list for a leisurely coast-to-coast drive, since its quiet interior, supple ride and comfortable surroundings work in harmony to reduce driver and passenger fatigue. If we had a sanity-draining commute of several hours per day, much of it stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the ES 300h would likely be our first pick for a luxury sedan, as long as we had something with entertainment value parked in the garage for weekend use.
Lexus supplied the 2013 ES 300h for our review. The base price was $39,745, including a destination charge of $895, and options on our car included the $500 Blind Spot Monitor with Cross Traffic Alert, the $965 Lane Departure Alert with Automatic Headlights, the $400 Motorized Trunk Lid, the $500 Intuitive Parking Assist, the $155 Rain-Sensing Wipers With Deicer, the $2,435 Ultra Luxury Package (semi-aniline leather trimmed interior, front passenger seat memory, heated & ventilated front seats, rear sunshades, driver’s seat cushion extension, bamboo wood trim, ambient lighting, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel), the $3,745 Navigation / Mark Levinson Audio Package (835-Watt Mark Levinson audio system, hard disk based navigation system, backup camera, Lexus Enform with App Suite, Destination Assist, Sirius XM traffic & weather), the $450 Leather Trimmed Shift Knob and Leather Trimmed Heated Steering Wheel, the $64 Cargo Net and the $105 Trunk Mat for a total sticker price of $49,064.
For comparative purposes, a loaded-up (but not equally-equipped) 2013 Buick Regal Hybrid Premium 2 would list for $34,825, while a comparable 2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid would sticker at $45,855.