Driver's Seat: Lexus' 2013 ES300h is a hybrid in an entry-level luxury sedan's skin

The 2013 ES300h, the sixth hybrid in Lexus' lineup, is rated at 40 m.p.g. in city driving. Performance is not blistering but is adequate.
The 2013 ES300h, the sixth hybrid in Lexus' lineup, is rated at 40 m.p.g. in city driving. Performance is not blistering but is adequate.
Posted: July 05, 2012

Do people who want luxury care about fuel economy?

Lexus is betting that the answer is yes.

Thus comes the unveiling of the 2013 ES300h hybrid. The entry-level luxury sedan will make the sixth hybrid in the Lexus lineup when it joins the fleet in mid-August.

"There really isn't anything that competes with it that gets close to the mileage numbers," Lexus marketing vice president Brian Smith said during the recent East Coast unveiling of the entry-level luxury sedan's new look and new power train offering.

The ES300h receives a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and marries it to an electric motor, and the result is an EPA mileage figure of 39 combined m.p.g.

A quick spin: Lexus gave a preview of the new model along with the redesigned 2013 ES350 at a recent press event near New York City, so I didn't get to spend my usual week getting to know either car closely. But I did put about 100 miles on the two vehicles as a driver and passenger around the understatedly named town of Short Hills, N.J. (I found the hills rather tall myself, the better to test out cars with.)

Beyond what's under the hood — and the accompanying performance and fuel economy figures — the two models are virtually identical, except for some details such as the exhaust pipes.

The ES350's 3.5-liter V-6 produces 268 horsepower and 248 foot-pounds of torque. The ES300h's power train produces a combined 200 horsepower.

Price: Toyota plans to release 2013 pricing around mid-August, when the car goes on sale. The current ES350 starts at just under $37,000. I'd bet on somewhere in the $37s for the new 350 and low $40s for the hybrid. (To compare, the RX crossover hybrid has a $6,000 premium over the gasoline-powered RX, and the GS luxury hybrid is $12,000 over the GS sedan.)

Outside: Though the two ES models look like a Camry to the untrained eye, for this redesign Lexus chose the larger Avalon platform for the underpinnings.

Inside: The folks from Lexus spoke at length of the detailed craftsmanship of their vehicle, and the spaciousness of the rear seat.

The hand stitching on the dashboard and the seating is certainly attractive, and it's provided by specially trained Takumi craftsmen.

Rear-seat passengers will enjoy the added benefit of more than four extra inches of leg room. It has space for adults who have been stretched well beyond the six-foot range, although at 5-feet-10, I can only infer.

Interacting: The infotainment screen is operated by joystick control, allowing users to turn, twist, and push their way through selections. A few more buttons would make it easier to operate the Lexus stereo and navigation, but the system performed adequately.

Performance: Like most Lexuses (Lexi?), neither the ES350 nor the ES300h hurtled passengers or excited test drivers like myself. The 350 had get-up-and-go comparable to other sedans of its breeding. The 300h, on the other hand, made a lot of noise about moving, but the hybrid and the CVT took away some of the zip.

Getting up to highway speed on the hills of Interstate 78 was no challenge for either vehicle, really. Still, if you're looking for a racer or something to thrill you on the curves, this isn't it.

Comfort: Lexus didn't get where it is by thrilling automotive journalists. Its success is built on providing owners luxury and comfort, all in a package that has a track record that shows it will withstand everything short of nuclear holocaust.

And the seats were roomy and comfortable, and the materials felt supple. Personally, I didn't find it had that special something of Acuras and BMWs I've tested, but it was definitely high quality.

Hauling stuff: The trunk puts the ES at a disadvantage. Neither version offers a fold-down rear seat.

And in the hybrid, the battery and inverter eat into trunk space, dropping the 15 or so cubic feet of trunk room to 12.

Fuel economy: Because I didn't have one car for an extended period, my usual as-tested mileage numbers are not to be had. The EPA estimates put it at 40 in town and 39 on the highway. Hybrid numbers have gone all over the place for me, especially if it's not a Prius, so the real world can be a crapshoot.

Still, Smith said Lexus is targeting 25 percent of all sales of the ES to be hybrids.

"Our research shows the hybrid is truly a game changer," he said.

Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

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