Ultimate Commuter Car Reinvented as a Luxury Hybrid
In a break with tradition, this Lexus ES doesn't have a V6 engine that runs as smoothly as an expensive drip coffeemaker. Instead, the 2013 Lexus ES 300 hybrid has a four-cylinder engine, a couple electric motors and a battery pack, and operates more like a Keurig brewer, only without the wasteful little plastic pods.
Lexus estimates that one in four ES customers now cares more about fuel economy than straight-line performance, and now the automaker is betting that those people are willing to pay extra for it. In this case, the 2013 Lexus ES 300h costs $2,750 more than the more powerful ES 350.
That's a lot of money to spend on a good cause. Thankfully, the Lexus ES 300h is more than just frugal on gas; it's still enjoyable to drive when you forget to care about mpg.
Is 40 MPG Good Enough?
Forty mpg is the EPA's combined rating for the ES 300h, which also earns 40 city and 39 highway mpg ratings. That combined number is what might talk you out of buying the 268-horsepower 2013 Lexus ES 350, which is rated at 24 mpg combined.
We hit 40.8 mpg without trying very hard on the Edmunds Testing Team's official fuel economy test loop. It's a 105-mile route that includes plenty of stop-and-go that exploits the advantages of series-parallel hybrids like this Lexus ES, which shuts off its gasoline engine early and often.
Our next 600 miles are mostly highway and we drive them like a typical Lexus ES owner. Accordingly, we're not aggressive or mean, but we stay with the flow of Southern California traffic and resist any urge to draft off 18-wheelers. We wrap up the week with a respectable 37.9 mpg average.
It's a solid number for a 3,700-pound sedan the size of the ES, but its competition has thrown off the curve for large hybrid sedans. The 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid is rated at 47 mpg combined, while the 2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is sitting almost pretty at 45 combined. Getting 40 mpg in a midsize sedan doesn't seem so impressive anymore.
It's Not Slow
But there's a lot to be said for the way the 2013 Lexus ES 300h gathers speed in cutthroat freeway traffic. It's quiet, unstrained and almost quick.
The best part of its drivetrain is the strong 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine. The Atkinson-cycle engine has a narrow power band, but it still manages 156 hp at 5,700 rpm and 156 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. With another 44 hp coming from the nickel-metal hydride battery pack via the electric drive motor, the hybrid ES gets a nice round 200-hp rating (just like the Camry Hybrid and Avalon Hybrid).
The only time we really hear the gas engine is when we're climbing a steady grade — the continuously variable transmission (CVT) has it slaving away at redline to maintain our 70-mph pace. Otherwise, this four-cylinder is hardly working, and we're barely aware of the CVT blending the two power sources. Of course, there's an Eco mode that slackens throttle response when you want to eke every last mpg and Sport mode for when you just don't care. We leave it in Eco and rarely go hungry in passing situations.
At our test track, the 2013 ES 300h arrives at 60 mph in 7.8 seconds (or 7.4 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and goes through the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 89.8 mph. This gives it a half-second advantage over the less powerful Fusion Hybrid, and it's nearly a second quicker than the smaller Lexus HS 250h that the ES replaces. It's also more than a second quicker than the Buick LaCrosse eAssist.
Most important, it's not drastically slower than the 2013 ES 350, which hits 60 in 6.5 seconds (6.2 with rollout) and passes through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds at 98.0 mph.
Back roads aren't for hybrids, but we're here on the Angeles Crest Highway and the guy in the AMG Benz isn't pulling away from us until the road gets straight. That's not to say the 2013 Lexus ES 300h moves like a sport sedan, but it has a more controlled ride than any ES before it.
Incredibly, the ES 300h actually feels like it wants to turn, an alien sensation in a car with Lexus ES badges. Its precise electric-assist steering provides a smooth and logical increase in effort as you turn the wheel.
Although the brake pedal is a little soft, the ES 300h stops reliably and you rarely sense the transitions between regenerative braking and conventional friction braking action. A 129-foot stop from 60 mph at the track isn't stellar, but 62.3 mph through the slalom isn't bad for a large sedan of any persuasion. Of course, the unusually sporty Fusion Hybrid hauled itself through our cones at 64.3 mph.
If there's a downside to the Lexus ES sedan's newfound interest in handling, it's ride comfort. When we drove the ES 300h earlier this year, our test car had Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires and rode fine on Oregon roads. This car has P215/55R17 Bridgestone Turanza EL400-02 tires, and they don't offer as much compliance as we'd like over the bumps and expansion joints on Southern California freeways. At least the driver seat still has the cushiness you expect in a Lexus ES.
Who Wants Bamboo?
Although our ES 300h test car isn't as richly furnished as our long-term 2013 Lexus GS 350, materials quality is high for this class and everything is put together well.
The $1,370 Luxury package provides beautiful and sustainable bamboo trim, but then enlarges your environmental footprint by also adding leather upholstery. It's unclear if the cows that provided the leather were grass-fed.
Our car has the $2,625 Navigation package, which includes the Remote Touch interface, the computer-mouse-style controller that governs audio and nav functions. It feels clunky at first, but within a week, it gets more intuitive. We still like dial-type controllers, but Remote Touch gives you freer range to move the cursor around the screen.
Also part of this package is Lexus Enform, a catch-all term for the automaker's telematics system and smartphone apps suite. Pandora and Open Table are among the apps, and although integrating them into the car seems likes a good idea for commuters, in reality, it's kind of a hassle. Not only do you have to register for an account on a computer, the Enform app always has to be running on your phone and you can't call up playlists from any Pandora accounts you've previously opened without registering them on the Enform Web site.
In back, there's so much legroom no angry toddler has any hope of kicking your seat. However, tall adults will struggle to slide their feet under the front chairs, likely due to intrusion from the fan units for the optional ventilated seats. The battery pack also prevents you from folding the rear seat, but the 12.1-cubic-foot trunk (down 3 cubic feet from the ES 350) still has plenty of usable space for luggage.
Worth the Extra Money?
Maybe you've heard that we currently own a 1996 Lexus ES 300, which has been described as "simple transportation executed according to a very high standard of quality."
This 2013 Lexus ES 300h is a precision-built grandchild of that regal old ES. It's hard to call it simple, of course, as its hybrid drivetrain takes a pretty complicated path to achieve respectable acceleration. On the other hand, we've never gotten 40 mpg in our old ES 300, and there's no reason to think its previous owners did either.
Like its ancestor, the 2013 ES 300h is trying to be a luxury device — only this time there's a more obvious bent to environmental responsibility. And apart from its uncharacteristically firm ride, it succeeds at this mission.
However, in the small population of large front-wheel-drive hybrid sedans, the Lexus costs the most. A Fusion Hybrid equipped like our $46,084 Lexus would cost about $35K, while a LaCrosse eAssist comes in at around $37 grand. The revamped Lincoln MKZ Hybrid lands just under $44,000. So does the 2013 Avalon Hybrid, which shares its drivetrain and platform architecture with the ES 300h (their wheelbases are identical).
If you're looking for serious fuel efficiency in a full-size sedan package, the 2013 Lexus ES 300h isn't the cheapest source of piety per mile. However, if you're just as fanatical about your own comfort, you'll be hard-pressed to top the Lexus ES hybrid.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.