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Published: 06/05/2012 - by Erin Riches, Senior Editor
Oregon's Willamette Valley is where the mythical Lexus ES 350 owner goes on vacation. He's worn down by his long commute, but when he gets a few days off, he heads right back out on the interstate. Hundreds of miles later, he finds tranquility and plenty of pinot noir in this famous wine region.
Although we think of the Lexus ES 350 as a uniquely North American car, our man could just as easily live in China. The ES is the No. 2 selling Lexus there (behind the RX), just as it is in the U.S. Lexus officials paid a lot of attention to both markets while working on the 2013 Lexus ES 350, and the result is a redesigned entry-level luxury sedan with more interior room, better fuel economy and an available four-cylinder hybrid version — the 2013 Lexus ES 300h.
Together the 2013 Lexus ES 350 and 2013 Lexus ES 300h represent a "truly global ES," says Chief Engineer Toshio Asahi. Skeptical? Well, it turns out we have plenty in common with the commuters and oenophiles in China.
More Like an Avalon
As we slide into the backseat of the 2013 Lexus ES 350, it's clear we're on the same page regarding legroom. For the first time in its 25-year history, the ES does not share its wheelbase with the Toyota Camry (109.3 inches). Instead, it now matches the full-size Toyota Avalon (111 inches) in terms of space between the wheels. Rear legroom increases from just under 36 inches in the 2012 ES 350 to 40 inches even.
This still isn't an Avalon-size car, though, as the ES retains its overall width of 71.7 inches and it's just barely taller at 57.1 inches. It's 192.7 inches long — an inch longer than last year's sedan, but still 5 inches down on the big Toyota. The cabin feels airy, though, as passenger volume has swelled to 100 cubic feet, up from 95.4 in last year's ES 350.
All these gains might have you thinking the 2013 ES 350 is overweight. In fact, the unit-body is lighter and more rigid than before, thanks to increased use of high-strength steel. The 2013 ES 350 is 50 pounds lighter than last year's ES, and even with a battery pack, the ES 300h is only 110 pounds heavier than the V6 car.
Style has never been a reason to buy a Lexus ES. On the contrary, the car's quiet rejection of fleeting trends gives it a timeless appeal. That should continue with this generation, though the adoption of the new double-spindle grille gives the ES a passing resemblance to the similarly sized Lexus GS 350.
V6 Remains the Big Seller
A V6 engine has always been an essential ingredient to the ES formula, and Lexus still expects it to account for 75 percent of the car's sales volume in the United States.
The ES 350's drivetrain is basically a carryover. The 3.5-liter engine is rated the same as it was in 2012, with 268 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. The six-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels is geared the same, too, but a taller final drive (3.46 versus 3.68), combined with an expanded range of torque converter lockup and various friction-reduction measures, reduces fuel consumption. Lexus officials are predicting EPA ratings of 21 city/31 highway/24 combined mpg compared to the 2012 car's 19/28/22 ratings.
We've always liked this engine's sweet sound, and there's ample torque to take advantage of passing zones on Oregon's Highway 47. There aren't any paddle shifters à la the Camry SE, but downshifts come quickly enough that we probably wouldn't use them much (and the shifter has a manual gate anyway). Driver-selectable Sport and Eco modes tailor throttle response to your priorities, but leaving it in Normal suits us just fine.
Keep in mind that Lexus has focused on fuel economy in this redesign, so this 2013 ES 350 probably won't be any quicker than the 2009 Lexus ES we tested. Figure about 7.1 seconds to 60 mph.
But You Could Have a Hybrid
The arrival of the four-cylinder Lexus ES 300h reflects the influence of the Chinese market. Fuel economy is a big deal there, and buyers simply won't pay for a V6 that gets poor mileage — their outgoing ES only comes with a 2.4-liter inline-4.
But there's no doubt that Americans are increasingly willing to accept four-cylinder engines in entry-luxury cars. Plus, the 2013 Lexus ES 300h takes the place of the 2010 Lexus HS 250h, which quietly ended production in January.
Compared to the HS, the ES 300h is roomier, quicker and more fuel-efficient. Its drivetrain is identical to the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid, with an Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter inline-4 rated at 156 hp at 5,700 rpm and 156 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. There are two electric motors, and a 244.8-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack (with 204 cells of 1.2 volts each). The battery pack can feed a maximum of 44 hp to the motors, and a planetary gearset-regulated CVT (continuously variable transmission) blends everything together, resulting in a net 200-hp rating.
Lexus expects the 2013 Lexus ES 300h to earn 40 city/39 highway/39 combined mpg ratings from the EPA. In contrast, the 187-hp HS 250h had a rating of 35 city/34 highway/35 combined. Our 37-mile drive in Eco mode (the hybrid also has EV, Normal and Sport modes) produced 40.5 mpg with an average speed of 33 mph, according to the trip computer. Put the ES 300h in EV mode and you'll get all of half a mile before the gas engine starts.
Of course the ES 300h feels less energetic than the ES 350, but it's hardly slow. Lexus expects the hybrid ES will trail the ES 350 by only a second in the 0-60-mph race, though the gap will widen by the quarter-mile mark. The automaker's internal estimates have the hybrid at 16.8 seconds versus 15.1 for the ES 350.
As Usual, It's a Nice Ride
The ES stakes its reputation on its compliant ride quality, and the 2013 Lexus ES 350 and ES 300h uphold it.
Its basic suspension design is the same as the 2012 Camry, and the Lexus engineers have made changes to make the ES feel more stable as we're blasting down country roads. Spring and damper rates are updated all the way around, and in back, the lateral links are revised and the bushings are new.
Both the ES 300h and the ES 350 come with all-season, low-rolling-resistance P215/55R17 93V Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires, with P225/45R18 91V Primacys optional on the ES 350. Both setups provide a cushy ride during our drive, with reasonable balance around corners.
The power steering uses electric assist, and it's plenty precise on back roads. Notably, the steering is quicker than it was on the 2012 ES 350 (14.8:1 vs. 16.0:1). The other thing we notice during our drive is the brake pedal feel — there's not a great difference in pedal feel between the regular ES 350 and ES 300h and that's a good thing.
Good Materials, Clunky User Interface
You're not going to mistake the 2013 Lexus ES interior for an LS 460, but considering the likely price point — a typically equipped model landing in the mid-$40Ks — materials quality is just fine. Lexus had only leather-lined models at this event, so we can't tell you if the standard NuLuxe simulated leather passes muster. We like the wood trim, particularly the sustainable bamboo in the ES 300h, and some designer was clever enough to think of using the double-spindle motif on the center stack.
However, the sedans' Remote Touch Interface isn't nearly as tidy. Essentially, you're using an oversize computer mouse to enter destinations and sift through the audio menus, and it feels cumbersome, particularly if you have a smartphone in your pocket that can perform similar functions so much more quickly. Although Remote Touch is optional, most 2013 ES models will have it, since it's included with the available Display Audio system (which upgrades you to a larger display and adds Bluetooth audio streaming) and the Navigation package.
Standard equipment on the 2012 ES 350 and ES 300h includes keyless ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth (for phone calls only) and USB and auxiliary inputs. New options for 2013 include blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems, a power trunk closer and manual rear-door sunshades.
We're not sure how popular pinot noir is in China, but we're pretty sure buyers there will share our impression of the 2013 Lexus ES.
It's just as quiet and comfortable as its predecessor, only now it's a little bit better. No, it's not any quicker, but it's more fuel-efficient and even the hybrid keeps up well on the freeway. Plus, both ES models are roomier and available with more features.
Of course, you could enjoy many of the same attributes in a nicely optioned Camry XLE or Camry Hybrid. Alternatively, if you're less worried about interior room and the bottom line, you'll find more prestige and entertainment value in entry-level versions of the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. And so, as in the past, the 2013 Lexus ES 350 isn't for everyone, but if comfort is your No. 1 priority, Lexus has delivered another class leader.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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