There are few nameplates in the automotive world that seem to have real staying power - with the short list including nameplates like 911, Corvette and Mustang - but the Lexus ES appears to have found the secret for long-term success. One of just two models that launched the Lexus brand back in 1989, the ES has managed to survive the mass extinction that killed off most of its softly-sprung luxury rivals (like the Infiniti I30 and Acura Legend) in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Now entering its sixth generation, the ES is looking to change up its winning formula with more style, size and, for the first time, a hybrid offering. Will the changes ensure a seventh generation of the ES, or has Lexus strayed too far? Find out as we test the all-new hybrid variant, the 2013 Lexus ES 300h
Nearly everything about the ES is all-new for 2013, but the car's most notable change is its styling. The 2013 ES adopts Lexus' latest L Finesse design language, which includes the brand's signature "spindle" front grille design that has already been grafted onto the front ends of the GS, RX and LX. Although we're still not sold on Lexus' new grille design, the 2013 ES is a handsome package and certainly an improvement over last year's model.
The ES 300h hybrid shares most of its exterior styling with the V6-powered ES 350, but there are a few distinct differences. The 300h gets a subtle trunk lid spoiler and a revised rear valance to improve airflow. The hybrid also receives unique 17-inch wheels.
The ES' interior is also new for 2013, arriving with a far more contemporary design than the outgoing 2012 ES. Gone is the old car's awkward oval-shaped center stack, replaced with a more upscale design that's reminiscent of the recently introduced GS sedan.
Also borrowed from the GS is the ES' new-look steering wheel. We quite like the shape and contrasting colors of the wheel and, for the first time ever, the ES can be optioned with a heated steering wheel.
Look beyond the steering wheel and you'll notice a gauge cluster unique to the ES 300h hybrid. When in Normal or Eco mode the cluster glows in a soothing blue light, with the lefthand gauge serving as a reminder to drive as efficiently as possible. Flip the dial to Sport and the cluster goes red, with the lefthand gauge switching to a more Sport-appropriate tachometer.
All 2013 ES models come standard with a 7-inch display screen (an 8-inch unit is optional) located in what Lexus refers to as the "Display Zone" - or, for anyone outside of the Lexus marketing department, the top half of the dash.
While the Display Zone name may be a little trendy, we give the Lexus design team credit for not following the latest industry trend of using a stationary screen that looks like it should be retractable (here's looking at you, BMW).
Just below the ES' center screen sits an analog clock - an apparent requirement in the luxury segment -- with real bamboo wood accents giving the cabin a dash of color. Of note, the eco-friendly bamboo accents are unique to the ES hybrid model.
In the bottom half of the dash - or the "Operations Zone," as Lexus calls it - you'll find controls for the ES' HVAC systems, as well as Lexus' mouse-like control for its Enform infotainment system. A knob for the vehicle's three modes - plus a button for EV mode - sits just ahead of the shifter.
The technical bits
Peel back the ES 300h's fresh sheet metal and you'll find the latest version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology. In the case of the ES, that means a 2.5-liter four-cylinder mated to a small electric motor. The gas engine itself is rated at 156 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque, with the electric motor bringing total output to 200 horsepower. That power is transferred to the front wheels via a CVT.
Although most automakers are making the shift to lithium-ion technology, Lexus is sticking with nickel-metal hydride batteries for the ES 300h. However, the ES 300h sports a smaller inverter than past Toyota hybrids, making it possible for Lexus to fit the battery pack behind the sedan's rear seats. As a result of that battery location trunk space is slightly compromised, but the ES 300h still offers a generous 12.1 cubic feet of cargo space.
Lexus says that the ES 300h can operate as a pure electric vehicle for 1.5 miles at speeds up to 25 mph.
It should also be noted that the ES has shaken its Camry roots and is now based on a platform closely related to the Toyota Avalon
. That switch means the 2013 ES' wheelbase is two inches longer than the current car, although overall length is up by only about an inch. Rear-seat passengers are the big winners in the ES' stretch, with back seat legroom growing by four-inches. Although positioned below the GS in the Lexus lineup, the ES is actually two-inches longer than its bigger brother.
Previous iterations of the ES have almost exclusively focused on comfort at the expense of handling, but Lexus says the 2013 version of the car is breaking that mold. The 2013 ES is stiffer than before and rides on a revised suspension with improved damping. Lexus even fitted the 2013 ES with side seat bolsters.
But don't let all that fool you. While the 2013 ES is certainly a more competent driver than the last-gen model, it's still a long way off from being classified as a sports sedan. And while that might be an issue in a car like the BMW 3-Series
, it's perfectly fine in the ES.
The ES 300h rides like a comfortable luxury car should, with the improved suspension allowing for a reasonable amount of gusto in the bends. Lexus may be banking on the 2013 ES to draw a younger crowd than the current car, but keep in mind the automaker only wants to lower the average ES buying age from the high 50s to the low 50s.
Those interested in the ES' leisurely demeanor will likely be drawn to the 300h model. With 200 horsepower on tap ,the ES 300h isn't a slow car, but by no means is it quick, either. However, that trade off should net fuel economy figures close to that of the Camry Hybrid (43/39 mpg).
We found the ES 300h's transition from electric to gas power on acceleration from a stop to be a little rough, but we'll hold judgement until we're able to test a production version. As the 2013 ES won't hit dealer lots until August, we were only given access to pre-production cars, which means some calibrations might not have been up to production spec.
Leftlane's bottom line
In a world where luxury automakers have become obsessed with rear-wheel drive and sporty driving dynamics, the 2013 ES stands as almost the lone beacon for those wanting a comfortable, upscale sedan and nothing else.
The 300h is the perfect extension of that, adding excellent fuel economy to ES' blend of luxury and comfort. True the ES won't land on the shopping lists of many enthusiasts, but for those on the opposite end of the scale, the 2013 ES 300h might just be the perfect vehicle.
Words and photos by Drew Johnson.
2013 Lexus ES 300h
base price TBA.