2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h. Click image to enlarge
First Drive: 2013 Lexus ESManufacturer’s web site
Lexus Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Gallery:
2013 Lexus ES Hybrid

Beyond big horsepower and hot handling, not much makes a car more interesting, at the moment, than adding electricity to its drivetrain.

Enter the Lexus ES, a car that needed a serious dose of something – anything – interesting, and since it wasn’t a candidate for high-performance treatment, a gas-electric hybrid variant is what it gets for 2013, along with new styling inside and out.

Prior to this, the ES 350 was just another entry-level luxury car with family car roots. It’s still based on the Camry, but the new-for-2013 ES 300h benefits this year from (slightly) more distinctive styling, and a hybrid powertrain (also borrowed from the Camry) that ditches the ES 350’s V6 engine for a four-cylinder matched with an electric motor and battery pack. (For the record, the ES 350 is still available.)

2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h. Click image to enlarge

The 300h becomes the largest Lexus to use four-cylinder power. Its combined (four-cylinder engine plus electric motor) 200-horsepower output doesn’t seem like much, but aided by the torque-rich electric motor, the car accelerates smartly, albeit with less of the straight-line excitement of the ES 350’s 268-hp, 3.5L V6. If the replacement of the smooth-sounding Toyota/Lexus V6 with a less-refined four-cylinder sounds like a deal-breaker, in reality, there’s not much to worry about.

Normal acceleration happens near-silently, with the electric motor providing much of the torque needed to keep up with traffic flow. It’s only at wider throttle openings that you’ll hear much of anything from under the hood. What gives away this powertrain’s unconventional nature is the way it delivers its power. Nail the throttle at cruising speed, and you’ll have to wait a beat for full power, like an automatic transmission that’s slow to downshift. The engine idles less smoothly than the V6, but the hybrid’s ability to shut the engine down while the car is stopped mitigates that.

With electric assist and fuel-free “idling” at play, Lexus claims fuel consumption estimates of 4.7 L/100 km in city driving, and 5.1 L/100 km on the highway. Those figures are identical to the top-trim Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE’s, but real-world testing revealed quite a contrast. The Camry Hybrid XLE I tested in warm early autumn weather averaged 5.9 L/100 km in a mix of city and highway, but this Lexus averaged 8.1 L/100 km in a week of city driving, with sub-zero mornings and single-digit daytime highs. Both cars performed the same otherwise, so let this be a lesson in how cold weather affects fuel economy.

2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h
2013 Lexus ES 300h. Click image to enlarge

The redesigned ES gets a notably tighter ride than its predecessor, but the light, uncommunicative steering disavows any notion that it’s anything like a sport sedan. Handling is improved over the old ES, but that’s hardly a monumental achievement. A drive mode selector can be toggled between the ‘normal’ default, fuel-saving eco and sport modes (the former dials back throttle response, while the latter sharpens it, reduces power steering assist and turns the hybrid power gauge into a tachometer).

If anything disappoints about the new, more upscale and modern interior, it’s that there’s little tangible improvement in space, save for a bit more rear-seat legroom. Front seat headroom is limited by the standard sunroof, and while the headliner is scalloped out for rear-seat occupants, taller riders find themselves nearly eye-level with the ceiling where it scoops down to make space for the sliding sunroof glass.

The ES 300h’s 342-litre trunk is a useful size, but gives up about 30 L to the Camry hybrid. Hybrid hardware behind the rear seat eliminates the folding seatback of the gas-only ES 350.

ES 300h pricing starts at $43,900, a $4,400 premium over the V6-powered ES 350. My test vehicle had the optional leather package ($6,550, according to the price sheet I got from Toyota Canada, but Lexus.ca quotes a price of $5,200), which added navigation, rear door sunshades and a powered rear window sunshade, leather seating, wood-grain trim, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats and auto-levelling headlights. Even with a $50,000-plus as-tested price, this car is a solid value for the comfort and convenience features it includes. That said, buyers looking for a comfortable, roomy hybrid sedan should note that the Camry Hybrid can be had with many of the same items for less money.

In the luxury segment, hybrid technology has typically been limited to more expensive cars, the BMW 7 Series Hybrid ($140,000) and Porsche Panamera Hybrid ($110,000) being good examples. Buick was among the first to add electrification to a mid-sized entry-level luxury sedan, with the eAssist mild-hybrid drivetrain used in its LaCrosse and Regal.

The LaCrosse is (barely) more of a driver’s car than the Lexus ES (Buick offers a fantastic, but expensive, suspension upgrade that notably improves handling), but the standard eAssist drivetrain that’s standard in base models doesn’t save enough fuel to make up for the complexity it adds. Lexus’ addition of hybrid tech to the ES not only makes the ES itself a more compelling car in its own right, but creates an affordable hybrid luxury sedan worth spending a little more for.

Pricing: 2013 Lexus ES 300h
Base price: $43,900
Options: $6,550 (Leather Package)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,995
Price as tested: $52,555

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Crash test results
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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