Monday, April 29, 2013

Lexus ES 300h - When a Prius Won't Do

Many drivers are searching for the compromise between comfort for five and fuel economy. Often, they opt for a Toyota Prius -- the most efficient and well known of the numerous hybrid options on wheels. But what if you want a more luxurious ride? Well, Toyota/Lexus is more than happy to offer their newly redesigned 2013 ES 300h.

Although Lexus has offered a range of hybrids over the last several years, this is the first time a gas engine and electric motor have joined forces in an ES. The ES was one of the two founding models of the brand, way back in 1989, when it  was little more than a dressed-up Camry.

This sixth generation car is much more than that. The non-hybrid version comes as the ES 350, with a powerful six-cylinder engine under the hood. But my Silver Lining Metallic hybrid tester combines a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine with a high output permanent magnet motor to generate a total of 200 horsepower. It effectively moves the 3,660-pound sedan along very quietly and smoothly.

How quickly? Lexus' figures say an 8.1-second zero-to-sixty time and a 16.8-second quarter mile. Top speed is electronically limited to 112, but that should be enough.

The new design uses Lexus' "spindle" grille treatment, which is more handsome than beautiful. It is certainly more emotional than the subdued styling that typified early Lexus models, which were modeled after Mercedes-Benz products of the time. Today, the Mercedes cars are as wild looking at the new Lexus designs.

While they were remodeling and restyling, they added a little extra length to the ES. Not that your eye would know, but your knees will appreciate the extra room in back. I occupied the driver's chair the entire test time, but it definitely feels roomy in there. The new dash panel is a little more dramatically styled, but, is still a bit restrained compared to some out there.

The materials, as always in a Lexus, are top drawer and the places where they meet are perfectly rendered. My tester had the Ultra Luxury package, which brought "semi-aniline" leather (is this only half as nice as "full-aniline" I wondered). That$2,435 package added heating and ventilation to the seats, a trick power sunshade for the rear window (manual ones for the sides), ambient lighting, and a bamboo wood trim that was nice enough to make me wonder if it was real. The seats are newly configured and my driver's throne was a splendid place to be on my usual grinding commutes.

Also a pleasure while sitting in traffic was the optional Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package. With 15 speakers and 835 watts of power, it could make you want to simply move into the car. It's certainly better than what's in my house. Naturally, there was Sirius XM satellite radio, which is becoming common now.

The ES 300h drives like a normal car, of course, but it does show you where the power is coming from and where it's going. There's the larger center-dash view that is familiar to Prius owners, but there's also a tiny, simplified graphic in the center of the dash that conveys a lot in a straightforward way. The actual numbers are less than a Prius, as in every car on the road. The EPA says 40 Combined, made up of 40 City and 39 Highway. I got 34.5 mpg. The Smog rating is a 7 while the Greenhouse Gas is a perfect 10.

You can select how your ES drives with a simple dial on the center console. Driver Mode Select gives you a choice between Normal, Eco, and Sport. I tried them all, and Normal is just fine. Eco will keep the revs down to reduce fuel consumption, which is the opposite of the Sport mode. If you're out on some attractive back road, Sport's fine, but better to keep it in Eco and save fuel if you're just commuting or running errands.

Many cars, but the luxury ones in particular, love to flaunt their screens full of high tech wonders. The ES has Toyota's big screen with the Remote Touch Interface controller. While BMW and others like dials and buttons, this is more like a joystick with an armrest. You move the cursor around onto different squares for a range of features. When you approach a screen object, the cursor is attracted to it and grabs it--so you don't need to fuss over it. It gets to be fairly natural with practice.

My tester had the App Suite, so I had detailed traffic and weather information, stock market reports, and much more. You really have to try to avoid getting excited and looking away from the road.

The ES has been a big part of Lexus' success during its long lifetime, and it is somewhere in the lower areas of pricing. The ES 300h base price is $38,850, but you don't have to stop there. My tester, with goodies like a power trunk closer ($400), rain-sensing wipers with a de-icer ($500), leather shift knob and very fancy wood/leather steering wheel ($450), as well as the aforementioned packages, came to $48,114. That's a luxury car price, but this is not your average ride.

There's so much more to say, but you get the picture. While not being billed as a midsize sports sedan (let the IS take care of that), this Lexus offers subcompact car fuel economy with midsize luxury sedan accommodations, Toyota's nearly perfect record for reliability and safety, and a wealth of safety, entertainment and performance equipment. If a Prius leaves you cold, let Lexus take care of you.

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