Monday, October 21, 2013

Lexus ES 300h or Toyota Avalon -- Which Hybrid to Choose?

It's a well kept secret in the auto industry that many car are based on shared platforms For example, until recently, at GM, it was common for a Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Chevrolet to share what was under the slightly different sheet metal. Chrysler marketed separate Plymouth, Dodges and  Chrysler minivans. Today, even companies share, for example the recent Subaru BRZ and Toyota FR-S sports coupe collaboration.

In any case, one easy way to create a luxury car is to take a regular one and load it with extra features. The Lexus ES was one of the two original Lexus vehicles that debuted nearly a quarter century ago. It was a slightly nicer Toyota Camry. Today's sixth-generation ES is not a Camry sibling, but it does have a lot in common with Toyota's new flagship, the Avalon. I had the unusual opportunity of test driving them back-to-back, which made their differences and similarities stand out.

Lexus has earned its luxury credentials now, so my expectations were high. My Deep Sea Mica ES 300h arrived looking premium. The new grille design, known around the industry as the "spindle" look, gives the face a more aggressive appearance. This overt styling is helping to distinguish the brand, surely, putting memories of the old laid-back, restrained Lexus of yore into the dim past.

Over the last few years, Lexus has developed a look that's sleek and edgy, and now the ES floats in the center of this balance, and looks right. Without trying to sound like an advertising copywriter, it's beyond the ordinary. And that's just on the outside.

Inside, the ES is clean and subtle, with matte metallic trim, simple seams in the leather-wrapped chairs, and "wood" trim that looks thick and applied rather than integrated. It feels gracious as well as spacious. Sitting in there provides blessed isolation from other cars, sound, the road, and any unpleasantness. The steering wheel gives you wood at the top and lower sides, with leather where you grip, if you're using the proper 9 and 3 hand position.

It's all fully realized, including the two console cupholders that are both covered and out of sight until you need them. Even the way you handle information is genteel and understated. Down along the center console is a firm resting spot for your wrist, with a small joystick ahead of it. Use it to navigate the console-mounted screen. It's not a problem to seek out areas of interest, since the cursor tends to seek out and stick to different rectangles and squares on the screen. Once you get accustomed to it, it's easier than trying to reach out with an extended arm and touch a spot as you cruise along.

The hybrid version of the ES 300, the h model, shares its drivetrain with the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, despite a huge difference in styling and design. The two cars are very close in size and weight, both riding on the same 111-inch wheelbase, although the Lexus is 2.5 inches shorter nose to tail, half an inch narrower and .4 inches lower. Its luxury accommodations give it a 75-pound weight penalty. Its trunk is nearly two cubic feet smaller, too although I'm not sure why.

The real difference between these two cars may be philosophical. It certainly isn't financial. When all was said and done, these two highly comfortable, luxury-filled, premium sedans came out less than $1,000 apart. The Lexus cost $940 more. That's barely more than the shipping charge.

So, why pick one over the other? Toyota makes Corollas--the most popular car ever made. It's the car of the people--unpretentious, unspoiled, neither a slug or a rocket. Toyota makes pickup trucks. Toyota sells a lot of cars, to a lot of differenc kinds of people. Driving one says, I deserve a good car but I'm not a show-off.

Lexus has been competing with Mercedes-Benz since the day the LS full-size sedan arrived wearing the German maker's clothes. It was a Benz at a discount and a lot of people went for it, beginning the new brand that's a known quantity today.

Both of these hybrids take about 8 seconds zero to 60 with their matching hybrid powerplants. With official U.S. Government fuel economy numbers of 40 City, 39 Highway, and  39 overall, I got 37.1 miles per gallon in the Lexus. The week before, the Toyota Avalon delivered 37.9 mpg. That's close.

So, why buy a Lexus instead of a Toyota? You get to visit the Lexus dealership for service, probably a good thing. Keeps you from rubbing shoulders with those annoying owners of 20th-century hatchbacks. I don't know if service is more expensive, but I would expect it is. Surely they have finer coffee in their more richly-decorated waiting rooms, too. Neither Toyotas nor Lexi are known for needing much dealer attention, anyway.

Where the 300h goes soft and subtle, the Avalon blings. The Avalon dash features lots of plastic chrome trim, which can be challenging when the sun hits it. It's overtly styled, which gives Toyota something to get excited about, and also a way of being un Lexus like. The ride, handling, and quiet are remarkably even.

My test ES 300h came to $45,159, from a base price of $38,850. It had Blind Spot Monitoring, with Cross Traffic Alert, a worthwhile feature that it shares with, yes, the Avalon. It also had the navigation system package that upgraded the entire electronic interface. Hard to believe, but the heated front seats were an add-on--you'd think they'd be standard in a Lexus. Intuitive Parking assist helps you avoid hitting or scraping anything when you're forced to get close and personal with other drivers.

How would you choose between these two cars? Who are you trying to impress? Are you a shiny or a matte finish kind of person? How close is the Toyota or the Lexus dealership to you? Maybe you should just test both and then decide.

1 comment:

Linda Marrero said...

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