2013 Lexus ES 300h Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Fresh lineup of entry-luxury sedans includes hybrid.
The 2013 Lexus ES marks the seventh generation of the model that helped establish the Lexus brand and remains one of the marque's best-sellers. It is slightly larger outside and roomier inside, offers more features and for the first time there is a hybrid version. By all indications its popularity should remain intact.
Although the wrapper is new there are plenty of proven components updated from the last ES and the recently redesigned Camry, including engines and transmissions. As such we do not consider this an all-new car, often an advantage since any bugs were worked out long ago.
Literally the biggest change from the previous-generation ES is in the rear seat where legroom has increased by four inches leaving enough space for a 2013 ES to easily carry four six-foot-plus individuals.
Real leather is offered on most models, synthetic leather (vinyl) is standard, woodwork is genuine plank, and the hand-stitched panels play to the luxury ambience.
Styling on the new 2013 ES is more masculine outside and broader inside, though cleanly conservative is still the most common descriptor. Ten airbags and optional driver assists see to safety, while available features such as Enform telematics, a heated steering wheel and a sparkling 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system sate your inner sybarite.
The velvety-smooth 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine and 6-speed automatic in the 2013 ES350 aren't the most mechanically sophisticated in class, yet they provide near best-in-class fuel economy with an EPA-rated 21/31 mpg City/Highway and more than adequate propulsion. The suspension and steering have been revised to make the 2013 Lexus ES a better performer and a more pleasurable drive. That goal has been met but the ES remains far more luxury sedan than driver's car; there is no sport model or special suspension package available, the sole performance upgrade 18-inch wheels with one-size wider tires. Also, the ES uses front-wheel drive. The rear-wheel-drive GS is the better choice for sporty handling.
The 2013 Lexus ES300h hybrid, which essentially replaces the lackluster HS250h in Lexus's lineup, combines all the good points of an ES with average fuel economy in the region of 40 mpg. Apart from a full-length glass roof, any feature available on the V6 is offered on the hybrid. The only downsides to the hybrid are the price premium and 20 percent less luggage space without a long-item pass-through. The Lexus ES300h hybrid employs a 156-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, electric motors, 245-volt NiMH battery pack and a continuously variable automatic transmission for 200 total system horsepower and an EPA rating of 40/39 mpg City/Highway.
The 2013 Lexus ES is quiet, uncomplicated, has a fair suite of appointments standard and available, delivers a reassuring ride, benign handling, decent to excellent fuel economy and an enviable reputation for reliability and the dealer experience. The ES insulates its occupants from the world outside and is easy to operate.
Lexus ES shoppers have plenty of other cars to choose from. We would name the front-drive Audi A6, Hyundai Azera, Acura TL, Lincoln MKS, Buick LaCrosse and Volvo S60 the primary competitors. If you don't need many of the ES's extensive options, a well-equipped Volkswagen Passat, Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, Mazda6, Toyota Avalon or Kia Optima Limited may get the job done.
The 2013 Lexus ES is offered in two variants, the ES350 gasoline V6 and the ES300h gasoline-electric hybrid. Both are front-wheel drive; there is no all-wheel drive option.
The Lexus ES350 comes with a 268-hp 3.5-liter V6 and 6-speed automatic. Standard features include NuLuxe synthetic leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, piano-black cabin trim, moonroof, power front seats, smart key/pushbutton start, power windows and locks, power heated mirrors, AM/FM/CD/MP3/iPod/USB audio, Bluetooth, LED daytime running lights, 17-inch alloy wheels. A panoramic sunroof and 18-inch wheels are available for ES350.
The Lexus ES300h hybrid employs a 156-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, electric motors, 245-volt NiMH battery pack and a continuously variable automatic transmission. It is equipped much like an ES350 but adds a vehicle proximity notification system (for public awareness when running on electric only), rear spoiler, deeper rear valance, badging, slightly different instrumentation and bamboo interior trim.
Three major option packages are offered for both models. The Premium package upgrades to leather seating, maple wood trim, driver memory system, and power tilt/telescope steering wheel; Premium requires an audio or navigation upgrade. The Luxury package builds on Premium with HID low-beam headlights, leather interior trim, heated/ventilated front seats, power rear sunshade, and park assist. The Ultra Luxury package further adds a panoramic glass roof, rain-sensing wipers, heated wood steering wheel, passenger seat memory, driver's seat cushion extender, ambient lighting, manual rear-door sunshades, and power trunk lid.
Standalone options include many of the items in packages, plus 17- and 18-inch wheels, radar cruise control with pre-collision system, blind spot/cross traffic alert systems, and lane departure assist/auto high-beam.
Safety features on all ES models include 10 airbags including front knee and rear-seat side that are compatible with properly installed child seats, plus electronic stability, braking and traction controls. Options include predictive rearview camera (included with any audio or navigation upgrade), blind spot and rear cross traffic alert, lane departure alert, and parking assist.
At a glance, the 2013 ES is clearly a Lexus, whether you first see the large L logo and new family grille or the wraparound taillights. If you don't notice the longer nose or where the rear door opening meets the window frame you could easily mistake it for a Lexus GS.
The most daring aspect of the design is the pinched grille, and daring is a word that has never been applied to an ES before. Lexus dubs that pinched grille 'spindle,' and you will see it on the newest Lexus models. The grille fairs into an arched hood we're thinking was influenced by pedestrian impact standards; the emphasis of the shape is such that from some angles it appears the hood tapers down to the windshield base.
Framing the grille are cleaner lights that sweep rearward, with fog lights in modest chrome rings rather than the predecessor's chrome plates. Down and inward pointing arrowhead LED daytime running lights are standard, the optional HID headlights low-beam only where the European competitors would offer low and high beam HID (aka bi-xenon) lights.
Whether it's on 17- or 18-inch wheels, the added sheetmetal curvature better encircles the tires and provides a lower, more hunkered-down profile, this despite a proportionally greater increase in height than in length. The new 2013 ES is 1.6 inches longer overall, 1.7 inches longer between the wheels, and almost an inch taller than the 2012 version.
Ample mirrors are well off the window surface, mounted on pylons to help quell wind noise; numerous small fins outside and underneath improve airflow. Side panels are free of ornamentation and the only significantly creased character line is along the door sills and sweeps upward to the rear wheel. On ES300h there are hybrid badges we think detract from the simple lines more than they announce environmental stewardship.
Horizontal taillights are pinched at the inner edges, echoing the grille. They offer good wraparound visibility, and the trio of nicely curved lines rising at the corner could have come from BMW or Hyundai but these are better done. Dual exhaust outlets on the ES350 are dropped on the ES300h, which gets a single pipe hidden behind the deeper bumper panel and an added lip spoiler on the trunk. Although the changes drop the coefficient of drag by only a few-thousandths of a point it is enough improvement to add one mpg to the EPA Combined rating.
All ES models come with a conventional moonroof and a shark-fin antenna at the trailing edge of the roof. The ES350 offers an optional full-length glass panel panoramic sunroof, but unfortunately that layout isn't very compatible with satellite-radio antennae, so cars with the big sunroof and XM radio have a second, smaller antenna on the trunk as well.
The Lexus ES has always been known for comfort and features, a quiet haven to escape the noise and drudgery that some people find driving. Again not doing anything daring, this generation is no different.
The two major changes for 2013 are the move to a broader, more horizontal styling theme just as the 2013 GS did, and a larger back seat easily attributable to two things: Cars typically getting bigger every time they're redesigned and Lexus's plan to sell this ES in China where rear-seat space is so demanded some car companies build long versions specifically for it.
The interior is generally inviting and functional. The basic NuLuxe upholstery is fine though we expect the majority of ES will go with leather of some degree and fineness. A lot of the stitching is done by hand. If it looks like wood it is: maple on ES350 and bamboo on the ES300h. Below armrest height, the panels are hard plastic, but unless grasping for something in the door pocket you'll never feel it. Regardless of cabin color the front seatbacks, remote-touch controller and steering wheel were black in every example; perhaps spoiled by the apparent luxury, we expected those to be color coordinated.
Power heated front seats accommodate the majority of the population, with further options of ventilation, position memory and a moderate thigh extender for the driver's seat cushion. Door and center armrests are useful though tall occupants may not find the curled surface of the door rests ideal.
Rear-seat occupants should also find comfort and room ample; it's close to front dimensions and notably larger than the externally same-size GS. The center armrest has a built-in cupholder with a padded top unlike some hard-tops, and it's contoured inside so spills don't get directed inside the armrest only to become obnoxious odors weeks later. The rear seat gets reading lights, assist handles, two center vents and optional window shades but on the down side those taller passengers again found the aft edge of the door armrests uncomfortable and toe space under the seats is compromised. The panoramic roof, with individual manual-slide shades, makes rear-seat headroom the limiting dimension.
A nicely shaped three-spoke steering wheel, often wood and perhaps heated, gives a good view of the gauges: electroluminescent speed, revs (or electric power/charge on 300h), fuel and engine temperature instantly familiar to any Lexus driver. Ancillary switches for auto high-beam or blind-spot functions are to the left, with plenty of blanks even on a fully-loaded model, while the hood, trunk and fuel door release are at the bottom under a small pop-out tray.
Around the middle of the dash a dark silver panel pinched at the sides like the grille controls primary audio functions, with climate control below. This appears offset to the right of the car's centerline and armrest, with the subdued analog clock above it further off-center and the nav screen slightly to the left. It didn't affect function but the lack of linearity was obvious.
Seat and wheel heat switches line the leading edge of the console, with the drive-mode selector on the left and a cupholder on the right. A gated shifter on the left side has a cupholder behind it where a tall container might interfere with your arm, and the central controller is right of the shifter where the passenger's arm might rest. Piano-black or wood trim surrounds this area, both glossy enough to reflect some glare.
Base ES350 models get a rotary controller and buttons, while any audio or navigation upgrade uses a mouse-like palm-rest and button arrangement. The logic is fairly intuitive but the controller requires familiarization of motions.
The standard audio system is fine and includes streaming Bluetooth, upgradeable with a 7-inch screen, rear camera, HD radio and iTunes tagging, and phone-book transfer. Much of that is included with the eight-inch screen navigation package that has Lexus Enform with apps Suite telematics, voice-command, and SiriusXM traffic and weather (one-year subscription). All of the displays were easily viewed with polarized sunglasses, except for the Power Flow option in the hybrid's gauge center.
Mark Levinson supplies the top-line sound system with DVD audio, 12-channel 835-watt amplifier and 15 speakers. It's unlikely you'll find any better in this class of car.
Despite more aggressive exterior styling, a larger rear window, more slender A-pillars and mirrors well away from the door make outward visibility quite good. Optional blind-spot monitoring and predictive rearview monitor are on par with most competitors.
Trunk space is a commendable 15.2 cubic feet in a deep well with adequate tie-downs. There is no folding rear-seat some competitors offer, only a pass-through for long items; the hybrid loses three cubic feet and the pass-through, still better than many hybrids. The exterior trunk button will not work unless it senses a key nearby, even if the car is completely unlocked.
The 2013 Lexus ES is very easy to drive and as before eliminates many of the negatives from driving. Unlike before, those who enjoy driving will find it more likable, though we wouldn't go so far as to call it a driver's car.
Lexus maintains the ES is an all-new platform. We remain skeptical, noting the similar dimensions to last year's new Camry, the same engines and transmissions (recalibrated for the ES), history of shared platforms, and that we can't imagine Toyota spending money for two different same-size front-drive platforms.
The ES350's 3.5-liter V6 is smooth, quiet and generates 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Combined with the 6-speed automatic, it yields EPA ratings of 21/31 mpg City/Highway.
Hyundai Azera's 3.3 yields 293 hp and 20/29 mpg; Audi's A6 front-drive 2-liter four-cylinder has 211 hp and 25/33 mpg but more torque than the ES; Acura's TL is 280 hp and 20/29 mpg; and Volvo's S60 is 250 hp and 20/30 mpg with more torque. All offer similar or better outright performance than the ES but none is as smooth nor as quiet.
With EPA numbers of 40/39 mpg City/Highway for the new 2013 ES300h hybrid, the only similar cars remotely close are the Buick LaCrosse eAssist, a mild hybrid at 25/36 mpg, a fully optioned VW Passat TDI (30/40 mpg) or a loaded Toyota Camry hybrid (43/39 mpg).
The Lexus ES300h transitions between gasoline, electric power and both almost seamlessly. You can tell this is not Toyota's first hybrid. The ES300h will run in electric-only mode at gentle rates to 25 mph, distance dependent on battery charge, nice in heavy traffic. And while 0-60 mph performance is claimed one second slower than the ES350 gas engine, the effortless urge doesn't really feel it. At max throttle you hear the ES300h engine a bit more than in the ES350 V6 but from the back seat it was barely audible over freeway noise. The brake pedal is touchier in the ES300h than the ES350 because it triggers regeneration (to charge the battery); manually downshifting for grades does the same but to a much lesser extent.
An ES350 console switch rotates for Eco and Sport modes, push it for Normal, where two or three buttons would be simpler. In Eco mode, response is muted to improve mileage, and the car restarts in Eco. In Sport mode, pedal response and transmission behavior are tuned for quicker reflexes and it reverts to Normal at restart. Sport mode does up the ante if you're in a hurry, and that will lower fuel economy.
According to the onboard trip computer, we averaged 23-24 mpg in the ES350 and 40-41 mpg in the ES300h, in normal or Eco mode. Your right foot will have far greater effect than any switch.
On the road, the ES is quiet and comfortable, perhaps even supple. Most impacts are limited or eliminated, without any wallowing or float-like sensations. When pushed hard, grip was better than expected and everything was stable, but bumps in hard corners suggest most of the suspension travel was already in use.
On the wider 18-inch tires, the ride is firmer and we'd not recommend them for areas with marginal infrastructure. The 17- and 18-inch tires we sampled were the same except for size and speed rating (the 18s were rated V, while the 17s were rated H) and the cabin is well isolated, so our ears couldn't detect any noise penalty with the 18s. So it's a ride-quality and looks decision.
Electric rack-and-pinion steering responds quicker than before, needing less wheel rotation to effect directional change. Steering feel is neither best nor worst, electric or otherwise, and fast maneuvering brings a whir from the column you may not have heard before but is nothing unusual.
We can't say the ES is the quietest car in its class but it's certainly among the leaders. If you prefer racking up miles in audiophile bliss or merely talking to your navigation or phone, the cabin environment is subdued.
Redesigned for 2013, the Lexus ES will get you and three adult friends comfortably, calmly and reliably to your destination with minimal distractions from the outside world. It is roomy, safe, easy to drive and well finished in attractive materials. It makes a compelling argument for anyone who needs a four or five-passenger sedan. The ES300h hybrid makes an equally strong contender if you travel a lot in mixed conditions.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report from Southern California.
Lexus ES350; ES300h.
Options As Tested
Ultra luxury package (leather interior, wood trim, driver and passenger seat memory, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, heated/ventilated front seats, HID headlamps, park assist, power rear sunshade, manual rear door sunshades, ambient lighting, power trunk lid, rain-sensing wipers, heated wood steering wheel, panoramic sunroof), Mark Levinson/navigation, 18-inch wheels.
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