Auto review: Lexus ES 350, 300h give better bang for your buck

By Larry Printz
Courtesy of the Associated Press

August 23, 2013

Since its inception, the popular Lexus ES has made its mark as a pretentious Toyota Camry, although recent iterations have hidden that fact fairly well. That’s changed with the redesigned 2013 Lexus ES, which now shares its platform and engines with the redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon.

Like the Toyota, the Lexus is offered as a conventional gas model, the ES 350, or, for the first time, as a gas-electric hybrid, the ES 300h.

More importantly, the ES has grown in size, gaining 1.8 inches in wheelbase and one inch in overall length. This allowed Lexus designers to increase rear legroom by 4.1 inches. Given the generous size of the cabin, you might not see the necessity of buying a larger Lexus. Try it out and you’ll see. There’s plenty of space to comfortably fit four.

While cabin space has grown, the ES 350’s trunk space is only slightly larger at 15.2 cubic feet. The ES 300h has a mere 12.1 cubic feet, thanks to the car’s battery pack.

Size aside, the 2013 Lexus ES is a much more handsome car than the one it replaces. The ES’s dramatic spindle grille gives the car a distinctive face, artfully announcing this graceful car’s presence. The ES’s greenhouse is somewhat sporting in appearance, while the back end’s staid look is not unlike that of the pricier Lexus GS and LS sedans.

Like the exterior, the ES’s interior has a much more modern feel. It’s lined in mock leather, brushed metal accents and accompanied by a choice of bird’s eye maple, piano black or bamboo trim. Leather trim is optional. A large navigation/infotainment monitor dominates the center of the instrument panel. As in other Lexus models, it’s controlled by a mouse-like controller on the center console with an overly sensitive feel that takes time to master while driving.

While Lexus designers have masterfully banished the dowdy ambience of previous ES models, they are less successful when they try to do the same for performance.

The 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 in the ES 350 produces decent grunt, although it seems unrefined and noisy when compared with the creamy, smooth silence of the ES 300h’s gas-electric hybrid drive line. The ES 300h is felt but not heard, delivering the isolated refinement that Lexus customers have come to expect. Yes, its gas engine and electric motor are less powerful — there’s only 200 horsepower on tap — but it returns remarkable fuel economy: 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway. By comparison, ES 350’s V-6 returns 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and costs $800 more to fuel annually. Given the $2,880 premium for the hybrid model, most owners will break even in little more than three years.

Regardless of engine, the ES has a somewhat more fun-to-drive personality for 2013. Lexus firmed up the suspension and dialed in more responsive steering. In addition, a “Driver Mode Select” dial allows the driver to adjust the car’s driving feel.

There are three settings: Eco, Normal and Sport. The Eco mode markedly dampens the car’s responsiveness, making quick bursts of speed almost impossible. Normal mode delivers traditional Lexus response. Selecting the Sport mode does produce a more enthusiastic driving experience, but it doesn’t transform the ES into an Autobahn athlete. This car is a cruiser, meant to spend its time in the middle lane, transporting its occupants in serene comfort.

Such comfort is easy to appreciate when accompanied by the optional 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system with HD Radio, DVD audio/video and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. More importantly, the ES comes with 10 air bags, stability control, traction control, a rear back-up camera and optional blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert systems.

If you’re thinking of buying an ES, opt for the ES 300h. For an extra $2,880, you get more refinement and better fuel economy than most subcompacts, but you will have to put up with a smaller trunk.

For 2013, the Lexus ES has grown beyond its roots as a low-priced Lexus. Its newfound size and style put it on an equal footing with its larger stable mates. The redesigned interior lends it a modern edge that’s more appealing to younger buyers. And the new hybrid model means not having to sacrifice space for fuel efficiency.

But perhaps the best part is its reasonable sticker price. While it may be a cliche to say that the Lexus ES 350 and 300h offer a lot of luxury car for the money, it’s true. Just look at what the competition offers at the same price point.

That’s when you’ll see that it’s hard to overlook this compelling luxury car value.

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2013 LEXUS ES 300H:

—Driveline: 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and 105 kW electric motor

—Wheelbase: 111 inches

—Length: 192.7 inches

—Weight: 3,660 pounds

—Cargo space: 12.1 cubic feet

—EPA rating (city/highway): 40/39 mpg

—Fuel consumption: 39 mpg

—Fuel type: Regular

—Base price, base model: $36,370

—Base price, test model: $39,250

—As tested, including destination charge: $46,070

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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©2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AUTO-LEXUSES-REVIEW

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