published Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Test Drive: New Lexus ES 300h hits elusive luxury hybrid bull's-eye

Lexus expects sales of it's new ES 300h hybrid sedan to account for up to 25 percent of ES models sold. 
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
Lexus expects sales of it's new ES 300h hybrid sedan to account for up to 25 percent of ES models sold. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2013 Lexus ES 300h

Exterior color: Cerulean Blue Metallic

Interior: Ivory leather

Engine: 2.4-liter, inline 4-cylinder, with magnet electric drive

Horsepower: 200

Transmission: continuously variable

Fuel economy: 39 mpg highway, 40 mpg city

Dealer: Lexus of Chattanooga

The whole idea of a hybrid luxury sedan always has been a bit of an oxymoron.

Conventional wisdom has held that a customer with pockets deep enough to buy an upscale automobile wouldn't worry about saving a few bucks at the gas pump.

But what if the hybrid version of the car in question was quieter, smoother, more earth-friendly and only slightly more expensive?

I just completed a drive of the excellent new Lexus ES 300h, a test car provided by Lexus of Chattanooga. It's the gas-electric sedan in the just-updated ES model line, which also includes the standard, six-cylinder ES 350.

Lexus has deployed midpriced hybrid vehicles before. The RX five-passenger crossover has a hybrid version, and the CT 200h is a hybrid hatchback. The smallish HS 250h sedan has been discontinued for 2013.

Joe Prebul, sales manager at Lexus of Chattanooga, said the Japanese luxury carmaker is trying to make the ES Hybrid a more mainstream product. Indeed, the hybrid represents 25 percent of ES production this year.

Do the math. If the ES Hybrid gets 40 mpg in the city and the non-hybrid ES 350 gets 21 mpg around town, that sounds a lot like half-price gas to me.

With a price premium of only $2,700 over the six-cylinder car, the ES Hybrid likely will pay for itself in two or three years of normal driving. After that, the savings are gravy. (You have to be very rich to consider that kind of payback chump change.)

STYLING AND COMFORT

Our test car, the first in the market, has Cerulean Blue Metallic paint, an appropriately cool color for a car this hip.

The most notable design wrinkle is the brand's trademark new "spindle grille," which looks more aggressive -- dare we say more masculine -- than before. Otherwise there's nothing dramatic about the new ES sheet metal, which has a coupe-like roof line featuring slender C-pillars.

The rear wheel wells are slightly flared to give the car a more athletic stance.

Inside, a new dash design is more angular than before. The ES Hybrid comes with bamboo dash and door inserts that add to the environmentally friendly character of the car. Our test car also came equipped with perforated leather seat surfaces, part of a $1,370 luxury package. A hard-disc navigation system with back-up camera adds $2,625.

All the phone, navigation and sound-system functions are integrated into a mid-dash liquid crystal console. With the navigation option, the ES Hybrid comes equipped with a Remote Touch device on the center stack that works like a computer mouse. While your fingers are busy on the mouse, a leather palm rest provides comfort. It's one of those thoughtful little features Lexus is famous for.

Because of a battery pack tucked behind the back seat, the ES Hybrid has about three cubic feet less trunk space than the nonhybrid ES, which might come into play if you travel a lot.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Although rated at just 200 horsepower, the hybrid powerplant feels more muscular, especially in Sport mode, which dials in more spirited throttle and steering response. Mated to an continuously variable transmission, the engine combo provides a blast of instant torque.

I took the car on a short test drive on Highway 153, and it felt more like a six-cylinder car than a four-cylinder gas engine with electric assist. This is clearly not some underpowered gas sipper.

"This car is a rocket," Prebul said. "I was in a test drive from Stone Mountain [Ga.] to Midtown [Atlanta], and you would not know you were in a hybrid."

There are three driving modes available to ES Hybrid drivers, normal, sport and eco. Interestingly, gas mileage for city (40 mpg) and highway (39 mpg) driving is virtually identical. Stop-and-go mileage is boosted by the electric motor, which takes over at low speeds. It gets some of its juice by recycling brake forces.

The Lexus Hybrid Drive system is in its fifth generation, which means the company has had plenty of time to work out the kinks. Early Toyota-Lexus hybrids had a distinct shudder when the gas engine kicked in, but in the ES Hybrid the power handoff is almost imperceptible.

BOTTOM LINE

The Lexus ES traditionally trails only the Lexus RX crossover in sales volume. The ES Hybrid should appeal to those thrifty, buy-and-hold customers who want a comfortable, fuel-efficient sedan to keep and enjoy for many trouble-free years.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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