As the newest addition to the Lexus ES line of mid-sized luxury sedans originated in 1989 – and the first hybrid version – the ES 300 h has been a relative sales hit.
It was launched in August 2012 for the 2013 model year and carries forward as essentially the same car for 2014, with a couple minor trim and feature updates.
Last summer Lexus projected one out of four front-wheel-drive ES models sold would be the hybrid version, and that prediction has proven true.
This is significant for at least a couple of reasons.
First, Lexus buyers have traditionally opted for what others perceived as more-expensive variants to Toyotas because they wanted that special feeling of being coddled if not also recognized – thus compromise was not in their vocabulary.
Secondly, many consumers in general remain on the fence about hybrids, unsure whether gas-electric variants are a great value compared to regular gas-powered stable mates.
But the Lexus sales numbers speak for themselves. Hybrids now comprise only 4 percent of U.S. sales, so 25 percent is huge.
The reason for this apparent anomaly is simple. As the originator of the Prius, and still the market leader, Toyota has its hybrid formula pretty well dialed. As seen with the Camry and Avalon, Toyota hybrid variants deliver substantial mileage gains, and their prices – while higher – can be seen as acceptable, as are any minor performance trade-offs, if perceived at all.
The ES series had been based the Camry platform for five generations, but now is based on the Avalon – and actually, they are all kissing cousins with the Lexus being the premier example.
Providing the ES its “hybrid” identity is its 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle engine paired with a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor and motor/generator.
Aside from sharing platforms, this same Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system is also used by the Camry and Avalon hybrids. Minor differences include the ES weighs 250 pounds or so more than the Camry Hybrid depending on trim levels, and 90 pounds more than the Avalon hybrid and there are minuscule differences in final drive ratio as well.
The 2AR-FXE engine at the core of the system sheds as much parasitic drag as possible as an entirely belt-less design first seen on the 2012 redesigned Camry Hybrid. Fuel economy and reliability are thus helped by utilizing an electric water pump, and electric power steering.
The 156-horsepower engine utilizes a high 12.5:1 compression ratio, and its power pulses are merged via computer control with two electric motors. One is the motor/generator that is primarily engine driven and recharges the liquid-cooled nickel-metal hydride battery pack. It also is used as a starter for the gas engine during its stop/start function.
The main propulsion motor as mentioned is responsible for adding drive power. It supplies 105 kw (142 horsepower) at 4,500 rpm, and peak torque from 0-1,500 rpm is 199 pounds-feet.
The 108-pound, 1.6-kwh liquid-cooled battery pack is located in the trunk behind a carpeted cover and volume is 12.1 cubic feet compared to 15.2 for the non-hybrid.
Because the gas and electric motors hit their peaks at different points, the system power is rated at a flat 200, and no peak gas-electric torque figure is specified.
The system’s power output and drive characteristics are also flexible due to selectable drive modes: Eco/Normal and Sport modes and EV which is activated by a button assuming battery charge and sedate driving.
U.S. EPA-rated mileage is 40 mpg city, 39 highway, 40 mpg combined. This contrasts with the 3.5-liter V6 ES 350 which is rated at 21 mpg city, 31 highway, 24 combined.
Yes, it is a high-line Toyota, but Lexus does a thorough treatment creating a new identity, and this one carries new design language seen on upper level Lexus models, including its leading and shapely front grille.
The ES 300 h hybrid is otherwise essentially identical to the ES 350 non-hybrid in terms of sheet metal, interior design, creature comforts, and ride.
Also distinct top the Hybrid are badging and power readouts unique to its powertrain.
Design features are aesthetically pleasing and quality of materials lets you know this is more than a Toyota Camry – or Avalon, even if they all sound and drive like members of a family.
Also welcome is the extra room afforded by an 111.0-inch wheelbase shared with the Avalon and 1.7-inches longer than the Camry. While all cars make good use of interior space, as the charts show, the ES makes three adults seated in back into a slightly more comfortable proposition.
Extra touches include Analog clock, auto-dimming interior mirror, glow-in-the-dark emergency interior trunk release handle, heated external mirrors with memory, HomeLink programmable garage door opener, illuminated entry system: front and rear seating areas, engine start button, driver and front passenger foot-well areas and exterior mirror puddle lamp areas, and illuminated gas and trunk release buttons.
Changes for 2014 are as follows: Fog lamps saw their bulbs changed to LED and this is the only exterior tweak. Inside updates are heated and ventilated front seats available with NuLuxe trim. Also perforation was added to front and rear seat inserts on NuLuxe-trimmed seats (with optional heated and ventilated front seats only). The car also got Siri Eyes Free Mode.
Other than that, it’s the same as was introduced in May 2012.
How it Drives
The redesigned ES line is roomy and comfortable feeling with LCD-type electronic digital twin trip meters and odometer display and controls laid out in a very functional pattern easy to get used to.
EPA-rated mileage can be achieved at a legal go-with-the flow pace. As you may know, driving a hybrid to maximum efficiency involves becoming conscious of the electric operation that is possible on a part-time basis. The idea is to get the battery delivering power and the engine turned off by the HSD’s computer brain, and this is how the average fuel economy goes up.
If the gas engine were running all the time, the mpg would be no where near 40, and experienced hybrid owners desiring maximum return learn to game the system as much as they can.
Driving the car in an “ordinary” pace will see numbers between 32-38 mpg. Aggressive driving will be on the lower scale and below.
Care taken will let you transcend the rated numbers.
On the other hand, if you want to make haste, you can.
Lexus engineers firmed the ride enough so flying around back roads, or down the highway is not worrisome. While body roll is more than some more sporting sedans and low rolling resistance tires squeal sooner, a competent driver can reel in the miles with aplomb if desired.
Compliance over bumps is smooth in most cases, and notable also is the quiet ride.
Braking action is also OK, and not a cause for concern. The regenerative brakes haul the car down from any speed with control, and acceptably quick.
Power pulses originating from the electric side or the gas side are seamlessly blended, but you will hear the Atkinson-cycle engine power on if you listen for it, especially with the sound system off. This of course is true at a stop when its stop-start technology shuts the engine off, and a firm push of the accelerator spurs it instantly on.
As is typical for hybrids with continuously variable transmissions (CVT), the engine note does not usually correspond linearly with the car’s rate of acceleration.
This characteristic is disliked by some traditional car aficionados as the “sound track” is part of the driver “experience” people have come to associate with driving, and it does have meaning to them.
This is why Hyundai and Kia offer six-speed automatics for their Sonata and Optima hybrids, but the CVT is more efficient, and Lexus gets around its blender sound – as critics would describe it – another way – Sport mode.
With a left toggle to the shifter, a tachometer appears in the center console, and the computer primes the powertrain to give all it can as the CVT simulates stepped gear changes that can be manually initiated up and down the range via the shifter.
The Hybrid lacks some of the oomph of the torquey V6 one liter larger, and its 0-60 time may be a half second slower, but the electrically assisted hybrid otherwise works effectively in spirited driving.
Again, it is no sports sedan. It’s an all-around comfortable, well-appointed, competent conveyance that makes a concession to somewhat aggressive needs, but caters also to desire to save fuel and emissions – the ES 300 h qualifies as a SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle).
As it is, the Lexus compromise is a decent one, and even in regular modes, the car is so quiet most people soon tune it out and give it no thought.
We already know what the market says. Lexus predicted in June 2012 that it would deliver 15,000 units per year constituting 25 percent of ES sales. Its sales average over 1,200 per month and with 12,096 sold through September, it’s on track this year for close to 17,000.
Lexus prices the ES 300h starting at $40,260 including $910 destination. The example we drove was in the $46,000 range. An ES 350 starts at $37,380 including $910 destination, $2,880 less.
The major advantage for the ES 300 h over the ES 350 is a combined EPA rated economy of 40 mpg compared to 24 for the ES 350, not to mention emissions savings.
Looking at an average fuel economy scenario, at 12,000 miles per year, factoring gas at $3.50 per gallon, ES 300 h annual fuel costs equate to $1,050 assuming 40 mpg. If you only got 35 mpg, gas would be $1,200. By comparison, the ES 350 assuming it makes its 24 mpg would cost $1,750 in fuel annually. If it only returned 21 mpg, fuel would cost $2,000 annually. If your annual mileage is more, costs go up. If annual driving is less, fuel costs decrease.
Other variables to consider include estimated resale value, insurance premiums, anticipated maintenance, actual cost of fuel, what kind of price you can get from a dealer, and the value of not having to stop for gas as often – both versions have a 17.2 gallon tank so the ES 300 h will need to refuel less frequently.
Altogether, the ES 300 h can represent a strong alternative depending on your unique circumstances, but there are options besides.
If you want even more high performance, style, conspicuous consumption, and economy, you could consider adding $20,000-$40,000 to your budget, and buy a Tesla Model S.
But if you do, you will need to contemplate a whole new world of recharging, learn not to be caught away from grid power, and you’ll become part of a live experiment to see how the cars hold up in the next five to 10 years.
Seriously though, direct competitors from upscale rivals are few. Infiniti’s hybrid is a fast, high-performance hybrid – note parent company Nissan does not even offer a hybrid model at the moment – and it starts at around $55,000, delivers 29 combined mpg, and is more a competitor for the equally questionable BMW ActiveHybrid 3.
Acura offers a fun and under-appreciated ILX hybrid loping along in the sales charts having sold 535 through September this year compared to 12,096 of the Lexus.
And then there is a bright alternative to the upscale Acura nameplate if you can settle for something from its parent company.
That would be the stellar new Honda Accord Hybrid which ramps up to $36,000-plus for the Touring model, is a premium sedan in the same basic segment, and knocks mpg out of the park with 50 city, 45 highway, 47 combined.
Yet another possibility would be the new Lincoln MKZ Hybrid rated at 45 mpg, and – to Ford’s credit – the Lincoln powered by a Fusion hybrid powertrain charges zero price premium over the MKZ non-hybrid.
And beyond that, you have the Toyota Camry Hybrid and perhaps the most closely matched competitor is Toyota’s Avalon Hybrid which is priced overlapping, and could nearly be a Lexus if not for the Toyota badging.
The good news is choices abound. For a quick rundown of every green car sold in the U.S., you can scan our monthly sales Dashboard and maybe select something we did not mention.
It all comes down to you and what you want. If it’s the Lexus, it is a competent vehicle and delivers as advertised.