The best-selling Lexus car, the ES entry-luxury sedan, now comes as a gasoline-electric hybrid, and what a fine hybrid it is.
The 2013 ES 300h has an impressive government fuel economy rating of 40 miles per gallon in city driving and 39 mpg on the highway; it earned an overall five-out-of-five-stars safety rating in federal government crash tests; it's a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, with predicted reliability of above average.
And it comes with the improvements made for 2013 in the non-hybrid, sixth-generation ES. So, the 300h rides on a longer, front-wheel drive platform than the previous ES had, and it has upscale styling that makes it look more like the pricier Lexus LS 460 flagship. The ES 300h even has the striking "spindle" grille that appears on sportier Lexus cars.
The 2013 ES 300h also has 41.9 inches in the front-seat legroom and a whopping 40 inches of legroom in the back seat.
Still, the ES 300h and its gasoline-only sibling, the 2013 ES 350, remain mid-size sedans that are comfortable and refined to drive and ride in.
The 200-horsepower hybrid ES 300h has a luxury car starting retail price of $40,145.
This is $2,880 more than the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $37,265 for a base, 2013 ES 350 with 268-horsepower V-6 and no hybrid system.
But since the ES 300h's city fuel mileage rating is roughly double the 21 mpg of the 2013 ES 350's, and the hybrid is estimated to get 8 more miles per gallon on the highway than the ES 350 does, the $2,880 difference in base price can be recouped after fewer than 45,000 miles, given today's gasoline prices.
Competitors include the 188-horsepower, 2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, whose starting MSRP, including destination charge, is much lower: $36,820. The MKZ Hybrid has the top federal government fuel economy rating among luxury-branded, gasoline-electric hybrid sedans: 45/45 mpg; the ES 300h ranks second.
The 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, which uses the same hybrid drive system as the ES 300h and has the same underlying platform, has a starting retail price of $36,350.
The base ES 300h comes with standard eight-speaker sound system, 10-way, power-adjustable front seats, unique, small "puddle"-illuminating lights under the outside mirrors that light the ground as driver and front-passenger exit, 17-inch wheels, light-emitting diode (LED) turn signals, halogen headlamps with LED daytime running lamps, power moonroof and a high-grade, vinyl NuLuxe material on the seats.
But the feeling inside the new ES is more upscale than in the previous model, in part because there's luxury-imbuing stitching atop the dashboard and the dashboard is modernized with a layout that almost looks serene. This is not an easy accomplishment, given the number of buttons and knobs and displays in today's cars.
Passengers didn't sense that this ES has only a 2.5-liter, dual cam, four-cylinder engine operating with a fuel-thrifty Atkinson cycle. The car accelerated strong and steadily and power felt more like that from a V-6, though there were no V-6 engine sounds.
Note that in the hybrid ES, exhaust pipes are hidden. In contrast, in the V-6 gas-powered ES 350, dual tailpipes are clearly visible for a sportier look.
In the test ES 300h, the 156-horsepower four cylinder was peppy — with 156 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm — and meshed seamlessly with the two on-board electric motors/generators and 1.6-kilowatt battery pack that helped save on gasoline.
Everything was managed expertly by electronics, and during the test drive, there was no hesitation or shuddering of the car during the transitions from electric power to engine power.
With electric power added in, total horsepower is 200.
And yes, it is true that the ES 300h hybrid system is tuned so the electric power is used more in city driving than on highways. This accounts for the slightly higher city fuel economy number than the highway number.
The ES 300h is quite quiet when it's moving.
Like other hybrids, the ES 300h shuts down its engine at stoplights to save gas and becomes magically quiet. The car automatically restarts when the accelerator is pressed.
The ES 300h has a button to run the car on electric power only, but it's limited to speeds under 25 miles per hour and very short distances.
The ES 300h does not come with plug-in capability. All electric power is generated onboard and is stored in a nickel-metal hydride battery pack that's under the rear seats and in the back part of the trunk.
The ES 300h has standard Drive Select — buttons that let the driver select among normal, sport and eco modes of throttle response and, in sport mode, slightly more responsive steering.
But suspension, which is just a tad firmer in the ES 300h than expected, is not changeable.
In the test car, which spent much of its time in eco mode, the average fuel mileage was nearly 37 mpg, and that was without trying to drive frugally.
Handling wasn't sporty, but the car wasn't wallowy, either.
Fit and finish, inside and out, was top notch.
Standard safety items include traction control, electronic stability control and 10 air bags, including a knee air bag for the driver and front passenger, respectively.