The Lexus ES has been the best-selling Lexus sedan for decades, outselling every Lexus model except for the RX. While the ES was originally designed as the Japanese luxury brand’s entry-level vehicle in America, it is slowly becoming one of Lexus’ flagship products. To prove to us that Lexus has what it takes to reign supreme in the FWD luxury class they created in 1989, they flew us up to Oregon to sample the all-new, sixth generation ES 350 and 300h hybrid.
“Why would you pay more for a fancy Camry?” Every Lexus owner has heard that statement from someone before. For 2013, the new ES rides on a variant of the Toyota Avalon’s skeleton. You won’t find any “Avalon” in the ES’s sheetmetal however. While the ES remains a very sedate sedan, the “spindle grille” seems to suit the ES better than the more expensive GS. Despite sharing nothing with the old ES, the new model is instantly recognizable, and that’s how Lexus owners like it (or so we are told.)
Aside from the rubbery dash and the wood trim, the old interior had a very “mid-market sedan” feel to it, primarily due to its and aging style. Lexus decided to bring the ES significantly upmarket with an all-new interior themed after the 2013 GS model we sampled earlier in the year. While the style isn’t quite my cup of tea, the fit and finish is perhaps the best in the Lexus lineup, easily rivaling the current generation LS. Regardless of your model or color choice, the dashboard is always black and always sports hand-stitched pleather. Unlike Buick’s molded-then-stitched dash, the ES’s interior is actually crafted by a skilled team of 12 in Japan, on sewing machines. While nobody at Lexus would comment, I couldn’t help drawing a comparison to the Lincoln MKS and Cadillac XTS. Why? Because the ES has grown inside, dishing out a whopping 40 inches of rear legroom (4 more than before, and suspiciously identical to the XTS). The ES’s interior is easily several steps ahead of the domestics when it comes to haptic quality, except for one major faux pas: the key fob. Like the new GS, the ES’s key feels incredibly cheap. Key quibbles aside, the ES delivers all the luxury schtick you could ask for, from heated rear seats and rear window shades to 10 standard airbags and a power trunk lid.
While the 268HP V6 and 6-speed automatic transaxle are carried over from last year’s ES, Toyota has tweaked the transmission’s shift logic for greater efficiency. We tested the V6 model and it sprinted to 60MPH a hair faster (6.35 seconds) than the 2012 model we tested recently. This is thanks to revised transmission and traction control software that allow the vehicle to apply power with less wheel spin. While these refinements are interesting, the big news for 2013 is the ES hybrid. For the ES 300h, Lexus lifted the hybrid system out of the Camry Hybrid. Delivering 200 total system horsepower and about 200lb-ft of torque (Lexus has not released an official number yet), the system was able to scoot the model we tested to 60 in 7.28 seconds, or 3/10ths of a second slower than the lighter Camry Hybrid. Lexus is promising a luxury-segment besting 40MPG city, 39 city, 40 combined.
Base ES models were unavailable for testing, but we are told they are equipped with an 8-speaker audio system with Bluetooth and iPod integration and XM radio. Opting for the “display audio” buys you a 7-inch LCD coupled with the standard surround-sound system. A bump up to the navigation system gets you an 8-inch screen and opens the door to the 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. The ML system sounds as good as it does in the GS with a very natural balance and an excellent surround system. Sadly, Lexus’s awkward joystick/mouse interface came along for the ride. With Lexus’ market leaning towards older customers, I have a hard time believing my parents would be able to use the system.
Our brief 120 mile drive around the Oregon countryside, it was obvious there were no major theological shifts at work inside Lexus. The ES is still a softly sprung FWD highway cruiser. The thick rimmed steering wheel and sport button promise sporty driving, but when pushed moderately, the front heavy ES heads for the bushes. You know what? I’m OK with that. If you want something sportier, get a GS F-Sport. Out on the road the hybrid ES 300h gives up a bit more grip thanks to different tire choices and a bit more curb weight, but it countered that with an impressive 42MPG average in our brief test. Thanks to electric power steering, all models are as numb as a remote-controlled car. As the industry continues to chase MPGs, numb steering is getting so normal that the ES is no worse than a number of German vehicles I could mention. Despite what Lexus may tell you, the Sport mode doesn’t help much.
Lexus has not finalized pricing as of this time, but we were told to expect the ES 350 to be “substantially similar” in pricing to the 2012 model. In addition to not raising the pricing bar, Lexus claims the ES will have “the lowest hybrid premium in the luxury market.” Since the Lincoln MKZ hybrid is the same price as the gasoline version, make what you will out of that. With a pricing scheme likely to range from $37,500-$48,000, it is worth pointing out that this significantly undercuts the FWD Lincoln MKS and the FWD Cadillac XTS by a fair margin. While the new ES may not set your loins on fire, it does offer a compelling balance of luxury features and will no doubt continue to be Lexus’ best selling sedan. With competition like this, Caddy and Lincoln had better watch their back, Lexus isn’t pulling any punches.
Lexus flew me to Porland and put me up in a swanky hotel for 20 hours so we could attend the regional launch event. The food was great, the weather was terrible.
Specifications as tested
2013 ES 350
0-30 MPH: 2.55 Seconds
0-60 MPH: 6.35 Seconds
2013 ES 300h
0-30 MPH: 3.2 Seconds
0-60 MPH: 7.28 Seconds