Even when stacked up against other Lexus models, the front-drive ES has long been considered boring. Yet the Camry-based sedan has been a best-seller for Lexus and in its segment. For this reason, it has become a benchmark; just as every compact sport sedan targets the BMW 3-Series, every upper-midsize near-luxury sedan targets the ES. Well aware of the beads drawn on its back,
Toyota Lexus has redesigned the car for the 2013 model year. But has it raised the bar enough to keep Koreans with upward aspirations in their place?
Earlier this year the recently redesigned Hyundai Azera handily dispatched two other aspirants to the near-lux throne from Buick and Ford. Even with the 2013 Lexus thrown into the arena, the Hyundai appears the most modern and the most “money.”
Buick, Hyundai, Lexus, and (on the horizon) Lincoln were all thinking in the same direction, but Hyundai pushed the “swoopy coupe-like sedan” theme the farthest and finished it best. In contrast, Lexus appears to have been held back by other considerations and its innate conservatism. The lines of the new ES, though a definite leap forward from the staid old car’s, don’t flow as well as those of the Azera. Or do they? The wind tunnel actually finds the visually stiffer ES a little slipperier (0.27 vs. 0.28). The ES’s nose wears the make’s new “spindle” grille. While lust isn’t likely to be provoked, it is distinctive.
Lexus interiors have always sold more cars than Lexus exteriors, and the ES fares better once you’re inside it. The bi-level instrument panel first seen in the 2013 GS works on a functional level, maximizes perceived space by abutting the doors and center console at sharp angles, and covers both “sport” and “luxury” bases.
Just about everything looks and feels at least a little more posh and refined than in the considerably more cockpit-like, and consequently more cramped, Azera. (One exception: the leather on the Hyundai’s seats has a richer hand. Also, while the Lexus’s upholstered-by-master-craftsmen IP is a nice touch, the upholstery is too obviously synthetic and doesn’t continue onto the upper doors.)
Both cars are available with panoramic sunroofs, but one of them is considerably more panoramic than the other and has a single power sunshade rather than two manual ones. Guess which car has the manual sunshades. Guess again.
Stop gazing at the stars and direct your view forward, and the Lexus regains major points. The Azera’s so-relaxed-it’s-nearly-asleep windshield translates into a very tall, very deep instrument panel. As a result, it’s difficult to gauge the front end of the Hyundai from the driver’s seat, both along a curvy road and in parking lots. Thanks to the more conservative rake and position of its windshield, the Lexus provides the driver with a more confidence-inspiring view. Both cars have large, supportive front seats compared to those in the previous ES, though the Azera’s headrests jut a little too far forward for my upright build.
The Lexus ES is no longer based on the Toyota Camry. Instead, it’s now based on the upcoming Toyota Avalon…which is based on the Camry. A push for more rear seat legroom drove the switch. But if rear legroom was such a priority, why isn’t there any space for the rear passengers’ toes under the front seats? Lexus has stretched the car’s wheelbase to add four inches of rear legroom (for a generous total of 40.0 that roughly matches the Buick LaCrosse as well as the Azera) only to then effectively lose four inches through poorly designed front seats. Lexus is far from alone in this, but did your mother ever accept the excuse that “everyone else was also doing it”? Toe space is tight beneath the Azera’s front seats, but it’s there. Combine this with a larger, better-positioned rear cushion, and the Hyundai is a little more comfortable in back. There’s also an extra cube in the Azera’s trunk (16.3 to 15.2) and this trunk, unlike the Lexus’s, can be expanded by folding the rear seat.
Lexus put all of its powertrain development hours into a new ES hybrid. Like the Camry with which it shares a basic powertrain, the ES 300h can dish out more shove than most people expect from a hybrid, but doesn’t make $40,000 noises and has a sizeable EPA fuel economy rating deficit relative to the 2013 Ford / Lincoln sibs (40/39 vs. the Ford’s 47/47).
Put another way, the ES 350’s non-hybrid, non-DI V6 has been carried over with no major changes. And it doesn’t matter. This 3.5-liter remains a sweetheart of an engine, with a pleasantly plump torque curve (that too readily chirps the grip-deficient Turanza EL400 tires) and among the smoothest, richest tenors you’ll find in a V6. The direct-injected 3.3-liter V6 in the Azera peaks higher (293 vs. 268 horsepower), but its midrange is noticeably weaker and it doesn’t sound or feel as refined. Its NVH isn’t bad, but the Lexus’s is simply the best. On top of this, the larger, old-tech engine in the ES 350 earns higher EPA ratings (21/31 vs. 20/29).
As with the latest Camry, Lexus has removed considerable float, slop, and pillow-soft glide from the ES’s suspension. A little low-speed ride quality has been lost, but a fair amount of handling precision and control has been gained. The ES still isn’t a sport sedan, but it no longer trips clumsily over its own sidewalls when hustled, either.
Hyundai doubled down on the same bet. The Azera has heavier, quicker steering and a more aggressively damped suspension. But it’s not significantly more fun to drive, partly because the steering doesn’t communicate much and partly because of the confidence-impairing view forward. Either car easily outpoints the soggy old Lexus ES, but neither can induce grins the way an Acura TL SH-AWD can. They’re curious about heading in a sporty direction, but far from committed to the lifestyle. Both cars get a little jumpy over tar strips and expansion joints, but the rough edges are more frequently exposed in the less well-sorted Hyundai. On many roads the Azera feels smooth and luxurious. On others it just can’t settle down.
The Lexus ES’s higher grade materials and additional refinement come at a price. Its $36,995 base is $4,120 higher than the 2012 Hyundai’s. A quick run through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool finds that the Hyundai is also better equipped, to the tune of about $600. (The ES has a standard sunroof, but the Azera has standard leather upholstery, seats heaters in both rows, and nav.) Load both cars up, and the Hyundai’s price advantage more than doubles ($36,975 vs. $46,450). Adjusting for the Lexus’s additional features narrows the gap to about $8,000.
Paid out-of-pocket, $8,000 would seem a serious chunk of change. But roll it into a lease with a correspondingly higher residual, and it’ll seem much less sizeable. Factor in the Lexus’s more prestigious badge, more upscale interior, and greater refinement, and the ES will remain the choice of those buyers not seeking a deal. And, if the lease terms are favorable enough, perhaps of those seeking a deal as well. This said, Lexus best step up its pursuit of perfection, as Hyundai’s cars have been improving at a faster rate and the latest Azera isn’t far behind. Carving out some space beneath the front seats and enlarging the roof portal would be a good start.
Both cars were evaluated at media events where breakfast and lunch were provided. The Azera was driven again during the Lexus event thanks to the helpful folks at Ralph Thayer Hyundai of Livonia, MI (734-425-5400).
Michael Karesh operates truedelta.com, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.