Lexus has been offering hybrids since way back when, but for the most part they have been what you might call performance hybrids, in which the gasoline engine is not downsized but is supplemented by the battery-electric system. The result usually is performance that beats the standard, non-hybrid version and fuel economy that is only slightly better. Two more recent efforts were smaller, hybrid-only models: the CT200h and the HS250h. Both were designed for maximum fuel economy — which strikes us as exactly what hybrid shoppers are looking for. However, the driving experience in the CT and, particularly, the HS fails to live up to the expectations one has of a Lexus, and the HS250h has since been dropped.
Now comes the newly redesigned Lexus ES, which gets a hybrid version for the first time, and you have to think that this is pretty much what a Lexus hybrid should have been all along.
Sips gas like a hybrid
First and most importantly, the ES300h scores big EPA numbers. The combined rating is 40 mpg, which breaks down as 40 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. Those figures far exceed the V-6-powered ES350’s 21 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. That’s because, in place of the ES350’s 268-hp V-6, the ES300h uses a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine. It’s combined with two electric motor/generators fed by a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack (the same powertrain found in the Toyota Camry hybrid). The total system output is 200 horsepower, which is down substantially from the ES350’s V-6. But the ES hybrid’s stated 0-to-60 time of 8.1 seconds is only 1 second behind its V-6 sibling, and is hardly bog-slow compared to other high-mileage hybrids. Yes, calls for strong acceleration, such as highway merging, will keep the engine hung up at high rpms, but more casual acceleration is accomplished with little high-rpm droning. Overall, this hybrid system operates unobtrusively, and the gasoline engine’s start-ups and shutdowns barely register. Your passengers are more likely to notice the powertrain’s silent operation during low-speed EV driving. The ES has a drive mode selector, with the choices of eco, normal, sport, and EV mode. Even the faintest tap of the accelerator kicks you out of EV mode. Eco mode kills throttle response (and decreases A/C usage), while sport mode calls up more aggressive throttle mapping and also increases steering effort. Regardless of mode, steering efforts are pretty light, getting even more so as you wind on more lock (as in parking). The ES chassis is more composed than in the past, however, capably absorbing bumps without the nodding ride motions of an overly soft suspension. Finally, brake pedal feel is pretty wooden, but modulation is not bad for a hybrid.
The hybrid system’s polish matches the upscale interior environment of the new ES. My test car was decked out in soft leather, glossy bamboo wood, and matte silver trim. The dashboard design emphasizes the cabin’s width, and the large, 8-inch display is operated via Lexus’ mouse-like Remote Touch controller. The latest ES is now derived from the Toyota Avalon, rather than the Camry, which means it’s a bit larger outside than previous editions and much roomier inside. The back seat is particularly spacious, with a limo-like 40 inches of rear-seat legroom. Only the trunk is on the small side at 12.1 cubic feet, down 3.1 cubic feet versus the ES350 because of the hybrid system equipment housed behind the rear seat.
A bargain among Lexus hybrids
At $39,725, the ES350h is $2750 more than the ES350 — that’s easily the lowest hybrid price premium in the Lexus lineup. Considering that the ES300h’s annual fuel cost (as calculated by the EPA) is nearly $1000 less than its V-6 sibling, the extra cost of the ES300h is recouped in only three years. (Shoppers can get a more accurate look by customizing the EPA’s cost calculator to better reflect their own driving circumstances).
Know, however, that with either the ES300h or the ES350, you’ll likely be adding several thousand dollars worth of options. Both models come in a single trim level and are similarly equipped, but many of the items you might expect on a Lexus are extra-cost. Among them: navigation, wood interior trim, heated seats, a backup camera, HID headlamps, and leather (although hardcore greenies might consider the standard NuLuxe synthetic leather to be a badge of honor).
Even after a dip into the options pool, the ES300h is still less expensive and gets much better fuel economy than a performance hybrid like the GS450h, and it’s roomier and more polished than — but nearly as economical as — the much smaller CT200h. For shoppers looking to combine luxury of a Lexus and the great mileage of a hybrid, the ES300h delivers.
Base price (with destination): $39,725
Price as tested: $46,070
2.5-liter four-cylinder electric hybrid
Continuously variable automatic transmission
NuLuxe synthetic leather trim
Keyless entry and ignition
Power door locks
Power driver’s and passenger’s seat (10-way)
Power side mirrors
Heated, power mirrors
AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system w/aux and USB inputs and 8 speakers
Steering-wheel-mounted audio, phone, and display controls
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Auto on/off headlights w/LED daytime running lights
Options on this vehicle:
Navigation system- $2625
Navigation w/weather and traffic
8-in. VGA screen
Lexus Enform w/app suite, Lexus Insider
HD radio and DVD player
XM sports & stocks
Luxury package- $1370
Perforated, leather-trimmed interior
Heated & ventilated front seats
Bamboo wood trim
Power tilt & telescoping steering column
Memory for power seat, mirrors, and steering column
HID headlamps- $515
Blind spot monitor w/cross traffic alert- $500
Parking assist- $500
Heated, wood-and-leather-trimmed steering wheel, leather shift knob- $450
Power rear sunshade- $210
Rain-sensing wipers- $155
Key options not on this vehicle:
Ultra-luxury package- $8700
40 / 39 / 40 mpg
2.5L I-4 electric hybrid
Horsepower: 200 hp
Continuously variable automatic
Curb weight: 3660 lb
17 x 7 inch alloy wheels