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First Drive: 2013 Lexus ES

No car illustrates both the peril and payoff of a luxury marque raiding the corporate parts bin quite like the Lexus ES. Long based on the Toyota Camry, the front-wheel-drive sedan could be seen as on outlier in the Lexus lineup, and yet it's the brand's most popular car. The ES's blue-collar background and blue-blood badge create accessible luxury for buyers and irresistible profits for Toyota Motor Company. It's the drug that neither consumer nor corporation cares to quit.

A Brand in Transition

The new 2013 ES arrives at a pivotal time for the Lexus brand, amidst a philosophical about-face that has produced a 202-mph supercar, birthed a performance sub-brand, and pulled BMW into its competitive set. The ES's reputation as aloof, impassive, and out-of-place is a liability now more than ever. Because no matter how quickly an LFA hits 60 mph or how competent the F Sport models are, the popularity of the ES ensures that it will have a major role in defining the brand.

So Long, Camry

Breaking with tradition, the new ES steps off the Camry platform and onto that of the larger Toyota Avalon. The switch nets a whopping 4.1 inches of extra rear-seat legroom, as the car adds 1.6 inches of additional length. Like the outgoing model, this new ES bears little resemblance to its Toyota counterpart. Unlike the old car, the 2013 version also bears little resemblance to a dinner roll. The fresh design follows that of the new GS sedan, conveying a sense of emotion without being excessively ornamented. The new ES gets its more intense look from its large, pinched grille; the kinked C-pillar; and the sharp edge of the rocker panels.

The interior has undergone an even more dramatic transformation, with the late '90s finally giving way to a modern aesthetic that borrows the tiered, horizontal motif of the LFA with the addition of gentler, curved lines and tasteful complements of traditional wood trim. And just as it was at the brand's outset, Lexus remains fastidious in certain details. For instance, the standard leather dash in this $40,000 car is hand-stitched by one of twelve takumi, Toyota's Japanese master craftsmen.

Remote Touch, Lexus's answer to BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI, is optional and comes with Enform app integration. While the graphics are vastly improved over the original iteration, pushing down on the mouse-like controller to make a selection isn't as precise as the previous thumb button. Integration with the Bing search engine, Yelp business reviews, MovieTickets.com listings, and other apps is a neat feature, but one with limited appeal as they become essentially unusable when the vehicle is in motion -- even with a body in the passenger seat. When listening to Pandora Internet Radio, the system will only allow access to twenty-five stations at speed, an inexplicable frustration that's analogous to locking out certain FM radio frequencies.

Smooth Operator

While the infotainment system falls a bit short of expectations, the ES350's 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 268 hp and 248 lb-ft does the opposite. The engine is plenty powerful and it's genuinely rewarding to experience how the revs build quickly, smoothly, and almost musically toward the top end of the tachometer. The six-speed automatic is well behaved, though largely unexceptional compared to the fast-acting, telepathic behavior or BMW and Audi's eight-speed automatics. Fuel economy, at 21/31 mpg, comes 2 mpg short of the turbocharged four-cylinder of the BMW 328i.

Chassis Changes

For the new ES, the steering ratio has been quickened from 16.1:1 to 14.8:1, but the steering response still couldn't be described as "quick." Instead, the ES's steering improves from full-size-truck slow to that of a typical -- but not particularly sporty -- car. Drive Mode Select with eco, normal, and sport settings is standard and alters throttle mapping and the electric power-steering assist. In eco/normal modes, the steering is overassisted and underdamped, reminding us of that old Lexus character we were hoping to leave behind. Sport mode is much more balanced and strikes us as the true "normal." It's not especially heavy, but neither is it artificially energetic.

Body roll is reasonably controlled, but the ES still places the emphasis on a comfortable ride. To that end, the updated car boasts revised suspension components and geometry that calm some of the higher frequency disturbances that made their way to the driver's seat in the previous model. While cabin quietness mostly lived up to our expectations, some of Oregon's coarse road surfaces incited tire roar that was impossible to ignore.

Enter a Hybrid

The sixth-generation ES also introduces the first-ever hybrid model, the ES300h, with a gas/electric powertrain borrowed from -- what else -- the Camry. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, two electric motor/generators, and a continuously variable transmission receive only minor calibration tweaks in the move from Toyota to Lexus. Peak output is the same 200 hp as the Camry Hybrid, and the fuel economy rating is 40/39 mpg (city/highway). An EV mode allows feather-footed drivers to reach speeds of up to 25 mph for short distances without using the gas engine.

The hybrid's acceleration and brake feel bear only the faintest resemblance to what you experience in the V-6 car. Still, the ES hybrid is a far more pleasant fuel miser than the unsuccessful and unloved HS250h. That short-lived model has been killed off in light of the ES300h's significantly better fuel economy, larger cabin, and similar price. Exact pricing hasn't been announced, but Lexus says the ES300h will have the brand's smallest hybrid cost premium ever. We predict a starting figure right around $40,000.

While the ES aesthetic has been rebooted with the 2013 model, the driving experience hasn't changed substantially. This is still the comfortable, nicely appointed, affordable luxury car it has always been. The ES's humble roots leave little room for massaging the car into a performer to match the brand's aspirations. We have no doubt that the ES will continue to contribute generously to Lexus's bottom line; its contribution to recreating the brand image, however, will be minimal.

2013 Lexus ES350
On sale: August 2012
Base price: $38,000 (est. )
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 268 hp, 248 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA mileage: 21/31 mpg

2013 Lexus ES300h
On sale:
August 2012
Base price: $40,000 (est. )
Engine: 2.5L I-4 gas/electric hybrid, 200 hp (net)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA mileage: 40/39 mpg