Lexus ES 300 Hybrid road test
Wealth of technologies, but easy to enjoy, benefit
Despite its wealth of technologies, the Lexus ES 300 Hybrid is uncharacteristically easy to enjoy without the owner being (particularly) wealthy.
The Hybrid is a technology showcase, but it all works without demanding any higher intelligence from the driver. And Lexus has applied a comfortable ride quality that was once a very American style of hospitality.
Forget that big grille that makes this midsize sedan look like a man-eater. It’s all just fashionable statement. There’s not a sporty bone in its steel body, yet it can handle enthusiastic driving.
The 2016 ES gets a few changes and updates, including a grille framed by satin chrome trim, standard LED headlights and a redesigned front fascia that puts the fog lights at the corners to accentuate a wide stance. At the rear, the ES 300h gets L-themed taillights, reminiscent of the flagship LS sedan.
The Lexus ES is sold as the gasoline-engine ES 350 or the ES 300 Hybrid, today’s test car. The ES 350, with 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, starts at $39,050, including $950 freight charge.
The ES 300 Hybrid starts at $41,870 and was $47,250 as tested, which seemed good value when it’s easy to brush $50,000 for a midsize luxury sedan. Standard features include smart locking and push-button ignition, 10-way power adjusted front seats and a moonroof.
The hybrid system will run on the electric motor or gas engine alone, or a combination of both. A system indicator shows use of energy and encourages efficient driving habits. There are the expected features of automatic stop-start at idle and regenerative braking. At slow speeds, the ES can keep pace with stop-and-go traffic, but hit the gas and the switch to dual-mode power is immediate.
It is a completely transparent system of efficiency and it works without input from the driver or interference with the driver. The electrified four-cylinder performance has the force of a V-6 and is quite assertive in sport mode. Someday, all cars will have such simple electrification, which not too many years ago was Jetson-like mystical.
The CVT — continuously variable automatic transmission — is quick to keep the engine power in its sweet spot. There is no motorboating as the engine catches up to the power demand, which is common and unwelcome in some other CVTs.
While Lexus hit the exterior with its “bold” bludgeon, the interior is more mainstream but quite functional. There is no overreactive design theme for shock and awe, just the usual faux dark wood trim (boring) and some piano black (overdone). There are a few too many basic Toyota-like elements, such as the plastics, that are not luxury class. But after a while I looked past that and enjoyed the lush steering, the tight turning circle (37.4 feet), the effortless drivability, the gracious entry and exit for occupants and the killer eight-speaker audio system.
Sightlines are good over the hood and over the shoulders. Cabin controls are not overwhelming to figure out, though there are lots of buttons and that central controller with a mouselike joystick. And there’s the performance mode dial also wedged into the slim space of the center console. The area is unnecessarily cluttered with meager cup holders and little space to lay a phone. The USB ports are awkwardly placed in the center armrest console. For this car, it’s time to move away from a formal gear-shift lever and use buttons, which would clear up console space to accommodate an e-bin or other space for phones or whatever else we drag along to get us through the day.
Front headroom at 37.5 inches is competitive for a midsize sedan with a moonroof, but it is the back seat that has the choice accommodations — 37.5 inches of headroom, 40 inches of legroom, a very low center tunnel and 55 inches of shoulder room. The bench has decent adult thigh support, a comfortable back angle with a center armrest, reading lights and grab handles.
Trunk space at 12.1 cubic feet is slightly compromised by storage space for the nickel-metal hydride battery, but it has a wide opening and low liftover,
The ES is by far the biggest seller of all six Lexus models, adding up to almost 5,373 in May, which is a couple thousand more than its next best-seller, the IS sport sedan at 2,879 or the LS flagship at 712.
The ES Hybrid is just a smart mix of roominess, luxury and price.