New hybrid model expands sedan's appeal
By Nina Russin
The ES sedan was one of Lexus' first models when the brand launched 23 years ago. Over time, what began as an aspirational car for Toyota owners developed a unique personality, distinct from the Camry it was once based on. This August, Lexus rolls out the sixth-generation models, with a new hybrid further broadening the sedan's appeal.
The car's positioning has changed as well, from the least expensive Lexus offering to the top of the entry luxury segment. Pricing has not yet been announced, but it will likely be between $35,000 and $40,000, leaving room for the less expensive CT 200h and IS series.
The new ES models sport dramatically different exteriors and powertrains than the cars they replace. The most obvious difference is Lexus' new "spindle" grille, flanked by wide headlamps with LED daytime running lamps.
The ES 350 gets dual exhausts, which differentiate the rear of the car from the hybrid. A rear spoiler is standard on the hybrid but not the ES 350. The hybrid's rear spoiler, a unique lower valence and strategically placed aero fins make it more slippery in the wind tunnel. Coefficient of drag is 0.37.
Midsized sedan with the fuel economy of a compact
Average fuel economy for the new hybrid is 40 miles-per-gallon. The 300 designation indicates that the car produces power equivalent to a three-liter engine, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder block and electric motor.
A nickel metal hydride battery pack is located between the rear seats and trunk. Unlike the gasoline-powered ES 350, the hybrid has a pure electric mode which operates for short distances at speeds up to 25 miles-per-hour.
ES 350 focuses on performance
The 3.5-liter gasoline engine which powers the ES 350 sedan produces up to 268 horsepower and 248 foot-pounds of torque. Drivers can shift the six-speed automatic transmission in purely automatic mode or select gears manually.
Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 7.1 seconds. The ES 350 gets up to 31 miles-per-gallon on the highway; 21 mpg around town.
A drive select system which alters throttle mapping and steering feel is standard on both models. A rotary knob on the center console switches settings between sport, normal and eco modes.
Engineers modified the ES suspension to improve directional stability and compensate for a two-inch longer wheelbase. Opposite-wound coil springs and recalibrated shocks enhance directional control, while a lower steering gear ratio provides quicker response.
Drive test in Texas
This week, I drove both new ES models in downtown Dallas, Texas and surrounding neighborhoods. The drive route provided a good variety of road surfaces, passing through construction, some speed bumps and at one point, dense rush-hour traffic. In other words, I drove the sedans as a city dweller might during the average work week.
Lexus knew that it needed to raise the bar with the new ES. The sedan's success is critical in order for Lexus is to move beyond its 17 percent capture of the entry luxury market.
In this writer's opinion, the new ES has what it needs to take on the competition. It's tighter and more stylish, carrying forth Toyota's high level of craftsmanship. While the ES is not a cheap car, it looks and performs like a lot of car for the money.
I drove the ES 350 first, keeping the drive select mode in "sport." While the ride is a bit harsh for uneven street surfaces, I found the heavier steering weight more pleasant than "normal" or "eco" modes.
Normal mode provides a compliant enough ride to travel over speed bumps. Because the drive select system is so easy to use, the driver can modify the throttle and suspension while the vehicle is moving, with minimal distraction.
The 3.5-liter engine offers excellent acceleration off the line, which drivers need merging out of toll booths or onto the highway.
The electric power steering system is well tuned to the car, giving the mid-sized sedan an excellent turning circle. I had no problems making U-turns on average city streets. At higher speeds, on-center response is good, keeping the car stable through quick lane changes.
Seamless hybrid performance
Lexus has made hybrids its specialty. Building off the Toyota Prius, engineers have used similar technology to develop hybrid versions of other cars as well. Electric motors can boost gas mileage or enhance power, depending on the car's purpose.
In the case of the ES 300h, the motors do both, increasing fuel economy compared to the GS 350, as well as enhancing acceleration off the line. An 8.1 second zero-to-sixty time is pretty good for a midsized sedan powered by a small four-cylinder engine. The only downside to the car is the sedan's smaller trunk, due to the battery location.
More spacious interior
Since sedans are vehicles which carry multiple passengers, engineers prioritized interior spaciousness. The longer wheelbase enabled them to add four inches of legroom in the second row for both ES models. Since the front-wheel drive chassis has no floor tunnel, three adults can fit in back. Tall men should feel comfortable in the outboard positions.
Front seats have larger side bolsters than on the outgoing model, but they don't interfere with access and egress. Drivers can program the key fobs to remember seat and mirror position as well as climate control settings.
Keyless entry and start is standard for all grades. Lexus uses a mouse controller for navigation and infotainment functions. Optional Lexus Enform enables the driver to pair his smart phone with the vehicle to access apps including Bing, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, Pandora and Yelp.
Up-to-date weather, news and sports are available via XM satellite radio. The single, center console-mounted control makes all of this easy to access. Both the center stack screen and gauge cluster are visible in bright sunlight.
The interior includes convenience features luxury car owners expect, such as dual-zone climate control, ten-way adjustable driver's seat, surround-sound audio system and redundant steering wheel controls.
Storage around the passenger compartment is abundant: a large locking glovebox, center console bin with USB and auxiliary ports, map pockets and bottle holders in the front doors. Overhead reading lamps illuminate the interior at night.
Although second-row seats don't fold flat, a pass-through on the GS 350 adds enough cargo space for skis. The deep trunk can easily hold luggage, golf clubs and the weekly groceries. The smaller trunk in the ES 300h is big enough to house a couple of roller board suitcases.
All models come with ten standard airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, tire pressure monitoring and whiplash resistant front seats.
Lexus will announce pricing for both ES models closer to the August roll-out.
Likes: Lexus' entry luxury sedan has acquired a distinct personality, with appealing styling and performance. The addition of a hybrid adds 40 mile-per-gallon average fuel economy.
Dislike: Lack of trunk space on the hybrid model.
Models: ES 350, ES 300h
Base price: N/A
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 268 Hp @ 6200 rpm (ES 350); 156 Hp @ 5700 rpm, 200 net horsepower (ES 300h)
Torque: 248 lbs.-ft. @ 4700 rpm (ES 350); 156 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 rpm (ES 300h)
Zero-to-sixty: 7.1 seconds (ES 350); 8.1 seconds (ES 300h)
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: Standard
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 21/31 mpg city/highway (ES 350); 40/39 mpg city/highway (ES 300h)