Motoring: Lexus ES 300h hybrid gets bolder styling

In designing the ES 300h hybrid sedan, Lexus wisely chose not to fix what wasn’t broken, but sharpened its look and driving dynamics.

The 2013 ES 300h makes a bolder first impression with the now signature Lexus spindle grille. The new model also has a longer wheelbase

The Lexus brand’s entry-luxury ES has always been somewhat of a grandpa car.

Which isn’t a knock against this well-crafted, amply-powered sedan, but a statement that in terms of ride and styling, it’ll be at least a couple of decades before you’d see one in my driveway.

Mind you, it may take that long before I can afford the payments…

But back on point, the ES has always been the ‘Buick’ of the Lexus lineup—conservatively priced and conservatively dressed, both inside and out. It has also been a steady seller.

So in designing the sixth-generation ES sedan, the company wisely chose not to fix what wasn’t broken, and instead sharpened its look and driving dynamics just enough to where I didn’t feel the urge to don a beige cardigan and Tilley hat before getting behind the wheel.

The ES now comes in two models: the aptly-named 3.5-litre V6-powered ES 350 (268 hp, 248 lb/ft of torque), and the less-obviously-tagged ES 300h hybrid, which actually gets a 2.5-litre inline four, working with an electric motor to generate a total of 200 horses.

My tester for the week was the hybrid, and if I didn’t already know it was powered by a four-cylinder engine, I’d have assumed there was a V6 under the hood.

Like all hybrids, the ES 300h benefits from the electric motor’s nearly instantaneous peak torque, and if you set the Drive Mode Select feature to ‘Sport’, the system upshifts later and has a quicker throttle response for a surprisingly lively feel.

But this is a hybrid, not a sports sedan, and such waywardness will torpedo any chance of achieving its 4.8 L/100 km combined fuel economy rating. Not that I’ve ever hit these numbers anyway.

And although the revised suspension, stiffer body and quicker steering ratio offer a slightly more dialled-in driving experience than the former floaty ride, this new ES is better driven in either ‘Normal’ or ‘Eco’ to gain the full advantage of its substantial hybrid price premium.

The ES 300h starts at $43,900, and although it comes with a few items not found in the base ES 350, is priced at $4,400 more.

Nonetheless, you do get a lot of vehicle for the dough, despite losing a bit of trunk space to the battery (342 versus 430 litres), and the ability to drop the back seats to expand cargo room.

Rear-seat leg room is abundant—you can really stretch out—thanks to the longer wheelbase. The centre armrest drops down to reveal a pair of cupholders and there are manual sunshades available for the rear side windows, not to mention an optional power sunshade on the back windscreen. These are ideal when you’re carrying small children.

Up front , as you’d expect, seating is more luxurious with standard 10-way power adjust and heating for both front seats, and memory for the driver.

Seat cooling is also available, as is a heated steering wheel. The latter feature seems a minor detail, but it is one I’ve grown to appreciate for thawing my frozen hands after brushing off snow or scraping an icy windshield.

Lexus has been a standard bearer for entry-luxury passenger cabins, and in the new ES, they continue in this role. Where the previous generation was nice but a little stodgy, the redesigned interior offers a fresher look.

Yes, there’s still woodgrain, but less of it along with more stitched leathers (and faux leathers), metallic accents and straighter lines.

Dual-zone climate control is standard—just set it and forget it—and other features you’ll find even in base trim include power tilt/telescopic (leather-wrapped) steering, smart key with pushbutton start, Bluetooth, multi-info display, Eco drive monitor, backup camera, and an eight-speaker premium audio system with seven-inch display screen.

And on the exterior are 17-inch alloy wheels, rear lip spoiler, power moonroof and blue hybrid badging, distinguishing it from its V6-powered sibling, which also gets dual exhaust outlets.

As with most ‘entry’ luxury vehicles, you can push the price well past this humble pretence.

Want navigation? For this you’ll be shelling out another $1,800, also providing a larger eight-inch screen, heated steering, woodgrain and rain-sensing wipers.

The joys of leather will push the price to $49,100, also giving you an upgraded 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, rear sunshades, navigation and front seat ventilation.

And topping out at $53,200, the Technology Package delivers all of the above plus radar cruise control, backup sensors, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, lane departure alert, pre-collision system, passenger seat memory and more.

Aside from the smaller trunk, I have another small gripe, which is that the Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder idles less smoothly than the V6. But the hushed Lexus cabin more than makes up for this.

You’ll find plenty of competition among mid-size premium sedans, but not with hybrid powertrains. Sure, there’s the less expensive Buick LaCrosse eAssist and much pricier Infiniti M Hybrid, but this is an area where Toyota/Lexus has pretty much set the standard—across all segments—and continues to dominate.

I expect the new ES hybrid will continue the company’s winning ways.

Lexus ES 300h 2013

Body Style: four-door, mid-size entry luxury hybrid

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle inline four cylinder with electric motor (200 hp total system output)

Cargo Capacity: 342 litres.

Fuel Economy: 4.7/5.1/4.8 L/100 km (city/highway/combined)

Price: base $43,900, Navigation Package $45,700, Leather Package $49,100, Technology Package $53,200

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