At the time of its introduction in the fall of 1989, the then-new Lexus ES was little more than a seat filler. You know the drill: At major awards shows when an A-lister needs to grab a drink, light a cig or (more likely) use the restroom, a butt fills the seat ‘til said A-lister can return. As the Lexus brand debuted to wide acclaim its obvious star was the big LS, while the ES 250 served as little more than a seat filler. The Lexus ES has – to be sure – been improved in successive generations, but continued to pail when compared to the show’s star. With the introduction of the 2013 ES 350 and ES 300h, however, the ES is no longer occupying the shadows or simply filling a seat. Rather, it seems to have evolved into a star in its own right.
At a regional press introduction for the ES, Lexus tied its penchant for refinement with a marketing exec’s fondness for a menu. With Dallas’ Ritz-Carlton serving as the backdrop, chef Dean Fearing went to great lengths (and four courses) to affirm his connection with the luxury brand. Correspondingly, the engineering and design team at Toyota have been working mightily to credibly connect the entry-level Lexus with the balance of the lineup.
It starts with the spindle grille, a design feature introduced last year on the new GS. And rather than looking like the design afterthought we might have, uh, thought, this stylistic feature is actually well-integrated into the overall look. And the visual feel is further differentiated from what has historically been the ES’ donor vehicle, the Camry. Unlike previous iterations, which looked as if they might have occupied the same Toyota showroom, the 2013 ES appears wholly different from its corporate cousin. Rather than the slab sides of the recently revised Camry the Lexus is more organic, while its lengthened wheelbase – up two inches – reduces overhang and increases (dramatically) rear seat legroom.
Inside, the emphasis on creature comforts continues, but with a new, driver-centric focus. Outward visibility has been improved, while the cockpit has been organized to keep the driver’s eyes on the road (imagine…). We found it easy to get comfortable and engaged, both in the 10-way adjustable seat and behind the wheel. Previous ES models may have been known for a long list of positives, but driving dynamic was never one of them. With the new ES a greater emphasis has been placed on precise control, aided by a more rigid structure, revised rear suspension geometry and a quicker steering ratio. And attention to straight-line stability has resulted in the use of opposite-wound coil springs, constructed (presumably) by ambidextrous line workers.
Under the hood of the ES 350 is the well-developed (and consonant-intensive) 3.5 liter V6 with Dual VVT-i, delivering a relatively modest 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Connected to a 6-speed auto (Electronically Controlled Transmission with intelligence: ECT-i), the conventional drivetrain delivers a 0-60 time of just over seven seconds in combination with a 21 City/31 Highway EPA estimate. In a couple of brief, stop-and-go encounters with the ES 350 we weren’t surprised by its refinement, but were surprised by its new-found alacrity. It may not constitute an (all caps) SPORT SEDAN, but it’s now a platform an enthusiast owner can enjoy.
The bigger SHOUT OUT (all caps) goes to the new ES 300h, featuring – for the first time in an ES – the Lexus Hybrid Drive. With a 2.5 liter Atkinson cycle four supplemented by an integrated hybrid electric motor/generator, the 300h is expected to earn an EPA estimate of 40 City/39 Hwy/40 combined. And while the numbers come as little or no surprise, the visceral quality of the drivetrain did. This powertrain is genuinely fun, delivering the rec room feel promised by Lexus’ earlier near-luxury effort, the CT 200h. Where the CT 200h left us underwhelmed the ES 300h delivered an over-the-top driving experience with economy numbers fully appropriate to $4/gallon gas. If, of course, we’re ever again threatened with $4/gallon gas…
Pricing of the new ES has not been announced, but we were assured that the price point, which now sits at the mid-to-high $30s, won’t be aggressively modified. And the hybrid variant will represent a more modest bump in the window sticker than we’ve come to expect. This new ES may not have the panache of the GS, nor the (BMW) 3-ish demeanor of the IS, but for someone wanting a mature, stylish expression of a near-luxury sedan the ES delivers – and its hybrid derivative delivers it economically.