2013 Lexus ES 300h test drive: Hybrid power adds frugal dimension to a comfortable, luxurious sedan

2013 Lexus ES 300h

2013 Lexus ES 300h

If your idea of automotive luxury is a sedan with whisper-quiet comfort and lots of high-end amenities, you need not look any further than the all-new 2013 Lexus ES 300h.

But that’s not the whole story with the sixth generation of Lexus’ popular entry-level vehicle.

Let’s not forget that little “h,” one of several subtle reminders that, for the first time, a Lexus ES sedan is available with parent Toyota’s Lexus Hybrid Drive.

And, while we will get into it in more detail a little later, it should also be noted up front that the new ES, in gasoline and hybrid configurations, has better driving dynamics, increased passenger space, new safety features and a number of luxury accessories unavailable in its predecessor.

The hybrid system, identical to the gasoline/electric power management systems in the Toyota Camry and Toyota Avalon, can return an EPA-estimated 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway, figures I found to be very realistic in a week of driving mostly on interstates and suburban thoroughfares.

Lexus ES 300h instruments

Lexus ES 300h instruments

Chances are you will have almost no occasion to duplicate my feat, but on one 7-mile stretch of perfectly flat, 25-mph macadam through a New Jersey seaside community I actually nudged 50 mpg as the Lexus floated along on mostly electric power.

More realistically, the trip computer registered 39.3 mpg at the end of a 300-mile trip which took me from the southern tip of New Jersey, through midtown Manhattan and back,

While the giant share of the mileage was on the Garden State Parkway, I easily kept up with the flow of traffic and made no special attempts to stretch fuel mileage.  I think I would have topped 40 mpg had I not spent long minutes crawling along on New York’s clogged crosstown streets.

To accomplish its lofty fuel-efficiency goal, Toyota combines a 156-horsepower, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine operating on the efficient Atkinson cycle with an electric motor.

The result is a combined 200 horsepower, enough for the Lexus to accelerate easily in all traffic situations I encountered. Lexus lists a 0-60 mph romp at 8.1 seconds.

Power is dispatched to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission that can be made to mock a six-speed manual transmission by toggling though the center-console–mounted shifter.

Lexus ES 300h front seats

Lexus ES 300h front seats

In ordinary driving there wasn’t a lot of  engine droning associated with continuously variable transmissions, but when the accelerator was pressed to the floor for passing on a two-lane road, the engine raced toward its red line, roaring away while the transmission adjusted its ratios to meet the need for strong acceleration.

Lexus has chosen to stick with its proven nickel-metal hydride battery pack to store the electricity, passing up on the lithium-ion batteries that are in use in other hybrid and electric vehicles.

The penalty is bulk. Inserted behind the rear passenger seatback, the battery pack reduces trunk space by about three cubic feet, to 12.1. The penalty is not disastrous, but Lexus owners who do a lot of traveling will feel the pinch.

There is another penalty, too, but it is easier to overcome than it has been on past hybrid cars. The base price is close to $3,000 higher than that of the gasoline powered ES 350.

However, a comparison of EPA mileage averages indicates that the price premium can be captured in less than 30,000 miles. For average drivers, that is less than three years.

What struck me, after a relatively long absence from using Toyota’s hybrid powertrain, is how smooth and unobtrusive it has become.