If nothing else, the Lexus ES can be admired for its consistency. Since it arrived for the 1990 model year, the ES has put a priority on quiet comfort above all else. Yes, it has adopted the brand’s aggressive spindle grille in recent years, but the rest of the package hasn’t yet been given over to Lexus’s push toward sportiness and performance—it’s one of the few models that does not offer an F Sport package, for instance.
The vast majority of ES sales are of the V-6–powered ES350 model. But we wonder why more customers don’t opt for the ES300h hybrid, which strikes us as the purest expression of ES virtue. After all, the V-6’s 268 horsepower makes for surprisingly brisk acceleration, which seems at odds with the car’s relaxed demeanor. The quieter, slower, and more efficient hybrid expresses the ES ethos to a T, slowing your pulse while simultaneously elevating your green cred with its lofty 40-mpg EPA ratings (more on those numbers later).
The ES300h’s hybrid drivetrain hasn’t changed for several years—it continues to use a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four paired with two electric motors for a combined 200 horsepower. With it, the ES300h moseys from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, a full two seconds behind the ES350. Like most Toyota hybrid systems, the ES300h deftly and smoothly blends electric and gasoline power, and there’s adequate torque for more sedate driving. Most of the time, the car is so quiet that you’ll hardly be able to tell when the gasoline engine fires to assist the smooth and silent electric drive. Call up more urgent acceleration and the four-cylinder drones a bit, but it’s isolated well enough from the cabin that it never becomes bothersome.
Isolation was clearly a priority for the ES300h’s chassis engineers, too. The ES floats softly in a manner that’s not even found in Buicks anymore. Light, heavily boosted steering combines with ample body roll to make for a ponderous sedan that resists enthusiastic driving. The brakes sap even more confidence from the experience. Although the car’s 172-foot stop from 70 mph is adequate, the pedal feel is unpredictable and unnatural as the car modulates the transition from regenerative to friction braking, something many hybrids still struggle with.
If the ES300h’s lackluster body control and less-than-energetic hybrid powertrain aren’t enough to convince you to slow down, the cushy and plush interior makes the message crystal clear. Wide, flat front seats are comfy but lack lateral support. The large wood-and-leather steering wheel is lazy in its motions. At the same time, Lexus’s usual impeccable fit and finish qualities are on full display here, and the knobs and buttons twirl and push with nice weighting and precise action. The standard man-made NuLuxe leather upholstery is soft enough to make us question spending extra for real hides, and the rear seat boasts expansive leg- and headroom.
The only source of frustration is the Remote Touch interface that controls the large central display screen. Operating the finicky mouselike controller diverts far too much attention from the road. At least there are voice commands and volume and tuning knobs that allow you to avoid the clunky system for some functions.
Our test ES300h included a fair number of options that drove its price perilously close to $50,000. Partially to blame is the nearly $3000 premium that Lexus charges for the hybrid model compared with the ES350. That makes the gas-electric ES a tough sell when you consider its fuel economy.
Although the EPA rates the Lexus at a lofty 40 mpg combined, we fell far short of that and averaged 26 mpg overall, just 1 mpg better than the last ES350 we tested. Better numbers surely are possible with a lighter foot, as proved by the ES300h’s 37-mpg result in our 75-mph highway test (just 2 mpg shy of its 39-mpg EPA rating). That’s still 4 mpg less than a conventionally powered BMW 330i’s impressive 41-mpg result in the same test. This hybrid’s purported advantages are eroding as competitors’ nonhybrid drivetrains improve.
Perhaps Lexus could sell more ES300h models if it took a page from the Lincoln MKZ’s book and priced the hybrid at the same level as its conventional gasoline counterpart. The upcharge reads a little like paying more for less, even if the hybrid is perfectly quiet, comfortable, and serene, just as a Lexus ES should be.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-motor, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED: $48,213 (base price: $42,795)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter inline-4, 156 hp, 156 lb-ft; permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor/generator, 141 hp, 199 lb-ft; combined output, 200 hp; 1.6-kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery pack
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 111.0 in
Length: 193.3 in
Width: 71.7 in Height: 57.1 in
Passenger volume: 100 cu ft
Cargo volume: 12 cu ft
Curb weight: 3743 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 7.8 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 20.6 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 26.4 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.9 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 4.2 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.3 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.0 sec @ 89 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 116 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 ft
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 40/40/39 mpg
C/D observed: 26 mpg
C/D observed 75-mph highway driving: 37 mpg
C/D observed highway range: 630 mi