For 2013, Toyota is bringing out a new iteration of its popular Lexus ES, that upscale relative of the Toyota Camry long valued for its plush, quiet, and unobtrusive demeanor—and long condemned by enthusiasts and automotive media for being boring to drive and all-but-anonymous styling presence. With the 2013 version, Lexus has attempted to spice things up a bit with revised suspension tuning and more dynamic styling. However, after sampling some early-production versions at a recent press event, we came away thinking that Lexus might risk alienating its long-standing clientele.
Based on the rejuvenated and improved 2012 Camry platform, the ES350 remains about the same size but has added nearly two inches to the wheelbase. (Despite this, though, the resulting roomy rear seat is merely par for the course for a midsized sedan.) It still uses Toyota's excellent 268-hp, 3.5-liter V6 mated to a slick and unobtrusive six-speed automatic. There is also a hybrid version, the ES300h, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and electric motor good for a combined 200 hp—the same setup as in the Camry hybrid. Both go on sale in August.
The first ES I drove was the Ultra Luxury version shod with 18-inch Bridgestone tires. I noticed right away that the ride lacked the trademark Lexus "pillowiness." Some bumps punched through in a pronounced, unwelcomed way. Road noise also seemed to be less suppressed compared to the outgoing ES. A subsequent loop on the same roads with a version sporting 17-inch Michelins proved significantly more compliant and quieter.
And it's not like the low-profile (45-series) 18-inch tires make the ES sporty. Handling was sound and responsive enough but not engaging. And while the steering has some heft to it, it doesn't telegraph true feedback. If anything, the car with the 17-inch Michelins proved more willing to change directions and the steering transmitted a modicum of feedback to the driver's palms. I didn't clock the mileage during my brief drives, but our equivalent 2012 Toyota Camry V6 averaged an impressive 26 mpg.
But the 300h hybrid is arguably the most interesting of the ES series. As in the Camry hybrid we tested, the CVT transmission works well and the whole powertrain runs seamlessly. I never felt wanting for more power; the hybrid integration was unobtrusive between gas and electric. No question about it -- Toyota does hybrids very well. In 20 miles of mixed driving, the car's trip computer recorded 36.8 mpg, pretty close to the 38 mpg overall we got in our formal testing of the Camry Hybrid.
Pricing hasn't been announced yet, but if the Hybrid doesn't command much of a premium over the regular ES, it would be a heck of package in blending luxury and fuel efficiency. Incidentally, the ES300h effectively replaces the now defunct HS250h.
Lexus didn't skimp on the cabin. Interior ambience is very tasteful and is a major upgrade in quality of materials and craftsmanship. Cars equipped the navigation system get Lexus' multi-functional controller that guides a computer-like cursor around the screen. It's too easy to overshoot your target, though, and the whole process requires eyes being off the road for too long. I have my doubts that traditional Lexus fans will embrace this nouveau-riche technology with much enthusiasm. It goes without saying that the new ES, through its "Enform" system, facilitates the integration of smart-phone apps, such as streaming Pandora radio.
The classy new interior is a definite selling point, and the punchy powertrain is as reliably effortless as ever. The promise of good fuel economy is another draw. But we're not sure that dialing back on ride comfort and making the controls more complicated is the right move for the ES. With credible competition in the mid- to high-$30,000s from the likes of the Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300, upcoming Lincoln MKZ, and Toyota's own freshly redesigned and soon-to-go-on-sale Avalon, the spicier ES could face some challenges.