New Car Review: 2013 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid

Front view of 2013 Lexus ES 300h

When Lexus introduced the ES, its entry-level model, 23 years ago, there was no mistaking what it was: A Toyota Camry swathed in leather and wood, painted in richer colors than the donor family sedan could be ordered in and loaded up with sufficient sound-deadening material to make the interior quieter than any other Japanese car of the time, save the big-brother LS sedan.

Despite the rather pedestrian roots, the formula worked…so much so that Lexus hasn’t bothered to do much more over the past couple of decades than take the latest-generation Camry and give it the above-mentioned treatment.

Until now.

Rear 3/4 view of 2013 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid

For 2013, the Lexus ES moves to a different platform. It’s now based on the all-new and much larger Toyota Avalon, a significant step up from the Camry.. That pays huge dividends for rear-seat passengers. Even though the wheelbase is only two inches longer than the last-gen ES, folks sitting in the back get an extra four inches worth of legroom. And the extra wheelbase makes an already-silky ride even smoother.

All that provides a solid foundation for the new ES 300h, the hybrid version of the ES (which also comes in a gasoline-powered model, the ES 350). 

There are two very compelling things about the ES 300h. One isn't surprising...the gas mileage takes a huge leap over the V6 model. 21 MPG city becomes 40. 31 highway becomes 39.

The other is a bit of a shock. The price. Regular readers know that the thing we caution about the most is the higher price of the hybrid...usually so much more than the gasoline model of the same car that it will take anywhere from 9 to 15 years to make up the difference in gasoline savings. But Lexus has chosen to put a very small premium on the hybrid. The ES 300h base price is $39,250, a mere $2,820 more than the gasoline-powered ES 350. You're likely to make back the difference in gasoline savings in only two or three years.

What’s it like to drive? Well, it’s a Lexus. And the hallmarks of the Lexus brand are quiet, calm and smooth (the polar opposites of noise, vibration and harshness). Isolation may not be too strong a word to use here. It’s quick, but it never feels like a performance car. It doesn’t wallow like an old-school luxury car, but it never inspires confidence on a twisting road, either. Driven smoothly, though, it’s a rewarding machine. Especially when you see the "distance to empty" display showing hundreds of miles for a long, long time.

The list of standard equipment on the ES 300h is too long to list here, so we'll just let Lexus tell you themselves.

Interior view of 2013 Lexus ES 300h

As usual, the press fleet folks heaped on the extras...a blind spot monitor ($500), Lane Departure Alert with intelligent high-beam headlamps ($965), navigation with backup camera, 8" color screen, Lexus Enform and app suite, Voice Command, a DVD/CD player, HD and satellite radio ($2,625), a power trunk closer ($400), intuitive parking assist ($500), rain-sensing wipers with de-icer ($155), the Ultra Luxury Package, which upgrades the leather seat trim to Semi-Aniline, adds front passenger seat memory, heated & ventilated front seats, power rear and manual door sunshades, a driver's seat power cushion extender, Bamboo Wood trim with ambient lighting, and a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel ($2,435), a leather-trimmed shift knob and heated wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel ($450), a cargo net ($64) and a trunk mat ($105).

Put all that together with $895 delivery, processing and handling and the bottom line is $47,944. And no, that's not especially cheap. Thinking about what you really will appreciate having can lop a lot of that additional cost off the window sticker (it's not an SUV with a high liftgate...I can close my own trunk). I'd probably take the nav system (mainly for the HD/satellite radio and the app suite, which make using Yelp, Open Table, Pandora and iHeart Radio a breeze, the cargo net, the trunk mat and, if I lived anyplace other than Phoenix, the rain-sensing wipers with de-icer. That'd put the car in the low 42s, which strikes me as extremely good value.

There's no hybrid version of the new Avalon so far, and a top-of-the-line Limited version of that car is $400 more than the base price of the ES 300h. Add in the mileage advantage, and the ES hybrid becomes a very attractive vehicle for someone looking for a cut above in room and comfort with impressive fuel economy.