Say Yes to ES, Now With Hybrid Powertrain in the ES300h

Sections: Chassis, Powertrain

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We test the 2013 Lexus ES300h. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

Astute In Car Tech Tell readers will remember I tested the 2013 Lexus ES350 some time ago, and that I compared our recent 2013 Hyundai Azera tester to it. The Lexus ES300h is showing me that comparison was a fool’s errand.

You see, it had been quite some time between my test of the ES350 and the Azera. Both were the same color, both had light-colored leather interiors, and both had V6 gasoline-powered engines that offered very similar performance on paper. What I’d lost sight of until my test of the ES300h this week was just how much more refined the Lexus chassis is than its Korean competitor.

But first things first: The ES300h is not hiding a V6 under its hood. Instead, there’s the 2.5-liter four-cylinder with hybrid electric assistance, much like what you’d find on the Toyota Camry or Avalon hybrids. The ES is, after all, essentially a really nice Avalon. At 200 horsepower, it doesn’t sound overwhelming, and to be fair, it’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s a slug, either– but more on that later.

The big deal for anyone shopping the ES is you can have either the V6-powered ES350 starting at $36,350 and put up with mid-20s MPGs (the EPA officially rates it at 24 MPG combined city/highway) or you can spring for the ES300h with its hybrid powertrain at a starting price of $39,250. The extra three grand buys you an EPA combined fuel economy score of 40 MPG. Worth it? It is in my book.

The hybrid powertrain’s mannerisms in this Lexus are largely the same as those we experienced in the 2013 Toyota Prius V, including its silent startup routine: Sit down, foot on brake, touch large blue START button on dash, and watch digital gauges come to life. There’s no engine noise because most times, the gasoline engine doesn’t start until you’re well underway.

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The 17-inch wheels on the Lexus ES300h may be seen as a downgrade from the 19-inchers we had on our non-hybrid Lexus ES350 tester a few months ago, but their thicker sidewalls contributed to a smoother ride over broken pavement. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

The ES300h will run in EV mode, which was also a feature the Prius V had. When puttering around town, if the hybrid system battery is charged enough and you’re not being too demanding of the throttle, the engine will shut down for extended periods of time. Trying to accelerate from a stop without giving it enough throttle to cause the gas engine to start can result in glacial progress between stoplights, much like the Prius V. The feature’s best use in the ES300h, as in the Prius V, seems to be when it kicks in during moderate-speed highway cruising on flat ground or a stretch of up-and-downhill (but mostly downhill) two-lane road. In that situation, it doesn’t take much horsepower to keep the car’s momentum going, and I’ve been able to sustain 45 MPH on flat ground for well over a mile on battery juice alone.

Doing that requires paying some attention to the Eco gauge on the digital dash. It resides to the left, and its needle swings between a “Charge” area at the very bottom, to a solid blue “Eco” section, then a hashed blue line also labeled “Eco” before heading into a white line labeled “Power.” I’ve found that when EV mode activates, the only way to keep the gas engine turned off is to make sure I don’t dial in so much throttle that this gauge tips over into that hashed blue “Eco” section– hence the glacial acceleration from a standstill, when I tried that.

I’m not sure if it was the gauge’s more fluid nature or if it was just a matter of my being more familiar with Toyota’s hybrid powertrain characteristics this time around, but I didn’t find the gauge in the Lexus ES300h nearly as distracting as the digital bar graph found in the Toyota Prius V. It was useful in times when I wanted to remain in EV mode for just a little bit longer– a perfect example being whenever I arrived home from work and wanted to see if I could “coast” to my driveway on EV mode through my neighborhood’s 30-MPH zone. (I can, by the way.)

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Some sacrifice in trunk space must be made if you opt for the Lexus ES300h over its non-hybrid ES350 sister. The car’s main battery is stored in the trunk thanks to the electric powertrain goodies under the hood taking up the space where it might otherwise reside, and the hybrid powertrain batteries are located behind the rear seatbacks– both eating into trunk space somewhat. The kitty litter bag should give an idea that everyday cargo-hauling space is still more than adequate for most household uses, however. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

Some sacrifices are made– mostly in trunk space– for the sake of the hybrid batteries. However, one thing the hybrid model gains that our ES350 didn’t have was– and I know this is a shocker, to consider this a “gain,” for some of you– 17-inch wheels. The ES350 we tested had 19-inch alloys whose thin sidewalls contributed to a slightly crashy experience over broken pavement. The 17s with their thicker-sidewalled shoes seemed to rein in that issue handily.

But back to the Hyundai Azera: Was I off my rocker to compare it to the ES350? Probably not. It competes so closely on every vital stat, on paper– including price, in the upper trim levels– that it’s hard not to consider it an intender to the ES’ position in the market, even if convincing the usual Lexus shopper to take more than a cursory glance at a Hyundai would be nigh-on impossible. However, in terms of chassis refinement– from the way the car responds over bumps to the solid, hushed sound of the doors closing and even the overall comfort of the interior, the ES300h reminded me that the folks at Toyota’s luxury division still handily trump the Koreans where it counts in this entry-level luxury segment.

I’d have to go back and drive the ES350 and the Azera back-to-back to render a similar verdict one way or the other with regard to their powertrains. But no such comparison is needed if we throw the ES300h into the mix. The car has less power than its non-hybrid sister, but it’s quieter and smoother, too, thanks to the aforementioned EV mode’s willingness to kick in quite frequently and the hybrid’s inclusion of a CVT gearbox, which despite every CVT-naysaying autojournalist’s opinion is even smoother than the best six-, seven-, or eight-speed automatic.

Disclosure: Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.

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