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Say Yes to ES, Now With Hybrid Powertrain: Lexus ES300h No Slouch

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2013 Lexus ES300h Photo Shoot 021

(Lyndon Johnson photo)

The Lexus ES300h, like most Lexus models nowadays, has a Drive Mode Select knob in the console that allows you to select “Eco,” “Normal,” or “Sport.” As I found with our recent ES300h test car, selecting “Sport” mode is not merely wishful thinking in a 200-horsepower hybrid luxo-cruiser.

First, an up-front confession: Being that the ES300h is a hybrid, and being that I had my doubts about my ability to match the EPA fuel economy numbers on the Toyota Prius V I tested some months ago as well as the non-hybrid Lexus ES350, I mostly left the ES300h in “Eco” mode throughout our test week. That is, I reasoned, the setting most commuters will probably leave the car in for daily driving duties. Since a buyer who picks the ES300h over the ES350 is likely to be concerned about fuel economy, I decided to try to maximize my fuel economy and see just how close I could get to the ES300h’s EPA combined rating of 40 MPG.

That all went out the window when I was running behind for dinner one night after covering some late-breaking news at my newspaper day job. I decided to take the road less-traveled– no, really, the lesser-traveled of the two routes I can use to go home– and see what the “Sport” mode had to offer on a narrow, kinked-up section of patched pavement.

I do not know for sure whether my immediate reaction to the ES300h’s snappier throttle response was due to my driving around the rest of the week in docile “Eco” mode, but suffice it to say, I was surprised. Throttle tip-in went from leisurely to light-‘em-up– though luckily the traction control system kept any wheel chirp to a minimum and there were no police near the traffic light when I experienced that first takeoff.

2013 Lexus ES300h Photo Shoot 022

This is where the magic happens. To the left is the fancy cover on the gasoline engine. To the right is the fancy cover and big orange power supply plug for the hybrid drive system. (Lyndon Johnson photo)

My guess would be that the biggest difference lies in how the Hybrid Synergy Drive system– same one found in the Camry Hybrid and all Prius models, mind you– makes use of its electric half. In “Sport” mode, it seems to much more aggressively make use of the power offered by the electric traction motor. Watching the display that showed power flow on the dash and in the gauge cluster, I noticed power flowing out of the battery a lot more readily than it would in “Eco” mode. Other times, when the car would have been content to switch to “EV” mode and turn off the gasoline engine during lighter throttle applications, it was much easier to get the engine to “wake up” with light throttle inputs. That probably speaks to the more aggressive throttle mapping.

But perhaps the coolest thing that will make the car feel faster and sportier, even though it does nothing for actual performance numbers, is how the digital gauge cluster swaps from the Eco gauge I told you about earlier to a tachometer when the driver selects “Sport” mode. If you’re like me, it’ll freak you out the first few times you glance down at that tach and see it reading zero RPMs when the car has switched to EV mode momentarily.

I didn’t do hard-numbers performance testing on the ES300h in “Sport,” “Normal,” or “Eco” modes. For one thing, I don’t have the proper testing equipment to do so, and for another, those numbers are largely irrelevant to the average buyer of any hybrid, let alone a cushy, leather-stuffed one like the ES300h. Regardless, I came away impressed with the way “Sport” mode made the power come on faster and harder than it did in “Eco” mode. Also impressive was the ES300h’s chassis. While a bit floaty and definitely prone to torquesteer anytime I went full-goose on the skinny pedal, it was a surprisingly willing dance partner.

I got to dinner only a few minutes late, by the way.

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