Cars

2013 Lexus redesigned; hybrid soars

SHORT HILLS, NJ—Call me a convert to the Hybrid Way of Life.

Oh, I’ve admired the Prius and Toyota’s Highlander and Camry hybrids, as well as both Honda’s hybrid Civic and General Motors’ eAssist vehicles. Some even wound up on my“Cars to Consider”lists.

Those lists changed last week when Lexus provided a variety of the new Lexus ES350s and ES300h hybrids for familiarization rides around suburban northern New Jersey. Tangential Note No. 1: It’s interesting that the company that gave us the plural Prii to describe multiple Priuses, er Prii, didn’t opt for Lexi, instead calling them Lexuses.

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The all-new ES300 hybrid is a winner, maybe not quite the industry“ Eureka Moment”that the original Prius was, but the Lexus ES customer hereby is on alert:You owe it to yourself to take the hybrid version for a lengthy test ride. It’s THAT impressive.

Bill Camp of Lexus College (the folks who try to educate dealers, salespeople, and the media) calls it a “Game Changer.”

First, though,a word about the non-hybrid ES350, now entering its sixth generation and completely redesigned for 2013.

It almost feels like a backhanded compliment to say that Lexus owners will be pleased because it’s the “same old-same old”only better. For those of us who’ve always pointed out that you could buy a loaded Camry as an ES alternative, that’s changed.

The new ES350 now is based instead on the full-sized Avalon platform.

Lexus also has given the ES350 a sportier, lower design with another take on the spindle grille design that’s the new face of Lexus. Tangential Note No. 2: Look at the LED running lights, and you’ll notice they resemble the L-shaped Lexus logo.

The new-look ES is aimed at attracting a younger buyer to this near-luxury segment of the market. Power comes from the same basic shared-with-Camry 3.5-liter V-6 that puts out 268 horsepower and delivers it via a six-speed automatic transmission. On the road, the ES350 tracks especially well, possibly the result of a new approach that has the front springs“opposite wound.”Tangential Note No. 3: My co-driver and I both agreed that the low-profile tires (with optional 18-inch wheels) were great in the looks department but produced both more noise and a harsher ride on the road than the standard 17-inchers.

Rear legroom is generous (almost astonishing for a mid-sized sedan).The dashboard gets some custom stitching and a new look, accommodating the screen-dominated center stacks we’ve come to accept as normal, depending on the level of technology in the vehicle. Fortunately, the Lexus mouse-like controller is intuitive to use.The redesigned seats were comfortable throughout a long day of driving, and the audiophile in our group raved over the optional Mark Levinson audio system.

New safety combinations are stand-alone options in the ES: Blind Spot Monitor comes with Cross-Traffic Alert and Lane Departure Alert is combined with automatic high beams. Pricing isn’t available for either new model yet.That will be announced later this summer closer to the mid-August date when the cars arrive in showrooms.

For the record, there will Premium, Luxury and Ultra Luxury packages along with numerous stand-alone options.

EPA estimates for the ES350 will be 21 miles per gallon in city driving, 31 on the highway and 24 overall on regular-grade fuel. But howwould you like to upgrade that to ratings of 40 (city), 39 (highway) and 40 (combined)?

I thought that would get your attention.

So will the ES300 hybrid’s quietness.When the four-cylinder gas engine is off and the hybrid is running on electric power alone at slow speeds (12 mph or less), there’s an audible noise, something like a quiet engine’s belts-and-pulleys sound to alert pedestrians of the car’s presence—officially theVehicle Proximity Notification System.

There are two other sounds of note: a heavy electrical hum (like the old T trolley buses slowing down) that tells you the regenerative braking system is converting the car’s momentum into electricity to recharge the 108-pound battery pack.

“I’ve had people tell me that’s the sound of money in the bank or gas in the tank,”says Camp.

Hitting the gas hard in Sport mode produces an interesting exhaust note from the hybrid’s almost-hidden tailpipe. It just may be a harbinger of performance sounds of the future.

Tangential Note No. 4: The regular ES350 has a humungous trunk (limousine-sized) while the battery pack cuts the hybrid’s trunk back to merely large.

On the road, the hybrid has four“modes.” Starting out, you can go (slowly) for a mile or so in all-electric (EV) mode, then opt for the self-explanatory Eco, Normal, or Sport modes.

When accelerating normally onto a highway, I switched from Eco to Normal to Sport modes. Each change felt like shifting a gear.

“Our design goal was to make it luxurious, great looking, and fun to drive,”says Lexus vice president of marketing Brian Smith. Put a checkmark next to each objective.

Lexus has 17 percent of the entry luxury segment, a share Smith expects to grow with the addition of the ES hybrid to the mix.

Pricing and the“premium”for a hybrid will be interesting news, especially since Lexus projects 25 percent of ES buyers will opt for the hybrid.

You heard it from me first: they may be the smart ones.

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