Reliable, always—but the new Lexus ES Hybrid shows some power and great interior style.
Reliable, always—but the new Lexus ES Hybrid shows some power and great interior style.
LEXUS

Since its introduction to the US market in 1989, the Lexus brand has been positioned as a fetching alternative to traditional luxury offerings. It shares a reputation for reliability with its parent company, Toyota, but has a provenance all its own. No wonder Lexus has become a luxury brand with impressive sales.

But is a reputation for reliability enough? While automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz can point to lengthy motorsport histories, Lexus is a young brand. Most of these luxury labels profit by selling a certain “je ne sais quoi,” that entices buyers. More to the point, in a market where volume brands are offering 10-year warranties, reliability alone may not pull in the big bucks.

But now, with the arrival of the 2013 Lexus ES300h, Toyota has created a hybrid luxury sedan that not only looks more fiery, but also has the performance goods to back it up.

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Carrying a base MSRP of $39,250, the ES now enjoys the same aggressive styling as the rest of the Lexus lineup. First appearing on other models, like the CT200 and the GS, the look is a menacing forward appearance, marked by raked headlights and that large, hourglass-shaped grille. While quite fetching, the brand still suffers from one major setback—the designers made every one of their vehicles aggressive in the exact same way. So much so, that if you were to park an ES next to a slightly larger GS, it may take an extra couple of seconds to tell which one is yours.

Once you realize that your car is the next one over and open the door, you are welcomed by an interior that will give the major German brands a run for their collective monies. BMW may be known for its performance, and Audi for its technology, but Lexus is quickly carving out a place for itself as the definitive crafter of upscale interiors. The light, leather-clad seats are met with contrasting dark interior panels, which are accented by renewable bamboo dash inserts—it is a hybrid after all and we’re trying to stay weightless.

On the right side of the center console is the remote touch controller. While the preferred method of interface is a simple touchscreen, the track-ball-type joystick system is the most intuitive of all the controller-type interfaces. The joystick controls a free-flowing cursor, with force feedback. When the cursor is dragged over a selectable menu item, the controller offers a small amount of resistance, like a real dial snapping into place. This system is very easy to learn and to get used to, and it controls everything from the display settings to the navigation system.

Other features include the heated and cooled front seats, integrated backup camera, remote keyless entry, and a power retracting rear window sunshade. The package is capped off with the Lexus premium sound system with hands-free streaming music from your smartphone via Bluetooth connectivity.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the ES300h is one that you may seldom ever notice. The 2014 ES300h is the first ES ever to boast a hybrid powertrain, which consists of a 2.5-liter inline-4 combined with a battery pack and electric motor for a total system output of 200 horsepower.

This was a very surprising figure considering the acceleration on tap. Power is routed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. The key performance element to the powertrain is the electric motor, where full torque is available at 0 rpm. Simply turn the drive selector dial to the right to engage SPORT model and the ES hybrid reveals its fun side.

Throttle response quickens, and it feels like a vehicle that is packing more than a scant 200 horsepower under the hood. Though 0 to 60 is achieved in 8.1 seconds, the acceleratory properties of this powertrain are best exemplified when attempting to achieve highway speeds or overtaking vehicles.

Perhaps most impressive, the ES 300h delivers this surprising acceleration while returning 40 miles per gallon city and 39 miles per gallon highway. Though with SPORT mode selected for the majority of our week with the car, fuel economy came in at a more realistic 37.4 miles per gallon.

But the true magic of the ES 300h is the ability to make this fuel-saving drivetrain a seamless part of the overall experience. After years of ownership, the most rewarding feature of this car will not be that it is a hybrid; it will be that it is a great vehicle to drive. The interior is soft, comforting, and well equipped, the body panels are visually fetching, and it will get you from point A to point B without fuss. These are the things that we look for in any car. That it all comes wrapped up in a hybrid is just the icing on the proverbial cake.