To pay or not to pay, that is the question.
Is it is nobler to drive a Camry hybrid sedan at $32,492 or to spend 50 percent more for its upscale cousin, the Lexus ES 300h sedan for $48,410?
With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, this is a quandary for the consumer. And here’s another for the Lexus shopper: deciding between the hybrid power train and the traditional gasoline engine.
Friend and former Boston Globe compositor Hank Sarazen recently bought the non-hybrid version of the ES, the Lexus ES 350.
“I looked at the hybrid and considered it,’’ he says, “but the deciding factor was the lack of space in the trunk. We travel, and we need a big trunk. The battery pack takes a big chunk out of the trunk space in the hybrid.
“I looked into the specs and it says the ES 350 has 15.2 cubic feet of cargo space compared to 12.1 for the hybrid, but the difference seems even bigger to the eye.’’
Sarazen’s perspective is that of a discerning buyer who considers a handful of vehicles before he buys,and then exhaustively researches his finalists.
He also isn’t one to take something that’s anything less than exactly what he wants.
For example, a nicely appointed Honda Accord EX was on his short list; however, that choice didn’t offer the color he wanted in the top-of-the-line Touring model.
So he went with the Lexus and never looked back.
Several years ago, in testing a previous version of the ES 300h, my verdict was that this was the first time I’d opt for the hybrid powertrain over the gasoline version.
That’s still the case, especially because I can live with the reduced cargo space and lack of flexibility to fold the rear seats because the battery pack is behind the seat.
The big plus is getting 40 mpg in a vehicle of this size, economy that’s similar to the company’s Camry and Avalon hybrids, both of which I also like. You can pay for the luxury of a vehicle up front and enjoy those accouterments over the life of the vehicle while still appreciating weekly savings at the gas pump.
Back to the original question, which was whether to buy a well-equipped Camry hybrid (reviewed in this space on March 7) or opt for the Lexus badge and pay the premium.
They share the same powertrain, a 2.5-liter in-line four cylinder engine mated with an electric motor with the system combining to put out 200 horsepower and get 40 miles per gallon in city driving and 39 on the highway.
Power goes to the front wheels via a CVT (continuously variable transmission).
Starting out from a driveway, parking lot, or garage, the hybrid system usually is running on just electricity, a totally silent roll that almost makes you feel that you’re standing still and the scenery is rolling past.
Soon you feel a light vibration as the gas engine starts. A round knob on the center console also lets you choose from Eco, Normal, or Sport driving modes. We found that driving judiciously in Normal mode returned about the same fuel economy as Eco.
Sport mode cut mileage a bit but definitely increased the performance level. Handling was smooth but confident and the Lexus smoothed the few bumps we encountered on Florida roads. (It feels mean writing those words knowing pothole season is still under way back home).
It comes back to deciding if luxury makes the difference for the Lexus buyer.
The ES 300h is immediately recognized as a Lexus from the front by the marque’s signature spindle grille and L-shaped (a Lexus L) LED driving lights. Sadly, unless you’re a real Lexus person, the aerodynamic roofline, sides, and rear are similar to many of today’s contemporary body shapes.
Blue Lexus badges, a hybrid label, and hidden exhaust outlets are the main clues that you’re driving a hybrid instead of its gasoline-powered sibling, the ES 350 with a 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed conventional automatic transmission.
We describe many nicely appointed vehicles as being Lexus-like, but it’s always a pleasure to be ensconced in the real thing, knowing you’ve got the build-quality, reliability, and luxury.
Our ES had 10-way power driver’s and front passenger’s seats in innovative NuLuxe synthetic leather-like upholstery. We found them comfortable, especially with the power seat extender for extra thigh support. Contrasting interior stitching, a bamboo and leather heated steering wheel, analog clock, great legroom, and premium feel to all surfaces made for a luxury cabin.
An Ultra Luxury package added automatic wipers, power trunk, and heated wheel to a long list of standard features.
Base price was $41,355 (including destination), but that rose to a $48,410 bottom line with the addition of blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert ($500), HID headlamps with LED running lights ($565), hard-disk navigation with mouse-like controller ($1,795), power trunk closer ($400), intuitive park assist ($500), rain-sensing wipers with de-icer for their resting pad ($155), ultra-luxury trim package ($2,435), bamboo & leather heated wheel ($450), and a trunk mat, cargo net, wheel locks, and key glove pack ($255.)
If I were buying this ES, I’d seriously consider the pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control ($1,500) and the lane-departure alert with intelligent high beams ($1,015). Call them protecting your investment, reassuring safety features, or welcome driver assists. They quickly become friends.
The bottom line is that while the Camry hybrid was a very nice Swiss Army Knife of a hybrid, the Lexus clearly has entered the luxury category. If you splurge, you’ll appreciate the comfort daily.
2015 Lexus ES 300h
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $41,355/$48,410. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 40 city/39 highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 40.2. Drivetrain: 2.5-liter I-4 plus electric motor, CVT, front-wheel-drive.Body: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan.
Horsepower: 200 (combined). Torque: 156 lb.-ft. (gas engine). Note: Lexus doesn’t give a combined torque figure because there are too many variables. Overall length: 192.7 in. Wheelbase: 111.0 in.Height: 57.1 in.Width: 71.7 in.Curb weight: 3,660 lbs.
Build quality, luxury appointments, fuel economy.
Cargo space, finicky mouse-like infotainment controller.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A compelling mix of luxury and fuel economy.
Ford Fusion hybrid, Lincoln MKZ hybrid, Toyota Avalon hybrid.