Lexus redesigned its popular ES sedan for 2013 and the result is a midsize car that has more visual appeal and maintains its built-for-comfort reputation. There are two ES models — the 350 and a new hybrid, the 300h — and neither car will disappoint those looking for a cushy ride and well-appointed interior. Both cars are basically the same, except for the powertrain.
Appearance: The ES gets the new Lexus front-end design: horizontally slatted hourglass grille trimmed in chrome and flanked by swept-back headlights with LED eyeliners. It's a major improvement over the previous model and its corporate Toyota blandness. The rear carries on the hourglass theme in its creased trunk lid and more stylish taillights. Overall, the ES profile is sleeker for 2013, with character lines in the sheet metal and slight fender bulges that go a long way toward banishing the previous model's generic look. On the 300h, the only differences are subtle "hybrid" badges. Both of our testers came in attractive colors: The 350 was a striking Matador Red Mica, while the 300h wore a Satin Cashmere Metal that glistened in the sun. The 350's 18-inch wheels with their liquid-graphite finish looked really sharp against the deep red. Overall, the entire Lexus color palette is luxurious.
Performance: The 350 gets Toyota's frisky 3.5-liter V-6 (268 horsepower). Its 6-speed Sequential Shift automatic transmission is smooth and competent. The car comes with a "Sport" mode, but why? No one who buys an ES would confuse it with a sports sedan and you really don't notice much of a difference. There's also an Eco mode. The soft suspension makes for a cushy yet composed ride. Lyra felt that the electronic power steering sapped the life out of the driving feel. Her description: "mush." (Lexus says it has improved the suspension and steering, as well as the overall body integrity.)
The 300h carries a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and an electric motor (a combined 200 horsepower). Peter actually preferred the 300h, reasoning that if you are going to spring for the Lexus price tag and drive a car that's the opposite of sporty, why not also get the hybrid MPG? It is estimated at 40 (city) and 39 (highway) versus the 350's 21/31. Despite its CVT gearbox, it runs quietly except under hard acceleration. The switchover from the electric motor to gas is barely noticeable. Peter drove the 300h to Orlando and was happy to have it during a ride in which Interstate 4 traffic was frequently backed up; he could crawl along under electric power and not waste gas. The 300h also has Normal, Sport and Eco modes. But we don't recommend Eco mode for interstate merging or passing.
Interior: No surprises here. Both cabins feature the usual top-notch Lexus fit and finish. But if you want the most plush appointments, you'll have to check off the option boxes. For example, our 350 had the NuLuxe seating materials, which is a fancy name for vinyl. (But at least it's top-notch vinyl.) Our 350 came with the Premium Package that adds maple-wood trim, power steering adjustment and driver memory settings. The 300h felt a bit more luxurious, maybe because it had leather seats. We liked its bamboo trim, which also gives it an eco-friendly feel. Because the ES is now closer in size to cousin Toyota's Avalon than it is to the Camry, the cabin is spacious and has more leg room. The trunk (15.2 cubic feet for the 350) has plenty of room for a couple of large suitcases but the hybrid battery, located under the rear of the back seats in the 300h, eats up about 3 cubic feet of cargo space. Both testers had the optional blind-spot monitor, which is one of our favorite safety features in any car. It comes with rear cross-traffic alert and is definitely worth the extra $500. Both cars also have the polarizing Lexus Remote Touch multimedia system with a PC-style mouse controller. Some may find it convenient while others find it a confusing pain. Considering a Lexus? Test-drive the multimedia system, too.
The bottom line: We like the new look of the ES, which shows that Lexus is evolving to more pleasing designs across its product line. If you are looking for room rather than vroom, ride comfort and interior features, then the ES should be on your list, especially now that there's a more fuel-saving hybrid available.