Just as its predecessors, the 2013 Lexus ES clearly puts comfort above absolute performance. The ES still drives that way—but you may be surprised to find out how athletic this smooth sedan can be when pressed to the task.
The ES 350 accelerates strongly with its 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6—essentially the same engine as in the Camry V-6, but with even more noise- and vibration-quelling measures. And it winds through the gears of the six-speed automatic transmission with such a seamless flow of power that on a straight road the speed can creep up on you, more so than in performance models. but because there’s so little engine noise the speed can creep up on you in deceptive ways. Shifts are a little lumpier on gentle takeoffs, but this is one responsive, fine, and very refined powertrain.
ES 300h models get the latest iteration of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive—here incorporating a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine plus an integrated electric motor/generator system, along with a planetary power-split system and a complex set of electronic controls. Just as with the CT200h and the now-discontinued HS250h, Lexus has included a Drive Mode selector that allows you to choose an Eco, Sport, or EV mode. Eco favors fuel economy, while Sport steps up responsiveness. EV model provides a very short distance (less than a half-mile) of driving at low speed—for when you want to quietly go up the driveway, for instance.
The ES300h shows Toyota's experience in making a hybrid system smooth and unobtrusive, yet responsive. Provided you drive the 300h relatively softly—just with traffic, for instance—the system goes about its business in the background; and if you have the sound system on, it might as well be a V-6, or an exceptionally smooth four-cylinder under the hood. The transitions between electric and gasoline-electric operation are that seamless. However, ask for the powertrain to deliver more performance—on a curvy road, or when merging with high-speed freeway traffic, and the hybrid powertrain lets itself be known.
Engineers have firmed up the ride and handling of the ES 350 a tad—just enough to give a slightly more buttoned-down feel but not so much as to mess with this model’s already established priority: comfort. Straight-line tracking is also greatly improved compared to the outgoing version, and the steering is weighted better, with a quicker ratio. The changes together give it a surprisingly athletic, if not nimble, feel.
The only dynamic area that we had issue with in both of the ES models was the feel of the brake pedal. In ES 350 models it was just too spongy, and lacked the reassuring firmness that some other premium sedans get as calipers apply pressure. ES 300h models have regenerative braking that helps recover excess energy as you decelerate or brake, but as we’ve noticed in some hybrids there’s a dead zone where the transition between regen and brake-pad application isn’t as smooth as it could be.