2013 Lexus ES: First Drive

May 30, 2012
For years, the Lexus ES has been a great luxury sedan for impressing the clients. It's been conservatively dressed; plush, premium, quiet, and comfortable inside—yet never ostentatious. And it's worn that Lexus badge more as a symbol of smart, on-a-budget luxury than flamboyance.

Those things haven't changed in the all-new 2013 Lexus ES. But for the first time, with the redesign that the ES family is getting for 2013, it feels like Lexus has made a concerted effort to impress the driver.

This is a different kind of ES in that, while it shares its basic structure with the Camry, as it has in the past, the ES now gets a couple of inches of additional length—and more legroom. Adults now fit in back just as well as in models that we had thought of as slightly larger—like the Cadillac XTS we also recently drove.

Interior design really fits the purpose

While the 2013 ES keeps its conservative airs on the outside—the new spindle (hourglass) grille, new side mirrors, and a bit of curviness at the rear flanks are the most noteworthy changes—there's a lot more to appreciate inside the cabin. The ES models get many of the same design themes as in the new GS sport sedans, only they seem to work better here; with a horizontal shelf running across, and corners that are pushed outward, the look is formal yet soft and organic, and it really maximizes space.

For the first time the ES is being offered with more than one powertrain. The ES 350 comes with a familiar 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and has just as much smooth, torquey, quiet goodness as the outgoing model, while the tempting choice for those who want to be green is the all-new 2013 Lexus 300h—packing a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine plus Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, to make 200 hp altogether. It's quick enough for most needs—although it's definitely a coarser-sounding powertrain—but the big payoff is an EPA 40 mpg city, 39 highway. The one packaging downside to the hybrid is that you lose just a little trunk space, as well as the fold-flat seats, because of the battery pack.

More enjoyable to drive, but just as composed for passengers

On either model, engineers have reconfigured and retuned the rear suspension, quickened the steering ratio, and retuned the power steering, and the effect is that the new ES not only has good tracking and straight-line stability but also, in the corners, a surprisingly athletic—if not quite nimble—feel. The confidence of better steering tuning—and feeling less remote, even if the syspension isn't that much firmer—went a long way to inspire confidence in some of the small, tightly winding roads in Oregon's wine country, not far from Portland, where we got our first drive. There's a surprisingly strong level of composure, even over rough surfaces.

As much as the ES's driving manners have improved, impressing passengers and providing top-notch comfort and premium features is still the priority here. Major options for the ES include a hard-drive-based navigation system with voice command, Mark Levinson audio, a built-in backup camera system, and a next-generation Enform with AppSuite system. We're still bummed about Remote Touch, a trackpad-like system that requires you to look at the navigation system's screen, move the pointer over buttons, and click them—all while watching the road ahead. There has to be a better way.

Please browse the pages of our full review of the 2013 Lexus ES for detailed information on both the ES 350 and the ES 300h.

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