EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 18, 2013

New Lexus ES 300h goes far with class

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — After you weed out lucky, one-hit rock stars and professional athletes, luxury cars seem to go most often with mature drivers. They’ve worked long enough to afford the higher prices luxury cars command.

At the opposite end, junky old heaps most often are associated with students and young drivers just starting out, who can’t afford more than a second-, third-, or fourth-hand car.

And it’s those youngsters in their limping crates who we typically link with rollicking road trips, the meandering, go-nowhere escapes in which surprises along the roadway are more the goal than any destination. That’s not just because emerging adults feel a greater impulse to explore and seek adventure. They also have more time and leisure to wander, because they’re not yet weighted with responsibilities, like children or even grandchildren.

So it might seem silly for me to present the Lexus ES 300h as a worthy road-trip companion. With a list price topping $40,000 – before you add any options – the ES 300h is an elegant and pampering luxury car with a sophisticated, gasoline/electric hybrid drive system. It’s not the sort of car you’d expect some dopey kid to take on a carefree highway adventure.

But a traveler’s casual and open-eyed spirit creates a road trip, not his age or the vehicle beneath him. Therefore, I can endorse the ES 300h as road-trip worthy without reservation because it worked so well for me.

Of course, the gleaming and spacious Lexus performed so well as a spontaneous travel companion because it is fundamentally so accommodating. The car is comfortable in any circumstances. It moves with economy everywhere it travels. Its equipment makes any driving easier to manage. Its big cabin gives passengers room to relax whether you’re carrying them around the corner or across the state.

The ES 300h is one of two models that make up the ES line for Lexus – the luxury-car division of Toyota. Its companion, the ES 350 sedan, is lower priced, starting at a list of $37,280.

The 2013 ES is a new model, arriving about a year ago as an updated and improved redesign that represents the sixth generation for the ES, which Lexus originally launched in 1989. The remade ES features a stiffer, stronger body that resists flexing. Along with suspension tuning and a revised steering system, the new body equips the car to handle road maneuvers with greater alacrity and precision than its predecessor.

The 2013 ES is larger inside, with the back seat gaining headroom and an impressive, four inches of additional leg room. The car’s body is reshaped, with a long, low silhouette, smoothly sculpted sides, and a bold nose and chin that showoff the spindle-shaped grille that is becoming a signature look for Lexus. A nice touch is the L-shape of the LED daytime lights that sparkle brightly from the headlight and taillight clusters.

Lexus calls the ES an entry-level luxury sedan because the starting list price of less than $40,000 for the ES 350 is more affordable than other Lexus cars, enticing people who are just entering the luxury market.

The more-accessible price also helps make ES the best-selling Lexus passenger car by a large margin. The redesigned, 2013 version is doing better than ever, with U.S. dealers selling 80 percent more so far this year than at the same point in 2012. The surge shows that car buyers clearly approve of the updates and enhancements Lexus built into the new model.

The power systems are the principal difference between the ES 350 and the ES 300h. The 350 is conventionally driven, using a V6 engine that produces 268 horsepower, enough to enable the model to move with authority. With a six-speed automatic transmission, the 350 earns a government fuel-economy rating of 21 miles per gallon in city driving, and 31 mpg on the highway. That’s attractive fuel economy for a model as large and as luxury laden as the ES.

But the ES 300h does much better because gasoline conservation is its specialty. The model’s four-cylinder gasoline engine shares duties with a battery-driven electric motor, with the car automatically switching between gasoline drive and electric drive, and often using both simultaneously, to travel the most miles possible on a gallon of gas. The hybrid-drive system earns the ES 300h a government fuel-economy rating is 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway.

You can maximize economy by setting the car’s selectable driving-pattern switch to an “eco” mode. The “sport” setting calibrates the car for more spirited driving, while a “normal” selection splits the difference.

For me the model’s fuel economy was a big bonus during my rollicking summer road trip. Doing mostly freeway driving, I averaged 41 mpg, making filling-station stops more infrequent than they would have been if I had driven a cramped, micro-cruiser economy car.

The ES 300h was very far from cramped. Four of us made the trip, dashing through Connecticut, skirting around the City of New York and running down the Jersey Shore to ferry across the Delaware Bay and tour inland around the Chesapeake. I did the driving with serene assurance that came from the commanding road presence of the large sedan, as well as from its numerous safety systems – including a blind-spot monitor and cross-traffic alarm installed as a $500 option on the test-model I drove.

In the front passenger seat, my wife Donna enjoyed as much spread-out comfort as she would in a family-room lounger. The back seat accommodated two grandchildren, Madeleine, 13, and John, 8, so generously that they never leaned close enough to start a sibling scuffle. They had as much space for private diversions – like video games on iPods – as they would have found in a big and brutish SUV. The ES 300h carries nowhere near the bulk of a big sport utility. It was pleasant to drive, and projected a refined, distinctive image.

Thus style joined adventure and spontaneity as characteristics of a road trip that defied the stereotypes.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2013 Lexus 300h Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive luxury hybrid sedan Price: $40,160 (plus options) Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 6 years/70,000 miles powertrain warranty; 6 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 8 years/100,000 miles hybrid component warranty Engine: 2.5-liter I4 and electric motor Power: 200 total system horsepower Transmission: continuously variable automatic Fuel economy: 40 mpg city; 39 mpg highway Wheelbase: 111 inches Length: 193 inches Width: 72 inches Height: 57 inches Weight: 3,660 pounds Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons Turning circle: 37.4 feet