2013 Lexus ES 300h review:

Luxurious Lexus edged out by thriftier Toyota twin

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Starting at $38,850
  • Available Engine Gas
  • Body style sedan

Roadshow Editors' Rating

7.4 Overall
  • Cabin tech 8
  • Performance tech 7
  • Design 7

The Good The 2013 Lexus ES 300h is an attractive vehicle inside and out, with great build quality and a quiet, stable ride. A wide range of technology and comfort options are available to the driver. The 300h delivers great hybrid fuel economy.

The Bad The engine sound in Sport mode is unrefined and very un-Lexus. Most of the best tech options are only available as part of expensive packages.

The Bottom Line The 2013 Lexus ES 300h is a solid option for drivers looking for a premium hybrid. Unfortunately, its cousin -- the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid -- is just as good, but a much better value.

To be honest, the Lexus ES is a hard car for me to get excited about. I've always sort of thought it as an overpriced Toyota Camry for old folks with a few extra bucks to spend on leather seats.

The new 2013 Lexus ES strikes back at my expectations with a handsome design both outside and inside. I'm particularly pleased by the leather-trimmed cabin highlighted by tasteful wood and metallic accents. I'm also a huge fan of brown cars, so I was happy to see our 2013 Lexus ES 300h arrive in Fire Agate Pearl, which is fancy-pants automaker speak for pearlescent brown. Don't turn up your nose, it's a gorgeous color.

However, the freshly relaunched and redesigned Lexus ES faces stiff competition, both from the expected rivals bearing Audi, Infiniti, and Hyundai badges, and also from its platform-mate: the freshly relaunched and redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid, which offers a nearly identical level of comfort, efficiency, and technology for thousands of dollars less.

2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy workhorse
The Lexus ES 300h's engine room is familiar to me. Lift the hood and you'll find the same 2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive system that powers the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the 2013 Toyota Avalon Hybrid. Total system horsepower is quoted at 200 ponies, of which 156 are provided by the Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine at the system's heart, which puts out 156 pound-feet of torque. The total combined torque of the gasoline and electric engines is not published by Toyota.

2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive
This 2.5-liter mill can be found in a few of Toyota/Lexus' full-size hybrids. Josh Miller/CNET

Torque travels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) on its way to the front wheels.

Near the ES' shifter stalk is the three-mode Drive Selector, which gives the driver a degree of control over the sedan's attitude. Twisting this knob to left of the baseline Normal mode activates the Eco drive mode, which detunes the driver's throttle inputs for smoother acceleration at the expense of some responsiveness. This mode also adjusts the climate control to be more efficient. Both the Eco and Normal modes display a Hybrid Power Monitor and bathe the instrument cluster with blue light when you're driving efficiently.

Twist the Drive Selector to the right and the ES shifts into Sport mode, which throws efficiency out of the window -- at least, as much as this sort of wimpy power train can. The instrument cluster glows red and the Hybrid Power Monitor is replaced by a tachometer. The throttle map is boosted for better accelerator tip-in and the electronic power-steering system's responsiveness is increased. The ES 300h's CVT also features a Sport mode accessed by pushing the shifter stalk to the left from Drive (there's also a manual shift program) that holds at a higher rpm, further boosting responsiveness.

Drive Selector
The Drive Selector gives a bit of control over the ES 300h's character. Josh Miller/CNET

The engine note from the 2.5-liter hybrid system sounds a bit like a 200-horsepower vacuum cleaner during full-bore, Sport mode-enhanced acceleration. The fact that the CVT simply holds the rpm at one droning point rather than sweeping through the range is good for efficiency, but is also enough to discourage much "sporty" driving in the ES 300h.

Finally, the ES f300h has an EV mode that attempts to use purely electric power to motivate the vehicle. The system will disable EV mode if you attempt to accelerate too quickly, if you exceed about 40 mph, or if the battery level drops too low, so this mode is probably best saved for parking lots or the last mile home in residential areas.

Comfort cruiser
Our tester served as our primary transportation as we road-tripped from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the 2012 LA Auto Show. The ride down Interstate 5 was extremely comfortable and the Lexus did a good job of isolating us from road, wind, and engine noise and soaking up bumps in the road. The power train didn't seem to be straining at all to hold our slightly higher-than-average cruising speed.

ES 300h clock
We were nicely isolated from road, wind, and engine noise in the ES 300h's well-appointed cabin. Josh Miller/CNET

The ES feels like it was designed for crowded cities such as Los Angeles. Its accelerator pedal feels responsive in the sub-50-mph world of city driving. In LA's stop-and-go traffic -- both on the highway and on surface roads -- I was surprised by how willing the hybrid was to keep creeping along on little more than electric power, even in its Normal drive program. Electric-power-to-gasoline-engine transitions were silky-smooth, almost imperceptible in most situations if you weren't looking for the switch, and the light (if not slightly over-boosted) power steering was good for avoiding driving fatigue and maneuvering silently through parking garages with one hand free for sipping a latte.

The EPA estimates the ES 300h's fuel economy at 40 city, 39 highway, and 40 combined mpg. Under the lead feet of CNET's editors, our tester averaged about 36.2 mpg after about 800 miles of highway cruising at a less than ideal 75-to-80-mph average and a few days of LA traffic.

A basic level of cabin tech
Our ES 300h's equipped cabin tech was based around a $740, eight-speaker Display Audio package, which makes use of a 7-inch LCD of pretty low resolution. This display is where you'll see the output of the package's rearview camera and interact with the vehicle systems. The Display Audio interface is controlled by a control knob that can be twisted, nudged in eight directions, and tapped to select. The control scheme fairly intuitive, but somehow the control knob in the Hyundai Genesis manages to feel more substantial and easier to live with than this one.

7-inch screen
The Display Audio system is built around a 7-inch display. Josh Miller/CNET

Audio sources for this cabin tech package include a single-slot CD player, a USB port with iPod connection (iPhone 5-friendly with a Lightning-to-USB adapter), Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free calling, AM/FM terrestrial radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, and an auxiliary input.

Driver safety is enhanced by the Blind Spot Monitoring System with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (a $500 option) and the Intuitive Parking Assist, which is a $500 proximity detection system that beeps with increasing intensity as you approach an obstruction at low speed.

Control knob
Our ES was equipped with a control knob, but models equipped with navigation use Lexus' Remote Touch controller. Josh Miller/CNET

Other line items found on our 2013 ES 300h's delivery sticker include $300 for a leather-trimmed shift knob and wood-and-leather-trimmed steering wheel, $210 for a power rear sunshade, $515 for HID headlamps, and $1,370 for a Luxury Package that adds leather seats with heated and cooled surfaces, wood trim on the dashboard, power adjustment for the front seats, a steering wheel with memory for the driver's seat, and smart keyless entry and pushbutton starter.

Adding all of the options to the ES 300h's $38,850 base price and $895 destination charge brings our as-tested price to $43,880.

More available options
Our tester actually sits near the low end of the ES 300h's spectrum of available tech. We weren't able to sample the Navigation Package. Check this option box and the Display Audio system is upgraded with Lexus Enform 2.0 with Safety Connect, which combines an assortment of telematics features with the Enform App Suite (a rebrand and redesigned version of Toyota Entune). You also get a hard-drive-based navigation system with voice command and SiriusXM NavTraffic, NavWeather, Sports, Stocks and Gas Prices. Remote Touch controller replaces the control knob. This is not the same ultra-wide-screen unit that we saw in action in the newest Lexus GS and LS models earlier this year, but a simplified 7-inch system.

Further up the tech totem pole is the Mark Levinson Audio package that adds an 835-watt Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio with DVD-audio/video, 15 speakers, and 5.1-channel surround to everything in the aforementioned Navigation package.

An Ultra Luxury Package adds more ambient lighting to the cabin, a heated steering wheel, nicer leather on the seats, a seat cushion extender on the driver's seat and a memory function for the passenger seat, rain-sensing wipers, and a power-opening and -closing trunk. Available safety options include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which is bundled with a Pre-Collision System that can reduce or avoid frontal collisions by automatically applying the brakes when an imminent crash is detected and a Lane Departure Alert system that is bundled with an Automatic High Beams feature.

Fully loaded with all of its comfort, tech, and safety options, the 2013 Lexus ES 300h's bottom line grows to $50,375.

In sum: Base Lexus or loaded Toyota?
For our 2013 ES 300h's final $43,880 price, you could instead get a fully loaded Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited. Choose the top-tier Avalon over the low-level Lexus and you get the same 2.5-liter hybrid engine with the same EPA-estimated 40 mpg and nearly every bullet point on our tester's list of amenities and features. However, you'll also get the full, Entune-powered premium navigation with an 11-speaker JBL GreenEdge premium audio, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated rear seats, and the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control package with Automatic high-beam lights and a Pre-Collision System. For my $44,000, I'd go with the Toyota.

2013 Lexus ES 300h
The 2013 Lexus ES 300h is good, but I can't help but think the Toyota Avalon Hybrid is a better deal. Josh Miller/CNET

Outside of the Toyota Lexus ecosystem, the ES 300h doesn't really face much competition. The Korean Hyundai Azera that competes in this class doesn't offer a hybrid power train. Infiniti's similarly sized M Hybrid sits above the Lexus' price and power classes. Lincoln's upcoming 2013 MKZ Hybrid will certainly give the Lexus a run for its money; we'll have to revisit that comparison when the American car hits the market.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Lexus ES
Trim 300h
Power train 2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive, Continuously Variable Transmission, front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy 40 city, 39 highway, 40 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 36.2 mpg
Navigation optional HDD navigation with Lexus Enform 2.0
Bluetooth phone support standard
Disc player single-slot CD
MP3 player support standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection (iPhone 5-friendly)
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Optional HD Radio tuner
Audio system eight-speaker Display Audio system
Driver aids Rearview camera, Blind Spot Monitoring with Cross Traffic Alert, audible proximity detection
Base price $38,850
Price as tested $43,880

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