Back in 1989, Toyota launched a new premium brand called Lexus with just two cars, the LS 400 and ES 250. It was a small start but a big impact. Mercedes and BMW sales took an immediate hit when the value priced Japanese premium vehicles hit our shores. Lexus went on to become the largest luxury car brand in the US, proving it was no fad.
The ES has become the best selling sedan in the Lexus lineup (though the bestselling vehicle is the RX crossover). The new 6th generation ES will be arriving in Lexus stores in August and considering its success you’d think they would stick pretty close to the original formula. Of course that line means you know exactly where this review is headed.
Different in a Calculated Sort of Way
To begin with, there are now two ES models- the standard ES 350 and the hybrid ES 300h. Both are on hand for the press launch outside of Portland, OR. I’m focusing on the 350 since Lexus thinks 75% of buyers with choose it. I hope to snag a 300h later this summer for a full review. The 350 you’re seeing in the video is an Ultra Luxury model.
ES has been a car with soft lines and an even softer ride quality. A BMW M3 this is not and that’s okay because many buyers are looking for comfort. Apparently though, even current owners wanted it to “man up” a bit. And so it has.
Both 350 and 300h get the new face of Lexus- the aggressive “spindle” grill. The front end and C-pillar are more upright this time around. The interior goes from a very simple soft touch plastic dashboard to one with a dramatic modular appearance. Stitching on the instrument panel, metallic panels and a more macho steering wheel give ES more swagger.
That attitude continues with the driving experience. Certainly ES remains quiet and comfortable but the driving dynamic has definitely been sharpened up. The 2013 car feels more buttoned down, there’s less float over bumps and on-center feel is more confident.
This is the result of revised strut valve setting, new opposite-wound springs up front and a revised independent suspension in the rear. The steering ratio goes from 16:1 to 14:1 for quicker response. There’s a “sport” setting that ups the gas pedal response and gives the steering wheel a heftier feel but does nothing to change the suspension setting.
The 350 is powered by the familiar 3.5-liter V6 that makes 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm. The 6-speed transmission with manual mode gets some new gear ratios. In addition to “sport”, there’s an eco mode that squeezes out an extra mpg or two.
Acceleration is pretty darn brisk with just a hint of growl under hard throttle. 0-60 happens in about seven seconds and there’s little to no torque steer (a tugging of the steering wheel under hard throttle). ES remains a front-wheel drive car.
To make your driving experience more relaxing, radar assisted cruise control is available. Lane Departure Alert lets you know when you start wandering over the road lines. Since the ES has gone through the trouble of sharpening up, it wants you to do the same.
The ES 350 improves to deliver an EPA rated 21 MPG city, 31 highway. The 2012 is rated at 19/27.
In addition to the new masculine vibe inside the cabin there’s new tech. Blind spot warning helps to keep you out of trouble. The Enform system can run apps like Bing search and Pandora streaming audio using the data plan from your smart phone. When backing up, cross path detection warns if traffic is coming from the side.
The optional 835 watt, 15 speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system is highly recommended if you take your music seriously. Seats are heated and cooled in the Luxury package, they get more side bolstering too. Go with the top-of-the-line Ultra Luxury package and there’s a heated steering wheel too along with attractive ambient lighting in the dash.
Personally, I’m a touch screen kind of guy so I’m lukewarm to the Remote Touch interface, even with its haptic feedback. You might be different; it’s one of those things you need to experience for yourself.
Each smart key contains the memory setting for the seats, mirrors, wheel position, climate setting and radio presets of the user. Nice that sensors are on all four doors so a simple touch opens any of them.
Gripes? A power operated shade would come in handy with the optional panoramic roof; the transmission lever in this pre-production car is hardly silky smooth, check for that when you’re shopping. A manual parking brake is less Lexus, more Toyota.
A warning- you’ll be very popular with the carpool crowd if you buy this car, the back seat is very spacious. There are nearly 3 more inches of knee room now, legroom’s up by 4, headroom adds nearly an inch. It would be easy for three adults to get comfortable in the sculpted seats. Surprising there is no heated seats or climate zone in the back, even with the Ultra Luxury package. No door storage either. At least there’s a power port, folding armrest and pockets on both seats.
When I travel, my bath tissue supply is far away so in this case the TP is replaced by my luggage. My standard sized suitcase, tripod bag, computer satchel and camera case fit easily so even if you over pack, luggage for a long weekend should be no problem. The motor for the optional power lid takes up very little space. Seats don’t fold, there’s just a ski pass through on the 350 (and nothing at all on the 300h).
Safety? The ES is built with more high strength steel this time and there are 10 airbags including knee units up front and side torso bags for the rear passengers. Enform with Safety Connect is a much like OnStar. A year’s worth of service is included.
A Quick Look at the 300h Hybrid Model
Other than the badges, the only real exterior differences seem to be the blue trimmed Lexus logos and the lack of visible tailpipes.
The gas engine is 156 hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder that runs on the Atkinson cycle. Total system horsepower including the electric motor/generator is 200. The water pump, power steering, and AC are electric, so there’s no accessory belt.
The transmission switches from a six-speed to a continuously variable unit. Switch into sport mode and the energy gauge turns into a tachometer.
The big news inside is the wood goes from the 350’s birds eye maple to eco friendly bamboo.
Like all hybrids it can pull away on electric power alone, the gas engine powers up when more oomph is needed. The battery gets charged when coasting and braking. A t just over eight seconds, 300h is about a second slower to 60 miles an hour than the 350 but that’s made up by 40 mpg in the city, 39 highway.
As you might imagine the battery pack takes up space in the trunk, 3 cubic feet to be exact so the trunk remains good sized.
Prices won’t be set until the 2013s start arriving in August. My guesstimate is that the 350 will start at around 38 grand with destination, fully loaded around 48. The Lexus folks on hand only hinted that the 300h’s price premium will be the smallest ever for a Lexus product.
The ES is a good solid update to a good solid car, perfect for real estate agents who need a comfortable ride and a big back seat. The ES 350 is founding member of the Lexus family that’s keeping up with the times.