I figured this would be a rubber-stamp review -- after all, the ES is a long-time favorite of mine, combining first-class Lexus luxury with humble (and, therefore, more affordable) mechanical bits. But in redesigning the ES for 2013, Lexus has made some big changes -- including a new hybrid version -- so will it remain on my list of favorites? Read on.
First Glance: Know your target customer
My stepmother is the perfect Lexus ES customer. She's worked hard all her life, made a good living, and has developed a taste for the finer things. She wants a car that is luxurious, comfortable, reliable, and not outrageously priced. And she doesn't give a rat's posterior what is under the hood -- for all she knows, the car could be powered by a colony of underprivileged children. After years of happy Toyota ownership (punctuated by a Buick Park Avenue, which she rather liked), she finally took my advice and bought a Lexus ES350, and I don't think she's ever been happier with a car.
So when Lexus invited me to drive the new 2013 ES, it was naturally my stepmother who I was thinking of. Clearly, the target market for the ES has not changed, because the formula has not changed: It is still a luxury car based on a straightforward front-wheel-drive platform. A lot of people have come down on the ES for being a glorified Toyota, but I don't have a problem with that -- what's wrong with using an existing platform and mechanicals if it keeps the price reasonable?
Besides, technically, the ES is no longer a dressed-up Toyota Camry -- it's now based on the Toyota Avalon, which makes the new ES slightly bigger than the old one. Styling follows Lexus' new "L-Finesse" formula, with an hourglass grille and the cabin "greenhouse" shifted back slightly, giving the ES the long-hood-short-trunk look of a BMW 5-series (or a Lexus GS). I don't think my stepmother would mind the new styling much; I certainly didn't.
In the Driver's Seat: What Lexus does best... and worst
Here again Lexus has attempted to modernize the ES, but this time it's gone a bit wrong. The old ES' cabin (link goes to photo) was the car's best feature, and one of the key aspects that endeared it to my stepmother: Top-quality materials, graceful styling, and simple controls with big, easy-to-read buttons.
The new car's interior gets only one out of three right. The materials are still pretty good, with softly padded armrests and door pulls. The old base-model car's cloth seats have given way to "NuLuxe", Lexus' trade name for imitation leather; genuine cowhides remain optional. I particularly like the ES 300h hybrid model's light bamboo trim, but the dark maple on the ES 350 model doesn't work quite so well, especially on the shift lever, where the slab of brown looks like... well, like a substance into which one would not willingly place one's hand.
From here, it's a downhill slide. The L-Finesse styling theme continues on the dash, but it looks jarring and disharmonious, with shapes that don't seem to line up or add up. And the dash-to-door-panel join is disappointing -- it looks like the parts came from two different cars.
My stepmother could probably live with that, but it's the secondary controls that would drive her around the bend. Like other Lexus models, navigation-equipped ESs get the new "Enform" system, with Internet-enabled applications like Pandora radio and Yelp restaurant reviews. All well and good, but instead of a touch-screen, the system now uses Lexus' mouse-like Remote Touch controller, and many of the oft-used functions are buried several menu layers deep. My stepmother is computer-savvy, to be sure, but I'm sure she has no desire to be mouse around with the stereo functions while she's bombing down the freeway at her usual ten over the limit. Yes, there are redundant buttons for the A/C and a few for the stereo, but they are no longer as large nor as well-marked as those in the old car. The user-friendliness that both she and I treasure in the old-shape ES is gone.
On the Road: Hybrid powertrain is an excellent addition
The ES is now avaialble in two versions, the ES 350 and ES 300h hybrid. The former is powered by our old familiar friend, Toyota's 268 hp 3.5 liter V6, which drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. I'm not a proponent of change for changes' sake, but with most of the ES' competitors offering high-tech direct-injected engines that get better fuel economy and lower emissions, Lexus' decision to stick with ol' reliable reeks of complacency. And speaking of complacency, the ES 350's EPA fuel economy ratings are 21 MPG city and 31 MPG highway, unimpressive by today's standards.
New to the lineup is the ES 300h, powered by the same 2.5 liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine and hybrid driveline as the Camry Hybrid. Combined output is 200 horsepower; Lexus is keeping mum on torque, but acceleration is sprightly, with Eco, Normal and Sport driving modes that customize the car's accelerator and steering response. EPA fuel economy ratings are a promising 40 MPG city and 39 MPG highway. It's an excellent powertrain for the ES, and I'd definitely choose it over the V6.
The old ES was best known for its isolated, church-quiet driving experience, and that has carried over to the new car. Even though the ride is a bit firmer and cornering a lot more flat, the ES still rivals the Buick LaCrosse for sheer serenety. Yes, the handling is a bit better, although the steering remains as light and feedback-free as ever. At least Lexus hasn't skimped on high-tech gadgets: You can get both ES models with blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, as well as my old favorite, active cruise control, which detects cars ahead and matches their speed. ES occupants are surrounded by ten airbags, including twin knee airbags and rear-seat-mounted side airbags, but there is no Euro-style collision warning-slash-avoidance system.