Thursday, August 29, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 ES300h

Update: See how the Lexus ES300h performed in our entry luxury hybrid head-to-head.

We continue our look at luxury hybrids with an entry from Lexus. Falling into a similar price as the MKZ we tested earlier, the ES300h is also a platform shared vehicle, developed off of the newest version of the Toyota Avalon. The advantage to stepping up to the Avalon's platform from the Camry's is that it offers a much longer wheelbase, allowing for greater interior volume and potentially greater comfort. However, as with many platform shared vehicles, it becomes a challenge to differentiate the "luxury" branded vehicle from its lesser brand platform sibling. So has Lexus managed to pull this off and produce a platform shared car that can truly justify the price premium? Let us take a closer look.

First impressions of the new ES300h are that it hides its size well, but the new grille seems out of character. The front end tries to look aggressive, but just ends up making the car appear like a crueller wearing a Predator mask. Given the target audience for this car, I am not sure that aggressive is the way to go with the styling anyhow. Build quality is impeccable, as is expected of a Lexus, but the exterior feels as boring and inoffensive as well. It certainly does not have the same kind of on-road presence as the MKZ, and aside from the gaping maw at the front, the cars design is definitely for those who prefer to blend into the crowd rather than standing out.

The interior, however, is a whole different story. Lexus has chosen a very pseudo-futuristic design direction for its interiors, seemingly drawing upon design cues from turntables and audio receivers from the 70's. The ergonomics seem off as there seem to be buttons strewn about everywhere in the cabin and dials that are very limited in their capabilities and functions. Design aside, the interior is a far cry from Lexus interiors of the past, especially in terms of material quality. Close your eyes and run your hands across the surfaces in the cabin and you too might be shocked. Hard plastics are present everywhere in the center console, especially where it runs between the front seats. While the woods are almost certainly real, there is a substantial chasm between feel of the higher quality materials used and the lower quality ones. The lack of consistency is alarming at times, especially since some of those heavily contrasted materials are juxtaposed with each other.

Another aspect of the interior I found sub-par was the driving position. Despite spending several minutes playing with the seat and steering wheel adjustment controls, I could not find a comfortable seating position that placed the steering wheel within proper reach without causing my knees to be uncomfortably bunched. If I drive with both my arms out and elbows locked, I could get my knees comfortable, but that would not be an ideal position for controlling the car. It is rare these days to have it be such a struggle to find comfortable seating position.

Starting the car, I was greeted by the now familiar silence common to all hybrids. The car gets underway on electric power alone and the motor waits until we are cruising at a decent pace down the street before firing up. I played around with some of the modes and quickly discovered that they do make a perceptible difference in the throttle response and, interestingly enough, the tachometer, which switches back and forth between a true rev counter and an eco driving gauge. Dropping the hammer to get onto the freeway, the car accelerates smoothly and the CVT actually does not feel intrusive, offering up plenty of speed without a whole lot of the usual noise. Part of that can be attributed to the relatively quiet motor and the extra sound deadening that Lexus seems to put in all its cars.

While power is adequate, especially for those urban dwellers who are most likely to buy this car, the ride is typical Lexus, which is to say sublime. The ES glides over bumps and road imperfections and does not get upset by washboard roads, or really any road conditions. However, the trade-off here is that handling is severely compromised. Any attempts to push the Lexus through a corner resulted in heavy understeer and the tires squealing in protest. This, of course, should be no surprise, since the ES is hardly a sporting sedan, but there comes a point where being able to make a quick maneuver could mean the difference between driving away and being involved in an accident. Nothing about how the ES handles is dangerous, but it is definitely not confidence inspiring. The brakes, which incorporate regenerative braking, offer little bite, but are the most natural transition between regenerative and mechanical braking that I have experienced. Still not confidence inspiring, but at least it does not make things any worse.

After running around town for a bit, I steer the sedan back to the dealer. Dropping off the keys, I honestly could not wait to extract myself from the ES, in part because of the LFA in the dealership's showroom, in part because the ES was simply one of the most disappointing cars I have driven in a while. Maybe it is the expectations that I had built up over time about what a Lexus should be given my prior experiences, maybe it is because I simply do not fit the demographic they are targeting, or maybe it is because Lexus really just stopped caring because they were making too much money. Whatever the reason, the Lexus ES300h is hardly a justifiable expense over its platform-mate, the Toyota Avalon, which also carries the same hybrid drivetrain. In fact, the slightly smaller Toyota Camry hybrid also carries the same drivetrain and costs thousands less than even the Avalon. There are simply too many better cars out there and simply too many fuel sipping options to justify considering this as one of them, unless you simply must have a Lexus.

It is just too bad that the dealership would not allow me to take out the LFA. That is a car that is much less likely to disappoint.

I will share my final thoughts on this topic in our wrap-up next week. Stay tuned!

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