With a long round trip through what used to be called the BosWash Corridor before us, it was my great good luck to be handed the key to an ES 300h, Lexus’s most efficient hybrid sedan. Thus the passenger-in-chief and I were able to drive from Boston to Washington, DC, and back on less than two tanks of regular gas, while coddled in comfort. We logged 960 miles, averaged 52 MPH and 38 MPG overall, and spent about $93 on gas—with none of the expense and soul-crushing abuse of flying commercial, and no need for a nasty rental car at the other end.
On the long multi-lane legs of the trip—at least the traffic-free parts, where we could run in Eco drive mode with both the climate and cruise controls set on 75—fuel efficiency hovered a bit north of 40 MPG.
Eco mode seems to add a rubber band between gas pedal and motor(s), so in urban traffic I switched to Normal drive, for quicker response. Other than to experiment, I didn’t use the Sport setting, which dips further into the electric motor’s immediate torque. (There’s nothing “sporting” about a Lexus ES, hybrid or gas-powered; it’s meant to deliver a quiet, competent and cushy driving/riding experience—just the thing for endless miles of highway.)
A gas-only, 24-MPG Lexus ES 350 has a 268-horsepower six-cylinder powerplant and a six-speed automatic transmission. This otherwise identical but much more fuel-stingy ES 300h has a 156-horsepower four-cylinder gas engine plus an electric motor; together they can send 200 horsepower to the front wheels through a CVT, continuously variable transmission.
The ES hybrid takes about a second longer than the gas ES to hit 60 MPH from rest, but it isn’t what you’d call slow.
A computer monitors all sorts of variables and decides from millisecond to millisecond how much oomph each motor has to contribute to get the job done most efficiently (Eco) or most quickly (Sport).
The computer also keeps an eye on the electric motor’s batteries, and uses the gas engine and the brakes as generators to top them up when convenient. The driver senses none of these transitions. The regenerative brakes feel normal, and the gas engine’s automatic stop-start at red lights (to save fuel and emissions) is barely perceptible. Nobody does stop-start better than Lexus.
Just one thing intrudes on the ES-h’s luxury, and that is the whine of the CVT transmission during acceleration and deceleration. The noise goes away when the car reaches speed, but sometimes it’s like being buzzed by Chernobyl mosquitos.
Although the hard- and software of hybrid drive adds about three thousand to the price of a Lexus ES, for 2014 the ES 300h’s starting price remains $39,350 (plus $910 delivery). But watch that order form. The reasonably equipped car we drove cost $48,542. Even at 40 MPG, fuel economy alone isn’t going to ease these payments much. It is possible, however, to whittle down the price a bit.
I can live without a power trunk closer ($400), Intuitive Park Assist ($500) and Lane Departure Alert ($965). I could also give up the bamboo-and-leather steering wheel ($450), but then its built-in heater would go too. Savings so far: $2,315, which knocks only about $35 off a monthly payment.
What about rain-sensing wipers ($155) or the blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts ($500)? Worth having, in my book. Or this excellent satnav, and the cushy heated and ventilated seats? They’re part of option packages worth about five grand. Yes, we can cut them all out, but then we’ve got a Toyota, not a Lexus.
And it was a Lexus that made our road trip so easy, and led to a different sort of “performance” driving—accelerating and braking extra smoothly, as though there were eggs under the pedals and fine crystal loose in the trunk. I wanted to have my cake (MPG) and eat it too (MPH).
It was satisfying enough that eventually a subversive idea began to take shape in my head: Shouldn’t all luxury cars get 40 miles per gallon? Isn’t frugality—green, comfortable, swift frugality—simply another form of luxury?