If your only experience with hybrids has been in Toyotas, you might be forgiven for thinking the sole focus of any hybrid is to offer a fuel-sipping commute. For those folks I just described, you should spend some time in the 2016 Lexus ES300h.
To get right to the point, the ES300h is no mere fuel-sipper. Sure, it gets great fuel mileage. That’s especially true if you do a lot of city driving where the engine stop-start system and the car’s battery-powered EV mode can work their magic. But thrift is not the selling point in my eyes. The Lexus ES300h takes everything I like about the non-hybrid ES350 and turns it up a notch.
If you were asked to build a luxurious hybrid sedan, starting with the ES350 would be a great idea. It’s a fine executive sedan. It’s got a cushy, refined ride and a willing V6 powertrain driving its front wheels. It’ll certainly get you to interstate-cruising speeds with sufficient quickness. But most folks probably are not buying the ES350 for sporty driving — they’re interested in a daily driver that will isolate them from the potholes and noise of the modern highway. So how better to improve upon the ES350’s serene qualities than to put a quiet, smooth hybrid powertrain under its attractive, well-sealed body?
That, in a nutshell, is why I enjoy the ES300h more than its V6-powered sister. The ES350’s stout 268 horsepower notwithstanding, the last time I reviewed one, I never really used it to its full potential. The ES300h trades the 3.5-liter twin-cam V6 for a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle inline four-cylinder engine mated to Lexus Hybrid Drive, which uses a high-output permanent magnet electric motor to bring total system horsepower to 200.
Some will criticize the CVT that sends power to the front wheels. It operates like any Prius you might have encountered, and there’s one really good reason not to mess with the formula here: It’s smooth as silk in routine around-town driving. The ES300h breezes away from a traffic light with relaxed, constant-RPM acceleration that’s unlikely to excite the engine enough to make it heard within the cabin’s quiet confines. And that’s assuming you prod the throttle hard enough to engage the engine at all — slow acceleration between traffic lights often results in the electric motor doing all the work.
This all brings me to a hard truth for some auto enthusiasts to hear: No matter how many gears you give a traditional automatic transmission, it’ll never be as smooth as a CVT, particularly under light throttle loads that most of us use every day. It works very well in a luxury car.
I can sum up the ES300h powertrain in two words: It’s plenty. The ES300h is not a sportscar, sure — but neither is the ES350. The ES350 is faster in a straight line than the hybrid ES, but if you really want performance, Lexus would rather sell you a GS, anyway. Option up the non-hybrid ES and you soon find yourself in the price neighborhood of the GS.
If you’re averse to rear-wheel drive, there are other front-wheel drive options that make more horsepower and arguably offer a more sporty driving experience for less money. The newly redesigned Nissan Maxima, for one, makes 300 horsepower and felt more sprightly than any ES in my experience.
You’ll note I said “more sprightly,” but not “more refined.” There aren’t many vehicles that feel more refined than the ES.
The interior is bank-vault quiet in the Lexus ES, and the quiet hybrid powertrain of my ES300h test car only added to that ambiance. Leather seats were good-looking, butter-soft, and all-day comfortable. There was matte-finish wood trim aplenty, including on the steering wheel. I’m not big on wood trim, but this stuff actually feels like wood thanks to the matte finish. Glossy finish wood, real or not, always feels fake and chintzy to me. Good job, Lexus.
The ES is much larger inside than the more performance-oriented GS, with rear seat room aplenty for hauling my kids in their carseats. I could sit behind my 6-foot, 3-inch self with legroom to spare. That doesn’t happen in the GS or a great many entry-level luxury mid- and full-size front-drive cars.
The similarly priced Volvo S60 comes to mind. Despite being taller and wider than the Lexus ES300h, the S60 has an overall length of 182.5 inches compared to the ES300h’s 193.3 inches. Despite the Volvo having a wheelbase just 2.7 inches shorter, the result is a huge disparity in legroom: The S60 has a tight 33 inches of legroom in the rear seats, while the ES300h has a generous 40 inches.
The S60 is a good comparison for another reason, besides price and size: With the T5 Drive-E powertrain option, the S60, at an EPA highway rating of 38 MPG, isn’t so far from the ES300h’s EPA highway rating of 39 MPG. My own previous tests of the S60 and its wagon sister, the V60 have shown me the EPA figure is pretty much spot-on. The same can be said of the ES300h. In a previous test of the ES300h, I managed 38 MPG. This time around, I drove pretty aggressively and spent most of my drive time with the Lexus Drive Mode Select dial in “Sport”, and I still pulled down an honest 35 MPG in combined city and highway driving.
Infotainment duties fell to the always excellent Lexus Enform. The screen is not a touchscreen, relying on Lexus’ oft-criticized Remote Touch to act as a mouse of sorts. I count myself among the minority of auto reviewers who actually like Remote Touch. The 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system was powerful but never in that disturbing-the-peace way. It offered excellent clarity at high or low volume settings, even when streaming low-quality files from my low-rent smartphone over Bluetooth.
In sum, the Lexus ES300h combines handsome styling, a smooth, fuel efficient powertrain, and a luxurious interior in a package that I wouldn’t mind driving every day. I can’t say that I’d want to drive most hybrids every day. While the gearhead in me might better enjoy the smart power delivery of thar turbocharged Volvo S60, the practical dad in me values the interior space and luxurious materials of the Lexus ES300h more than the grunty-yet-efficient Volvo powertrain.
2016 Lexus ES300h
Base Price: $40,920
Price As-Tested: $51,164
Options: Blind Spot Monitor w/ Rear Cross-Traffic Alert ($500;, Lexus Safety System+ including Pre-Collision SYstem w/ Pedestrian Detection, High Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert w/ Steering Assist, and bi-LED headlamps ($1,015); Navigation System/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package Sound System with Single In-Dash DVD/CD Player, Navigation System w/ Backup Camera, 8” VGA Screen, Remote Touch Controller, Lexus Enform Destinations 1-Year Trial Subscription, and Complementary Lexus Enform App Suite ($2,650); One-Touch Power Trunk ($400); Intuitive Parking Assist ($500); Rain-Sensing Wipers with Deicer ($155); Ultra Luxury Package including Wood Trim INterior, Driver and Passenger Memory Seats, Heated & Ventilated Front Seats, Power Rear & Manual Door Sunshades, Driver Seat Power Cushion Extender, Ambient Lighting, and Power Tilt-and-Telescoping Steering Wheel ($3,000); Heated Wood-and-Leather-Trimmed Steering Wheel ($450); Illuminated Door Sills ($379); and Trunk Mat, Cargo Net, Wheel Locks, & Key Gloves ($255).
- Supreme quietness, smooth powertrain
- Lovely matte finish wood trim inside
- Combination of space and efficiency
- Numb handling
- Friends, family either love or hate “spindle” grille design
- This hybrid is not sporty despite “Sport” drive mode setting