It's not that I hated the HS 250h, the "world's first dedicated luxury hybrid" as Lexus proudly touted at its debut several years ago.
It's just that, as a Lexus, it barely made a fair Toyota, not being particularly luxurious despite a boatload of modern conveniences and upscale doodads crammed into it.
The HS wasn't overwhelming as a hybrid, either -- the Prius and Camry gas misers proving just as effective for a lot less coin. Needless to say, I have not mourned that ungainly compact sedan's passing.
While the CT 200 hatchback -- another dedicated hybrid -- is a more successful attempt by Lexus at the marriage of affordable luxury and greenery, it's the new ES 300h that comes much closer to being a truly happy union. For one thing, the ES line as a whole -- now in its sixth generation since its initial introduction more than 20 years ago -- is farther removed from its Toyota Camry roots than any of its ancestors.
The 2013 model sports a lower profile, clean, elegant styling from stem to stern and unique Lexus touches such as the characteristic spindle grille, plus hidden exhaust, integrated fog lights and rear spoiler. In the case of the ES 300h, Toyota's first shot at hybridizing the mid-sized four-door, it looks pricier than its $43,900 starting sticker would suggest.
The more important consideration is that the addition of the hybrid powertrain actually aids in the ES's unstated mission of encapsulating its occupants in tomb-like silence while transporting them stress-free hither and yon. It helps that the ES never developed a reputation for sporty performance as with some of its European rivals, deferring instead to the old-school definitions of luxury -- pillowy ride, effortless operation and copious luxury touches to soothe and placate.
Said hybrid powertrain -- essentially the same as found in the Camry Hybrid -- comes with the moniker Lexus Hybrid Drive. In the ES 300h's case, this means a 156-horsepower, 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and an electric motor powered by a nickel metal hydride battery pack.
The combination of the two will generate 200 total horsepower when maximum thrust is called for. To call the combo setup a powerhouse would be optimistic in the extreme, but it gets the job done. Or, more accurately, it can get the job done, depending on the Drive Mode selector.
This console-mounted knob provides three modes that allow the driver to tailor his or her driving mood. Normal, the default mode, provides a blend of performance and efficiency deemed suitable to everyday driving, while Eco favours fuel economy. Sport increases powertrain and steering responsiveness and, in the ES 300h, changes the hybrid-power monitor in the instrument pod into a tachometer.
In reality, Eco is almost useless -- at least in regular traffic conditions -- as it severely curtails the Lexus's ability to accelerate. Sport, on the other hand, is an eye-opener, adding pronounced oomph that's more than welcome when merging on to highway on-ramps or passing a slow-moving vehicle.
Next to the knob is the EV mode button, which allows short distances to be covered at reduced speed (about 40 kilometres an hour max), using only the power from the hybrid battery pack.
The 2.5L four-cylinder is a high-compression, low-friction unit that's fitted with an electric water pump, electric power steering and an integrated hybrid electric motor/generator, meaning no accessory belts required. It's bolted to a continuously variable transmission to get the power to the front wheels.
Although I'm not the biggest fan of CVTs -- and several competitive hybrids (notably the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima twins and the new VW Jetta Turbo Hybrid) use conventional automatics -- this one works effectively with the Hybrid Drive. Still, I am somewhat perplexed that the CVT comes with a manual-shifting sport mode; it seems rather inconsistent with the car's intent.
As for fuel economy, the 1,610-kilogram ES 300h averaged 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres in mostly in-town driving, which is frugal enough compared with most mid-sized sedans, albeit light-years from Transport Canada's hopelessly optimistic figures.
While the ES in any form is no sport sedan, suspension changes, a quicker steering-gear ratio and an overall stiffer body combine to improve the new model's handling. Of that combination, it's the steering-gear ratio, reduced from 16.1:1 in last year's model to 14.8:1 for 2013, which provides the heft that was lacking in previous ES steering systems.
Suitably sumptuous in base form, the tester was loaded to the nines with the very pricey yet complete Technology package. This $10,650 option combines two less-expensive packages -- Navigation and Leather -- and throws in what is primarily a suite of features designed to keep the car dent-free and driving straight (Lane Change Assist, advanced pre-collision system, blind-spot monitor, Lane Departure Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, front clearance and rear backup monitors, backup camera).
The cabin itself is typical of Lexus -- fashionable in a conservative manner and quite comfortable, starting with a 12-way power seat that allows the cushion to extend up to 35.6 millimetres for better leg support. The dash's instrument display places the main gauges directly in the driver's line of sight, and is supplemented by a centre-mounted 3.5-inch colour TFT multi-information display screen for the navigation and multimedia systems.
I'm not a big supporter of the Remote Touch Interface (RTI), which allows the front-seat occupants to operate the climate, audio, phone controls, navigation system and more. The screen menus are selected with a mouse-like controller located on the centre console. While Toyota claims the RTI reduces eye and hand movement, helping to reduce distraction, it still requires more driver concentration and is therefore not as user-friendly as a touchscreen.
Although Toyota is by no means the only automaker with hybrids in its product lineup, it's still the most dedicated and prolific purveyor of eco-friendly vehicles. The ES 300h adds to the count while, as a Lexus, easily managing to retain the luxury precepts inherent to the brand.
For those preferring to be fully indulged while doing their bit for the cause, the ES is as serene as it is green.
-- Postmedia News
-- TYPE OF VEHICLE: Front-wheel-drive mid-sized luxury hybrid sedan
-- ENGINE: 2.5L DOHC four-cylinder with electric motor
-- POWER: 156 hp @ 5,700 r.p.m., 156 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,500 r.p.m. (gas engine); 200 hp combined
-- TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable
-- BRAKES: Four-wheel disc with ABS
-- TIRES: P215/55R17
-- PRICE: BASE/AS TESTED: $43,900/$54,550
-- DESTINATION CHARGE: $1,995
-- FUEL ECONOMY (L/100 KM): 4.7 city, 5.1 hwy.