2013 Lexus ES First Drive

The 2013 Lexus ES gets a fresh look, but does it have what it takes to stand out from the pack?

What It Is/ Who It's For
The ES is Lexus' premium mid-size sedan; Lexus promises it to be livelier than its predecessor.
Best Thing
Is it the sufficiently powerful and economic hybrid engine option, or the extra 4.1-inches of rear legroom?
Worst Thing
The ES' new electric power steering is soft and busy -- unless you leave it in Sport mode.
Snap Judgment
The ES has always been Lexus' bread and butter offering; consider the newest one to be more Bonne Mamam Blackberry Preserves than Smuckers Strawberry Jam.


Traditionally speaking, the Lexus brand -- and its ES mid-size sedan -- has never quite captured the hearts of automotive consumers like its German rivals. Those brands -- Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi -- have a rich and passionate motoring heritage branded into its products. Until recently, the same could not be said for Lexus, which has had to overcome the perception that it is simply the luxury extension of Toyota. The conservative approach was very successful for Lexus on the sales charts, however, and despite building vehicles that mostly lacked passion, Lexus built reliable and practical luxury cars that appealed to consumers' minds and wallets.

All of that changed when Lexus relinquished the luxury sales lead to European rivals in 2011, the first time in a decade it had done so. Akio Toyoda, the enigmatic President and CEO of Toyota, who had assumed control of Toyota after inheriting a mess of recalls and natural disasters, vowed to return the luxury brand to its previous perch atop the charts. The 2013 Lexus ES 350 and ES 300h are the second of twelve "new or significantly refreshed" models to debut in the next two years, following the successful launch of the 2013 Lexus GS. The 2013 ES represents a noteworthy departure from the model it replaces, and rightfully so if it intends to keep abreast of the competition. While it carries forward the same V-6 engine and front-engine/front-wheel drive layout as the previous model, virtually everything else -- including the gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain option -- is new.

Aspirational luxury shoppers have long looked at Lexus for Toyota reliability in an upscale package. With the new ES, Lexus hopes to prove that passion is part of the mix, and that it can build the best luxury car in the midsize segment without abandoning its roots. Confident in its approach, the luxury brand recently invited us to wine country south of Portland, Oregon, to see for ourselves. Heading into the drive, we focused on features that are most important to consumers today: fuel economy, interior amenities, and comfort and space. But was the total package a winner, and is it good enough to challenge the German stalwarts?

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Walkaround

This ES looks nothing like the last ES, and that's a good thing. The previous ES featured "L-finesse" design lines that made it look like an upside down bar of soap on wheels. The soap analogy is more fitting than you think: It's as if Lexus scrubbed clean every distinguishing characteristic until what remained was... well, something that performed well enough but put us to sleep. So, starting with that inconspicuous bar of soap as a baseline, the 2013 ES seems fresh, even if it appears to be a front-wheel drive "Baby GS."

At first glance, the new ES is brawny compared to the previous model and it portends a lower, more muscular stance. Starting with the now famous "spindle grille," whether you love it or hate it, the face is masculine with sharp, wrap-around LED daytime running lamps fusing into the sculpted hood and fenders. It's a more youthful face, but well trimmed around the sides with larger wheels and less fender gap -- a detail not lost on younger buyers. Wheel-to-wheel, the new ES slightly resembles a cross between the old ES and the current IS with its familiar tall doorsills and speeding-bullet backseat window. But there's also a neat touch near where the rear fender bulge and rearmost window pillar meet. Lexus designers sculpted this bit for a seamless front-to-rear and wrap-around flow. If you're a butt man (or gal), you'll appreciate the dual-exhaust tips (or none at all for the ES 300h), streamlined deck lid and spoiler, and a pair of taillights that impress you more the longer you look.

Speaking of flow, the 2013 ES achieves a drag coefficient of just .27. And it looks like it, too. Lexus says it achieved this figure by incorporating fins on the doorframe covers near the outside mirror that create vortices to smooth the airflow. And there are underbody covers that do the same underneath the car. While all that sounds techy and reads like Latin to most folks, it means that the new ES is aerodynamically efficient, helping to improve stability and fuel economy while also reducing wind noise.

For 2013, Lexus plans to offer nine exterior colors. The ES 350 and ES 300h come standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, and the ES 350 has two optional wheel choices in 17- and 18-inch varieties.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Sitting Down

There was a small, pink origami cat sitting atop the press material at my table for the ES product presentation. It had no eyes or decorative whisker marks but contained only the clearly outlined ears and nose. It was cute and what I supposed was some PR staffer's intricate but forgotten contribution to personalize what are usually stale presentations highlighted by steaming hot coffee at every table. In fact, the origami cat was made by a craftsman known as Takumi in Japanese -- the same Takumi responsible for crafting the hand-stitched leather interior inside every ES. It takes several years to become a Takumi, and making this origami cat was the very first step in the lengthy process. Too easy, right? Well, of course it isn't that simple. Takumi-in-training have to build the origami cat in less than 90 seconds. One handed. The non-dominant hand.

That's the attention to detail with which Lexus speaks of the ES' interior, and lest you forget, equivalencies include comfortable, luxurious, and Wow!

At first glance, the horizontal dash and center stack look busy, but it's actually rather impressive -- and simple to use. Like the exterior, the dash flows in a logical manner, as placed from -- and for -- the driver's hands and eyes. In front of the driver's elbow rest is the Lexus "remote touch" mouse. It controls the 7-inch multi-instrument display, including a very good, eight-speaker audio system (and the exemplary Mark Levinson optional audio system), an optional GPS navigation, fuel consumption, and climate controls. Of course, we're looking forward to spending more time playing with Lexus' Enform 2.0 infotainment and Apps Suite. Below and right of the steering wheel is the drive mode select knob, switching the engine and steering response from Eco to Normal and Sport drive modes.

The multi-adjustable seats are made of the kind of soft leather that allows you to sink down inside, which is way more supportive than it sounds. As for space, consider that the front has 41.9-inches of legroom; this is a very good amount even if you can't visualize exactly what that means. But more impressively, the rear seats have 40.0-inches of legroom, a whopping 4.1-inches more than the outgoing ES, and nearly as much legroom as the front seats. Head, hip, and shoulder space is similarly generous, such that four adults can ride in the ES on a long trip with little complaint. While on the topic of space, the ES 300h has 12.1 cubic feet of cargo space, which is 3 cubic-feet less than the ES 350 due to the battery pack for the hybrid motor. Both are large enough for a trip to Costco, and can easily accommodate a golf bag.

Since this is a Lexus, it's worth mentioning the twelve airbags, three LATCH points with tethers, anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake distribution, traction and stability controls, blindspot mirrors with rear cross traffic alert, which looks brilliant for use in a parking lot, and pre-collision and dynamic radar cruise control. Basically, the 2013 Lexus ES is smarter and safer than you.

Driving

I did not have high expectations for the ES when I arrived in Portland. At least not driving-wise. Sure, the 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is a fantastic engine, but it was just too powerful for the previous ES. Any time you stomped the pedal, the tires squealed and the steering wheel jerked to the right. You had to really pull in the reins, and that gets tiring on an extended drive. And despite the power, that car just wasn't fun to light up the tires. But this also begged my professional curiosity. Would Lexus address the torque steer for the new ES? Would the same engine in the new car be any more enjoyable than it was before? And seriously, what business did a four-cylinder hybrid motor have in a big, heavy luxury sedan?

I'll save the long-winded answer for an upcoming full review. In the meantime, I'll just say that both engines are very good. The V-6 has been appropriately tamed, though not completely to the extent that I hoped, but it's good nonetheless. With a revised six-speed automatic transmission and clever tuning, it now rates up to 31 mpg on the highway, up from 27 mpg highway in the previous ES. That's impressive, considering that it still sprints to freeway speeds in about seven seconds. The 200-hp four-cylinder hybrid is a tad slower (8.1-seconds to 60 mph, according to Lexus), but at 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway, who cares? The continuously variable transmission was linear and smooth in all drive modes and in all manners of highway driving, and I think it will be a viable, livable option for everyday driving and commuting.

My only gripe with the new ES is its electronic power steering. The steering response changes according to drive mode, such that when in Eco or Normal drive mode, the steering is loose and easy -- but busy. In day-to-day commuting, this may not be an issue. In parking lots, specifically, this might be an asset. But even in non-spirited driving on country lanes and windy roads, it required extraneous attention. You almost don't notice this if you never drive in Sport mode, however, when the steering response is tighter and inspiring. But switching back to Eco or Normal, and it becomes noticeable and uneasy. Practically speaking, this simply means the driver has to make more steering corrections more often.

With that said, though, the ES is not a bad-handling car. In fact, it demonstrated admirable agility for a front-wheel drive sedan with a cushy suspension and all-season tires. Even the brakes felt firm under my feet, and I never felt curious or afraid that I would find its limitations. The ES 300h may be the most plush hybrid cruiser on the market, and never before has a heavy, front-wheel drive mid-size hybrid sedan felt so uncompromised.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

Everyday on my commute home from work, I drive past Toyota's headquarters in Torrance, California. Currently, along the freeway, there's a large multi-panel billboard filled with the latest Lexus ad campaign featuring the 2013 GS. It reads, "After this, there's no going back." I think that slogan really emphasizes the transition that has been applied to Lexus by Akio Toyoda.

Lexus is now autonomous from Toyota, and its designers and engineers are now free to build the kinds of cars that they want with minimal interventions and restrictions from company brass. The significance of this newfound freedom is monumental considering the ultraconservative atmosphere there over the last decade. This cannot be stressed more by the fact that the newest GS actually won a comparison test at our sister publication Motor Trend, and that this 2013 Lexus ES has the chutzpah to solidify the claim for change.

But the ES has not just changed, it has metamorphosed into something greater. It retains the easygoing and toned-down spirit of its lineage, yet it's more engaging than ever. That's not to say the 2013 Lexis ES is a sports sedan (it's not), or that it is aggressive (it's not), or that its modern interior and technology will alienate baby boomers (it won't). But the 2013 ES is more than the sum of its parts, and that adds up to more than enough in just about every category that matters. It's too early to tell if the ES will be a home run, but it sure looks like Lexus squared the ball up. That ball is rising, and only time will tell if it's caught at the warning track, or whether it soars into the stands.

(What, did you think I was going to end this with a chiseled bar of soap allusion?)

Basic Specs

ES 350: 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 268-hp, 21 mpg city/31 mpg hwy
ES 300h: 2.5-liter inline-4, continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive, 200-hp, 40 mpg city/39 mpg hwy

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