The 2014 Lexus ES 300h hybrid drives like a conventional car, but its overly firm ride is disappointing, its multimedia interface is distracting and its estimated gas mileage trails the competition.
The ES 300h was new for the 2013 model year, and the front-wheel-drive car uses the same hybrid system as the Toyota Camry Hybrid to get its EPA-estimated 40/39/40 mpg city/highway/combined. Changes for 2014 include newly available Siri Eyes Free Mode for compatible iPhones; to see how the 2013 and 2014 models compare, click here, or check out how the ES 300h stacks up against its main competitor, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, here.
The ES 300h starts at $40,410 including a $910 destination charge. Features include aluminum wheels, push-button start, power front seats, a power moonroof, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth and a USB port. Optional features like heated and ventilated front seats, a navigation system with a backup camera, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and bamboo wood trim raised the price of our test car to $44,710.
How It Drives
Lexus has overcome the driving-experience quirks that have plagued many hybrids. Acceleration from a stop is smooth and predictable — even when the gas engine turns on for supplemental power. Its performance is similar to a strong, gas four-cylinder drivetrain, as opposed to a V-6 one, but the car is swift enough for city driving.
On the highway, though, there's little reserve power; the ES 300h cruises easily at speed but makes more noise than acceleration when you press the gas pedal to the floor.
Apart from a slight shudder and the associated noise when the gas engine automatically turns on, the only thing that reminds you you're in a hybrid is brake-pedal responsiveness. Hybrids have regenerative braking technology that uses the car's kinetic energy to charge the hybrid battery pack. The ES 300h's brake pedal feels linear, if a little soft, but what's bound to catch drivers by surprise is the immediacy with which the brakes engage. The regenerative braking system starts slowing the car with just the slightest brake-pedal pressure. Unlike most conventional brake systems, there's no initial dead space before the brakes engage.
The most disappointing aspect of the ES 300h is how the car rides. Even small cracks and bumps in the road produce a hard, sharp response. It feels like a high-performance sports car, which is all the more tiresome because the ES 300h doesn't handle like a performance car in the slightest. It's not dynamic or engaging. Lexus seems to be on a mission to make all its cars sporty, but most ES 300h buyers are probably more interested in comfort, and it's lacking here.
The hybrid system includes multiple driving modes: Eco, Normal, Sport and EV. The car starts in Normal when you turn it on, and I like the gas pedal's responsiveness in this mode. Eco mode severely diminishes gas pedal response, and it wasn't long before I got fed up with it and switched back to Normal. Sport mode switches the hybrid power meter in the instrument panel to a tachometer and makes the steering a little heftier. EV mode lets the car operate on electric power alone at slow speeds for short distances.
The ES 300h's 40/39/40 mpg estimate trails the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid's 45/45/45 mpg, and my observed gas mileage in the Lexus was about 25 percent lower than the EPA combined estimate of 40 mpg. According to the trip computer, I averaged 29.8 mpg during a 108-mile stretch, with an average speed of 19 mph.
That depressing average speed aside, it was very cold during most of my driving, with outside temperatures in the single digits and low teens. Cold temperatures tend to hurt gas mileage, particularly for hybrids, and the ES 300h was rarely operating on just electric power — even during slow-moving rush-hour traffic when you'd expect it to. My driving also included some stretches on fast-moving highways and suburban streets.
The extremely low temperatures also hurt the hybrid system's seamlessness in heavy traffic. In stop-and-go driving the gas engine would abruptly start as you crept forward.
The ES 300h's cabin styling emphasizes the car's width with its focus on horizontal lines. The optional Premium Package included light-colored bamboo wood trim that looked great and provided an eye-pleasing contrast to the rest of the cabin, which was finished mostly in black materials.
One aspect of the cabin that's a little off-putting is the upper door trim. I sometimes like to rest my elbow there, and even though it's technically a soft-touch surface because it has some give to it, it came across as being relatively hard. I expect softer trim in a luxury car.
The front bucket seats are wide and comfortable, and it was especially nice to have optional seat heaters during the chilly days I spent with the car. The seats warmed up quickly, but the center-console dial for setting the heat level was difficult to use when wearing gloves — even thinner fleece ones.
Backseat comfort is very good for a midsize car; it's nearly as comfortable as many full-size sedans. The outer rear seats have the same wide, comfortable feel as the front buckets, and legroom is good for taller passengers. The middle seat's cushioning is harder and you sit a little higher, but the flat floor — there's no center floor hump like many cars have — means more room for your feet.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Our test car had Lexus' Remote Touch interface, which is optional for the ES 300h. It consists of a mouse-like controller on the center console that moves a cursor on the dashboard screen. It works like a computer mouse.
The familiar interface should give Remote Touch a leg up on some of its competitors, like BMW's iDrive and Mercedes' Comand, but it doesn't. It's not a good interface for a moving vehicle. Even with the system's haptic feedback that draws the cursor to on-screen menus, the cursor still jumps around too much. It's distracting, and the result is that you end up paying extra attention to the system that would be better spent watching the road. This isn't an issue with iDrive or Comand, both of which use knob-based controllers to jump from one on-screen menu to the next.
Bluetooth connectivity isn't standard — surprising for a car that starts at more than $40,000 — but it's included with the optional Display Audio and navigation systems. My iPhone connected easily using Bluetooth, and the multimedia system downloaded my address book quickly. The Bluetooth streaming audio function worked well, too.
Cargo & Storage
The ES 300h's trunk measures 12.1 cubic feet, which is about 3 cubic feet smaller than the cargo area of the ES 350, its gas-only sibling. The trunk opening is large and the cargo area has a nice shape, but unlike the ES 350, the ES 300h doesn't have a pass-through for carrying long, skinny items inside the car.
Storage areas include a small glove box (which is mostly occupied by the large stack of owner's manuals), a decent-sized center console bin, average front door pockets and a small bin on the dashboard to the left of the steering wheel.
The ES 300h received a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its crash-test performance.
Optional safety features include a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, a backup camera and a Pre-Collision System that can warn you about oncoming obstacles as well as tighten the seat belts and autonomously brake the car.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Features & Specs page.
Value in Its Class
Lexus has managed to get the difficult things right with the ES 300h, like relatively seamless hybrid system operation, but the car is lacking in areas you wouldn't necessarily expect, like ride comfort and the standard features list (leather upholstery, Bluetooth and a backup camera are optional).
With hybrids, it's always tempting to see how many years it'll take to recoup the added expense of the technology (comparing base versions of the ES 300h and ES 350, the payback time is 3.4 years). Saving money isn't the only motivating factor when it comes to buying a hybrid, however, especially when there's a luxury badge on the grille.
Fuel efficiency for its own sake matters more for some, and the ES 300h's 40 mpg combined rating lags behind mainstream models like the Honda Accord Hybrid (47 mpg) and Ford Fusion Hybrid (47 mpg) as well as luxury ones like the MKZ Hybrid (45 mpg). This is only the ES 300h's second year on the market, but already Lexus has some catching up to do.
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