Toyota launched its upscale Lexus division in 1989, with the arrival of two models. The LS400 got most of the attention, as it was a new, from-the-ground-up flagship sedan with a V8 engine and scads of amenities for a tempting price.
But you really can’t have a volume brand with only one model, so the smaller brother to the LS was the ES250. It was no huge secret that the ES was a Toyota Camry under its skin. A very nice Camry with a standard V6 engine and an air of luxury, but a garden-variety sedan nonetheless.
Having such a mainstream entry-level car has served Lexus well for over two decades, and the ES evolved just as the Camry evolved. It gave people who wanted something nicer than a car with a Toyota badge, as well as an entry point to the Lexus brand.
When the latest ES was launched last year, it went a bit more upscale and upsize, now sharing its underpinnings with the largest Toyota sedan, the Avalon. Competent as ever, and still a great entry to Lexus ownership.
Almost flying under the radar is the hybrid version of the car, the ES300h. Since Toyota continues to expand its offerings of gas-electric hybrid vehicles (with the Prius as a halo vehicle for all hybrids), it added a hybrid option to the Avalon. As goes the Avalon, so goes the Lexus ES. Voila…an ES hybrid for the first time ever.
By now, many people are familiar with how hybrids operate. A gasoline engine works in tandem with a battery electric motor. The engine charges the battery automatically, as does coasting and braking, and the electric motor can help out with additional power. And on Toyota and many other systems, the electric motor can move the car by itself at low speeds.
Lexus has run with the technology throughout its lineup, and you can now get three different sedans, a small hatchback, and a crossover SUV with hybrid power. And in a way, a luxury hybrid makes sense. Buyers of upscale cars are willing to pay a bit more for features and technology. A hybrid system is really both those things.
The ES300h shows just how far Toyota has come with the power system. You almost don’t know it’s there, other than an eerie silence when you first hit the Start button. Everything works seamlessly, and if not for a configurable indicator on the dashboard (either on the large LCD screen in the center, or a smaller display next to the speedometer, both of which can be switched off), the operation of the hybrid system is fairly invisible to the driver.
The overall appeal of any hybrid is that it saves gas. Some more than others, obviously. The big Lexus LS460hL hybrid isn’t going to get anywhere near the fuel economy of the small Toyota Prius C, but in their respective categories, they each do well.
EPA ratings for the ES300h are 40 mpg city and 39 highway, for an official combined number of 40. By contrast, the conventional ES350 is rated at 21 and 31, and its combined number is 24. The EPA then takes those figures and translates them into 2.5 gallons of fuel per 100 miles in the hybrid, and 4.2 gallons for those same 100 miles in the non-hybrid ES.
To opt for the hybrid version of this car, you will pay more, as is the case with most hybrids where they’re an optional sub-model. The ES350 starts at $36,370, while the ES300h is $39,250 before option packages are tacked on. So it costs nearly $3000 more to save the gasoline, but obviously each buyer has to make his or her own calculations as to whether it’s worth it.
In many cases it’s not even about monetary savings. Many buyers of hybrid vehicles – particularly upscale ones – are also concerned about not using more fuel than they need to, producing less carbon, and so on. With cars like the Lexus ES, it’s fairly easy to choose the hybrid powertrain if you’re so inclined. In every other way, it’s just like the non-hybrid ES.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave