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Executive wheels: Lovely Lexus hybrid sedans

Jeff Rundles //March 26, 2013//

Executive wheels: Lovely Lexus hybrid sedans

Jeff Rundles //March 26, 2013//

Lexus ES 350

I recently wrote about the Lexus GS 350 sedan, which I liked overall. In the Lexus line, there are four sedan variations, ranging in price from about $35,000 to $120,000. The ES, introduced in 1989, is one of the stalwarts in the Lexus line. 

Having driven both the GS and the ES, I wonder why Lexus bothers making both. The cars are very similar in size and feel, despite the fact that the GS is a slightly larger rear-wheel drive car and the ES is front-wheel drive.

I prefer the ES. In the gasoline version, the 3.5-liter V6 put out 268 horsepower (compared with 308 hp in the GS in the same size engine), but I could tell no difference. The ES had more than ample power in the city, on the highway and up the mountain. The ES, called a near-luxury model, rides very well; but like the GS, it’s a far cry from the kind of driver’s drive of a comparable BMW, for instance. Like the GS, it’s a very nice, sober “Dad Car” – and as a Toyota, it last for many miles and years.

One small difference: the GS turn signals lack the discernible “click” that the ES has. And a problem in the ES: the door lock and window switches in the door handle don’t light up, so I had to turn on the dome light on to unlock the door at night.

The bottom line: The ES 350 is almost as nice as the Lexus GS 350 and a bargain at a base of $36,100. My test-drive model included a ton of small luxuries priced under $1,000 each: special spoke wheels, high intensity discharge headlamps, one-touch power trunk (nice), intuitive parking assist (kind of a pain for someone who doesn’t have a problem parking), rain-sensing wipers with deicing and a heated steering wheel ($480 and pretty nice).

The $2,935 Ultra Luxury Package includes fancy ventilated and heated leather seating, panorama glass roof, power and manual rear sunshades, dark bird’s-eye maple wood trim, ambient lighting and a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel. Another $3,745 buys navigation, a premium audio package, a backup camera and extra Sirius satellite services. The bottom line: a whopping $46,004.

For under $40,000, this is a great buy – but then Lexus and the dealer wouldn’t make the bonus markup on the extras.

RATING: three wheels (out of four).

ES 300h

The hybrid systems in these two sedans couldn’t be more different in terms of how they manifest: The ES 300h uses a hybrid engine to boost gas mileage, while the GS 450h uses it to boost power.

People assume a hybrid is underpowered, but the hybrid-electric engine is actually quite quick, particularly on the street from a dead start, as electric powerplants have more torque. Even the Toyota Prius, the poster child of the hybrid movement, feels just as zippy as a gasoline engine. And despite being very quiet in electric-only mode (which is automatic), the actual driving experience is the same: Turn on the ignition, put it in gear, and go. It’s all very normal.

First, the ES. The regular ES 350, as noted above, has a 3.5-liter V6 engine with some 268 hp, and it is rated at 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway, with a 24 mpg combined rating. That’s pretty good for a regular gasoline engine car of this type.

In hybrid form the same car – and it is in all other aspects the same car — is called the 300h. It features a 2.5-liter in-line 4 cylinder engine and then a High Output Permanent Magnet Electric Drive motor, and combined the horsepower is rated at 200 “total system” hp.  You would really never notice the difference, however, as the hybrid model feels just as powerful and drives just as well.

It is, though, rated at 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway with a combined rating of 40 mpg – and this is typical of hybrids where the city rating is better than the highway, a phenomenon brought on by the fact that on the highway at higher speeds the car mostly uses the gas engine, which are much more energy efficient at higher cruising speeds.

One of the things I really like about Toyota/Lexus hybrid models is background lighting in the dash that indicates when driving is most efficient. There is a dial on the dash that provides indications of the hybrid system – showing for instance when the electric motor is draining in use, when it is recharging with braking and deceleration. On the 300h, however, there is a dial on the console that can be turned to “eco,” “normal,” and “sport” modes. “Eco” places more emphasis on the electric operation. In the “sport” mode, the hybrid operation dial disappears and is replaced by a tachometer – pretty cool. In “sport” mode, the 300h is just a little more zippy, particularly over 30 mph.

I found this hybrid system very satisfying. The Lexus ES300h I drove was equipped like the ES350, although the hybrid trunk is about one-quarter smaller (although still roomy), presumably to accommodate the batteries.

The ES 300h carries a base price of $38,850 – about $2,750 more than the vase price of the ES 350 – and $47,944 with all the usual extras. That’s about $2,000 more than a very similar ES350. For that difference, I’d go with the hybrid.

RATING: 3 ½ wheels (out of four).

GS 450h

The GS 450h is quite different in hybrid form. In the normally aspirated gas engine, the GS is a 3.5-liter V6 with 306 hp, rated a 10 mpg city/26 mpg highway and a combined rating of 21 mpg. Not bad. In the hybrid configuration, the GS 450h features a 3.5-liter with the Electric Drive motor with Lexus Hybrid drive, and it rates a whopping 338 hp – as I said earlier, a boost from the normal gas-engine car.

The hybrid 450h is rated a 29 mpg city/34 mpg highway and a combined rating of 31 mpg – a more traditional rating, with the highway higher, because the hybrid here is used to boost both gas mileage and power. And boost it it does. The 450h versus the 350 in the GS is a quicker car – quicker off the line, more powerful for lane changes on the highway, more guts in city driving.

The regular GS 350 for 013 carries a base price of $49,450, and in my test-drive model the bottom line with all the extras came in at $61,212. The 450h carried a base price of $58,950, and then they tacked on the usual luxury extras to bring the price to a wild $69,754. Now, all car prices have skyrocketed, and this is a high price tag for what amounts to a mid-sized sedan, but I have to say that it is a beautiful car with ample power and – except for the AWD in the regular GS 350 – I liked the 450h very much and would recommend it,

RATING: 3 ½ wheels (out of four).