When I think of the ideal Lexus customer, my good friend J., an up-and-coming criminal defense attorney in Southern California, comes to mind. I moved from Los Angeles almost a year ago. He was driving an ancient Honda Civic so littered with papers, garbage, and baby detritus that you could barely see the floor.
Then I visited a few months later. J. took me behind his apartment complex to proudly show off his new wheels -- a brand-new Hyundai Genesis. You could serve tea off the dashboard. It had all the digital bells. Best of all, he said, it provided a smooth cruise that made the drive between West Covina and El Segundo, or wherever else he goes to save the presumed innocent, a lot less stressful. J. had taken a professional stride forward. The Genesis was his reaping.
I wasn't so surprised that my friend had bought a new car. He'd been doing well for a while. But my first thought, when I saw his Genesis, was: Why didn't he buy a Lexus ES?
The higher up the Lexus pole you look, the more likely it is that you're going to find yourself driving slowly behind a well-off old lady. But the ES class has a longstanding reputation as a great entry-level luxury car, the finely crafted pride of the Toyota fleet. They're more powerful than the Mercedes C-Class, way less expensive than the E-Class, a couple leagues more stylish than the Buick LaCrosse, and pack around 60 more hp than the baseline BMW 328i sedan, which is one of the coolest driving cars in this or any segment. With the ES, you get equivalent size and power as the Cadillac CTS for anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 off. If you're a buyer trying to status-claw his way into the upper-middle class, the Lexus ES has always been a good deal.
But now Lexus has to deal with the Genesis Conundrum, which I believe was also once the title of a Robert Ludlum novel. Toyota long ago figured out how to dance around its American and European competition, but suddenly finds itself squeezed by its Asian counterparts. When Hyundai, Acura and Infiniti offer similar, and even, in some respects, superior comparison vehicles, how does Lexus avoid slipping?
This question dominated the background in Oregon earlier this month, as an international fraternity of car hacks descended to test drive the 2013 Lexus ES 350 and the first-ever ES 300h hybrid. In a mercifully short marketing presentation before our drive, an executive described the ideal owner of the ES 350 as "an accomplished independent professional who values family, image, style, and the environment." Like most car companies, Lexus dreams of a generic iPad jockey buying its product, but in reality, "Lexus enthusiasts" are a genre of being as elusive and mysterious as the Skunk Ape.
Cars in the "intro luxury" segment are, above all else, offices on wheels, soft business-class rides with maximum connectivity and a wood-trim starter kit. As I drove the new Lexus ES 350 around the Willamette Valley, I tried to keep J's priorities in mind. I, too, could be an "accomplished independent professional," at least for the day. Maybe the 2013 edition of the ES would offer something different.
The historical rap sheet on the Lexus rightly betrays it as a Toyota Camry with nicer furniture. The two brands have long shared a chassis while, like common-law spouses, keeping the nominative illusion of separate legal identities. But this 2013 ES, for the first time, can boast its own body.
Nearly two inches longer and nearly an inch higher than the 2012 model, the new ES discards the blocky strip-mall Camry base for something a little slicker and more flowing. There are new aero stabilizing fins on the doorframe covers, a sharp front air intake, and a distinctive rear spoiler. All this, Lexus says, will help the company "focus on attracting a younger buyer." Good luck with that. But at least this car, from the outside, takes the step of moving the ES away from its longtime stigma as being the car that the junior executive's wife drives.
The press materials for the ES spends four times as many pages describing the car's interior as it does the drive train. From the ambient door lighting to the optional birdseye maple trim and NuLuxe synthetic leather (or actual leather in the luxury packages), everything about this car says it's open for business. It's designed to make the driver feel somewhat important, with 10-way power seats, pelvis-stabilizing "cushion straps," and more silencing technology than a high-end Santa Monica daycare nap room. The aquiline steering wheel comes wrapped in leather with optional lacquered hardwood accents, there's rear and side sunshades -- at least in the "Ultra" luxury package, the price for which Toyota hasn't yet trotted out-- and an epic Mark Levinson sound system perfect for blasting whatever nostalgia-based XM station the driver prefers.
The new Lexus ES makes for a really nice office. But does it drive like an actual car? To start, I took out the 300h, the first such offering from the ES class. This is a hybrid in every way. It features the same styling as the 350, with a few almost imperceptible cosmetic differences. But it also has the same drivetrain as the current Toyota Camry hybrid. So you get your 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway, but you also get only 156 hp. Toyota long ago perfected the concept and execution of the reliable, long-lasting hybrid drivetrain. The Lexus 300h doesn't appear like it's going to bust the streak.
In general, the 300 hybrid gives you what you might expect from an entry-port Lexus. Because of the car's relatively streamlined exterior, this Lexus hybrid offers a slightly nimbler, sportier drive than the Camry. The brakes seem sharp and responsive, the steering intuitive, the suspension reasonably restrained. When you let up on the gas, it glides smoothly into electric mode without much of a hiccup. A "sport" mode makes for a brief bit of fun because you get to play with the paddles, but those are wasted in a hybrid, since the car's too busy conserving fuel to do any serious moving through the gearbox. Still, it's kind of fun to drive, as hybrids go.
The 350 ES offers a different narrative. Its 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway mpg fuel economy ratings are pretty quotidian. In return, though, you get a lot more power. While in regular drive mode, the 350 provides a pleasant and comfortable ride with excellent visibility, good back support, and soothing ventilated seats, like a luxury condo on wheels. When you put it into Sport, the 350 surprises, showing more muscle than you might expect from a Lexus. I took it on quite a few curvy lakeside and mountain roads, and it jammed through tight corners without a shudder, making a pleasant little roar as I briefly jacked up the revs. It's not a sport sedan, but I accelerated niftily enough to 85 mph on straightaways. At the very least, I got the impression that I was driving.
Lexuses aren't about going fast, looking cool, being family friendly or (with the exception of the hybrids) fuel efficient. You get one because you want to feel comfortable while also feeling like you're driving something vaguely important. The ES was Lexus' second best-selling model the last couple of years, and the 2013 seems solidly positioned to stay the course. It's an upgrade in all the right ways. The hybrid, in particular, marks a huge step ahead for the brand. Now that it's emerging from the best-selling shadow of the Camry chassis, maybe the ES can actually climb a notch on the status chain.
Note: Lexus provided transportation, meals, lodging, and an optional tan baseball cap for this article.
2013 LEXUS ES 350 SPECIFICATIONS
|CLASS||Four-door, five-passenger luxury sedan|
|MILEAGE||21 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|EMISSIONS||5.9 tons CO2/year|
||Not yet available|
|PROS||A sleeker look, better chassis and a Lexus interior|
|CONS||Pick fuel economy or power, but not both|