NEWBERG, OR – While the RX series accounts for more than 45% of Lexus sales in SUV-happy North America, the ES has been one of the stars globally. The Camry clone has served as an entry point to the brand, generating an immensely loyal, and obviously satisfied, following. The development of a new ES is therefore not something delegated to the B-team.
The sixth-generation ES350 and its hybrid sibling the ES300h continue the trend of ensuring a level of refinement and luxury befitting the brand.
Consumers around the world are willing to pay extra for image. Enough so that it's worthwhile for purveyors of everything from watches to cars to make slight modifications to existing items and market them at higher prices under a different label.
GM. Ford and Chrysler did it for decades – and in some cases are still selling cars that are the same under the skin but gussied up enough to attract a different audience.
Lexus has perfected the process. While it sells several unique vehicles, the bulk of its volume, comprising most of the lower-priced models, shares many components with Toyota products. This practice keeps prices down while ensuring buyers reliability and quality.
The treatment these customers receive at a Lexus dealership also plays a huge role in the success.
Arriving in August
When the current Camry received a mid-cycle refresh we knew it would not be long before the Lexus ES version would come along. That wait ends in August when the 2013 ES350 and 300h arrive at Lexus stores.
Both are heavily based on the Camry, sharing almost everything except a few body panels and the instrument panel. That is not a bad thing since the Camry is one of the most popular and meticulously-developed cars on the North American market.
The transformation from Camry to Lexus, in this case, begins at the front where the ES gets the new face of Lexus.
The "spindle" grille and arrow-shaped LED daytime running lights, first seen on the CT200H, GS and more recently the new RX, are used to good effect here. The result is a unique character for the ES which now has a much more distinct presence. It stands apart visually from the Camry more than any of its predecessors.
At the other end, the changes are smaller but there is a distinction between the ES350 and ES300h. The former has a pair of chromed exhaust outlets while the exhaust of the hybrid is hidden.
The interior of the new ES is clearly a step up in style and refinement. ES stands for Elegant Sedan and that is evident in the unique instrument panel, trim and upholstery treatment.
The standard seat covering is a new synthetic leather, but move up into other trim levels and the real thing is used. There are four trim levels for the hybrid version. The stitching of the leather pieces is worth of note and close examination.
The 2013 ES offers a great deal more interior space than the outgoing version, especially in the rear seat where occupants can relax in style with more than 10-cm of additional legroom. The new ES is the almost the same dimensionally as the outgoing model, but a longer wheelbase and sculpting of the seatbacks has paid off in spades.
Trunk capacity has increased by 14 litres to 430 for ES350 and 342 for the ES300h – the difference being taken up by the battery pack. In neither case do you have the ability to fold the rear seatback down to carry long items.
Elsewhere there are the requisite luxury touches like wood trim on the instrument panel (IP), doors and steering wheel, sunshades for the rear window.
The IP is divided horizontally into three levels. The "display" zone at the top has a very large full-colour information/navigation screen in the centre. Slightly lower in front of the driver, covered by a separate shade, are large twin analog instruments for road and engine speed flanked by smaller ones for fuel and temperature states. Below that is the "control" zone, centered above the centre console that, if so equipped, contains the second generation Remote Touch system.
The standard equipment list is extensive and there are a couple of new options available for 2013, including a heated steering wheel, power trunk closer, a system that combines automatic high beam and lane departure alert system and rear cross-traffic alert.
The latter is one of those wonderful ideas that will make life a lot less stressful for those who frequent shopping centers or park in other tight spots. The system checks for traffic coming from either direction when you reverse out of a parking spot.
On the road the new ES displays typical Lexus manners, with well-controlled ride motions and an acceptable level of alacrity should you get a bit playful in the corners. Most of the credit for this new-found sportiness can be attributed to a new rear suspension.
At all times noise levels are incredibly low with little road, engine or wind noise finding their way into the cabin under all but the most extreme, conditions. Silence is one of the most important attributes of a luxury car and the ES has this base well covered!
The 268-horsepower V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission are carried over from last year's ES350, with slight tweaks to help fuel efficiency.
A new Drive-Select system lets the driver select from ECO or Sport modes which either enhance or dull throttle and other responses depending on your mood. The system defaults to normal each time you start the car. There is more than ample power from the silent engine for all purposes.
The ES300h gets the Camry hybrid system with a 2.5-litre four cylinder engine augmented by an electric motor and paired with a Continuously Variable Transmission.
The new ES will be sold in North America, Korea, China, the Middle East and Russia.