First things first: A test drive of the new Lexus ES 300h is unlikely to stir the loins of the performance-driving enthusiast. And although attractive, a glimpse at its newly-styled-for-2013 sheet metal won't cause him to wake up in a cold sweat a few nights later, either. But pure lust isn't why we're getting behind the latest Lexus sedan. A week spinning its bamboo steering wheel was enough to convince us that with the ES 300h, the Japanese carmaker has fixed some of the flaws that have plagued the hybrid game and possibly prevented you from owning one.
For starters, its delivery of 200 horsepower, courtesy of a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle and electric motor, is seamless. The telltale shudder you might have experienced in earlier hybrids when the gas engine kicks in is gone – and when you're crawling along on electric power alone in the ES 300h, there's no high-pitched whine, either. The ES 300h doesn't announce itself as a hybrid – your passengers won't know unless they ask. And another hybrid annoyance – the extra-grabby, difficult-to-modulate brake-feel many vehicles have as they regenerate power – isn't present on the 300h. But perhaps the most important hybrid evolution that the new ES 300h brings: The price premium over the standard model is just $2,750. Not bad, since the dual powertrain ups the car's combined fuel economy to 40mpg, from 24mpg for the standard 3.5-liter V6.
And how's the drive? We spent a week with the 300h's drive dial switched to "sport" mode, and found a surprising amount of fun to be had on both long highway hauls and inner-city bursts, as its continuously variable transmission delivered peak torque throughout. And, of course, the things Lexus has always done well are there, too: quiet ride, sweet seats, elegant controls. So with the ES 300h, the luxury hybrid category, once the domain of exorbitant markups and dull drives, now has a contender. [from $38,850; lexus.com]