Rating: 8.6
Bottom Line:
With its 2013 redesign, the Lexus ES becomes more perfectly what it was always meant to be. It's a smooth riding, ill-handling, quiet and comfortable sedan. Why not make it more comfortable with a larger rear seat? The hybrid also adds thrifty fuel economy without much of a power sacrifice.
  • Smooth ride
  • Thrifty hybrid or powerful V6
  • Uber comfortable
  • No fold-down rear seat
  • Slushy handling
  • Complicated control interface

You either love or hate the Lexus ES. The ES is popular with consumers for its posh, quiet interior and smooth, cushy ride. But it has been slammed by enthusiasts and in the media for being dull — both to drive and to look at. It was basically gilded Camry, for goodness sake.

For 2013, Lexus is looking to spice things up a bit. First, it tossed out the Camry platform, opting instead to build the new ES on the architecture from the larger Toyota Avalon. It also added the first-ever hybrid powertrain to the ES lineup and tweaked the car's suspension a bit to make it sportier in the twisties.

But do the changes work? Is the ES spicier?

Model lineup
The 2013 Lexus ES is offered in two variants, the V6-powered ES 350 and the hybrid Lexus 300h. Both come as one model, with available option packages that ramp up the equipment. Notable standard features include automatic climate control, rearview camera, sunroof, auxiliary and USB ports, satellite radio, 10 standard airbags (including front knee and rear side bags), and 17-inch alloy wheels. The Premium package adds wood trim, power tilt/telescoping steering column, and power seats and mirrors. A Luxury package adds leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, HID headlights, rear park assist, and a power rear sunshade. The Ultra Luxury package gets ambient lighting, a heated steering wheel, rear side sunshades, passenger seat memory and a panoramic sunroof.

All of the aforementioned option packages require the Lexus Display Audio system, a Navigation package, or a Navigation System/Mark Levinson Audio package. The Display Audio system comes with Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, HD radio, and Lexus' Remote Touch interface. The Navigation package adds voice control, a hard-drive-based navigation system, and Lexus Enform. The 835-watt Mark Levinson 7.1 surround sound system has 15 speakers and plays DVD audio discs. Other options include 18-inch wheels, lane-departure alert with automatic high-beam headlights, radar cruise control, and blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert.

Under the hood
The 2013 Lexus ES comes with a carryover V6 engine and a new hybrid powertrain. The 3.5-liter V6 produces 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. Estimated Environmental Protection Agency fuel-economy ratings are 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway. The ES 300h gets the same hybrid powertrain as the Toyota Camry. It features a 156-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine aided by two electric motors, one that serves primarily as a generator to charge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, and one that aids the engine or powers the vehicle by itself. A planetary gear set acts as a continuously variable automatic transmission. Total output is 200 horsepower, and estimated EPA ratings are 40 mpg city/39 mpg highway.

Inner space
The ES is all about luxury and the interior reflects that fact. The materials are high quality and finely crafted, with soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard, doors and armrests. The dashboard is hand-stitched. The standard upholstery is a vinyl called NuLuxe that looks like leather but promises longer wear. Leather is also available, and both types of upholstery cover 10-way power adjustable front seats.

By switching to the Avalon platform, Lexus opened up far more interior space in the ES, mostly in the rear seat. Like the last model, the front seat has plenty of headroom and legroom, and front passengers sit on comfortable seats. While the wheelbase is only two inches longer, Lexus actually added four inches of rear-seat legroom. The result is one of the most comfortable rear seats at that price point.

While buyers lose the versatility of fold-down rear seats, Lexus does provide a center pass-through for skis and the like, and the trunk is a rather large 15.2 cubic feet in the ES 350. The ES 300h places the hybrid system's battery behind the rear seat, eliminating the pass-through and cutting cargo volume to 12.1 cubic feet.

Most buyers will get the Lexus Remote Touch system to control the navigation, entertainment, communications and climate functions, though many of the climate and audio controls are thankfully separated. Remote Touch is run through a center console-mounted mouse to navigate the features on a 7-inch dashboard screen. Haptic feedback allows the driver to feel the virtual buttons on the screen. While we liked the first generation of this system better, this version is an improvement over the one in the Lexus GS because the joystick portion of the mouse has been lowered and is therefore easier to control.

We found the fingertip precision required to move the joystick and press it down to enter commands hard to master. Lexus offers five levels of resistance, and most buyers will want to use the highest resistance when they are learning the system.

Remote Touch also includes Lexus Enform, which pairs with your smartphone to provide access to several apps, including music streaming through Pandora and iHeartRadio, Bing local search with navigation, OpenTable dining reservations, Yelp reviews, and access to movie listings from movietickets.com. Buyers also get access to satellite services such as live weather, traffic info, stock quotes, sports scores and fuel pricing. All of these features are easy to access through the dashboard screen.

On the road
In a world of sport sedans, the Lexus ES stands out, and not necessarily in a good way. While body motions are generally controlled on the highway, the car struggles when driven hard. The steering is light and slow, body roll is quite noticeable, and the tires howl like a dog baying at a passing ambulance when the car is pushed through a turn. The moves are a bit more controlled with the available 18-inch tires, but are still a far from sporty. On a positive note, the ES offers a smoother ride than any sport sedan competitor and the cabin is whisper quiet.

Buyers will be pleased with either powertrain. The V6 is strong from a stop and it works well with the smooth-shifting automatic transmission to deliver plenty of punch for passing. Zero to 60 mph feels even quicker than the 7.1 seconds Lexus quotes. The engine is smooth and quiet in most instances, but it emits a refined growl when floored.

The new hybrid powertrain may be an even better choice. Pricing isn't available yet, but Lexus says the hybrid premium will be the lowest priced in its lineup. The hybrid offers surprisingly willing power, even for passing at highway speeds, and it launches the car from zero to 60 mph in an impressive 8.1 seconds. The question buyers will have to answer: Is one second slower from 0 to 60 mph and some extra coarseness worth the extra 16 mpg the hybrid powertrain brings to the table? We suspect many buyers will decide the hybrid is the wise choice.

Right for You?
If you are looking for quiet luxury and want to carry up to five people in comfort, the 2013 Lexus ES at $36,100 hits the mark. The new hybrid adds to the value — it's a large car with decent power that delivers 40 mpg. But those looking for a sporty option will want to look elsewhere. That shouldn't be too hard, because most of the vehicles in the mid- to high-$30,000 range, such as the Acura TL, Infiniti G37 and Cadillac CTS, are all sportier than the ES.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.