NEWBERG, OR – Some vehicles unabashedly are about comfort, not edgy design or performance.

The front-wheel-drive Lexus ES is one of the leaders of this unofficial segment, generally topping the brand’s U.S. car sales and placing second in overall Lexus deliveries behind the RX cross/utility vehicle.

But as the current-generation ES ages, sales have slipped to roughly half the 82,867-unit record set in 2007.

With the new model going on sale in the U.S. in August, Lexus hopes to regain some lost ground. While it sticks with a forecast of 60,000 units, a more typical annual volume in recent years, the auto maker is looking to light a small fire under buyers with improved handling in a more stylish package.

After a day-long test drive here of the ’13 ES 350 and its new variant, the ES 300h hybrid that is expected to make up at least 25% of ES sales, Lexus should have no problem contending for the luxury sales crown again.

The upcoming ES continues to share its underpinnings with Toyota, although the latest model is based on the longer Avalon platform instead of the Camry. However, it does use the Camry’s 3.5L V-6 engine.

The 3.5L in both the ES and Camry peaks at 268 hp at 6,400 rpm and 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) of torque at 4,700 rpm – good figures, providing plenty of oomph for this vehicle and its Baby Boomer demographic.

The 3.5L is just as smooth, quiet and powerful in the ES as in the Camry, but not exactly flowing with personality. Yet, it is sufficient for an application in this high-volume, comfort-focused midsize sedan.

The 268-hp ES 350 matches the ’12 Mercedes-Benz C250’s 201-hp 1.8L turbocharged 4-cyl. in city/highway fuel-economy ratings. However, the C250’s average is slightly better, 25 mpg vs. 24 mpg (9.4 vs. 9.8 L/100 km). WardsAuto averaged 27.3 mpg (8.6 L/100 km) in the ES 350 at an average 27 mph (43 km/h).

The ’13 ES 300h hybrid uses the Camry Hybrid’s powertrain. The 156-hp 2.5L Atkinson-cycle DOHC 4-cyl. gas engine is mated to two 650V AC permanent-magnet electric motors (one acts as a generator while the other primarily is a motor) and a 244V nickel-metal hydride battery. Total system horsepower is 200.

As tested here, the ES 300h suffers none of the noise and vibration issues weexperienced last fall in the Camry Hybrid during the Ward’s 10 Best Engines testing. The transition from gas to electric mode goes unnoticed and braking is linear and smooth, with no unsettling energy pulses transmitted through the pedal.

Both the ES 350 and ES 300h offer Normal, Eco and Sport drive modes, and the hybrid adds EV mode. Two jaunts in the hybrid result in fuel economy that meets or exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated average of 39 mpg (6.0 L/100 km).

An average of 43.0 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) is earned in the ES 300h on a meandering route through stop-and-go suburbia and the more rural Oregon wine country. A shorter highway drive sees a slightly lower average of 39.4 mpg (6.0 L/100 km).

Most of our driving here occurs in Normal mode, but a test of Eco and Sport modes in the ES 300h shows a clear difference in throttle calibration. The Eco has a much stiffer accelerator, verging on Infiniti’s restrictive Eco Pedal.

The steering tuning for Sport mode is slightly firmer than Normal, but the driver doesn’t need to lift weights beforehand for either one. The ES’ steering ratio has been quickened for better handling, to 14.8:1 from 16.1:1.

The ride feel of the ES 350 and 300h is smooth, as if driving on the most pristine of roads. Pillow-ball bushings in the rear and friction-reducing shock absorbers both front and rear add to the comfort, Lexus says. The new model retains MacPherson-strut front and dual-link rear suspensions.

The increased use of high-tensile-strength steel helps provide a greater degree of rigidity from the previous ES while also cutting 90 lbs. (41 kg) of weight. A changed cowl cross-section shape and thickness, front suspension towers connected in a straight line and a higher number of spot welds also boost rigidity, Lexus says.

Drivers who seek more dynamic driving would be wise to choose the Lexus IS, as the ES plods along through the twisty roads here. Still, the ES is livelier than ever thanks to the chassis retuning and quicker steering ratio.

The ES is one of the quietest cars on the road from inside the cabin thanks to the generous use of soundproofing materials, including 3-layer acoustic glass. Additionally, Lexus employs an active engine-control mount in ES 350s with movable membranes that reduce noise, vibration and harshness transmitted from the mounts into the car’s body.

The most noticeable and welcome change to the ES is its appearance inside and out. The 3-box sedan now is sleeker than the model it replaces, with a wider, thinner and more attractive “spindle” grille.

Taillamps are elongated, emphasizing the new model’s wider look thanks to the wheels being pushed out to the corners even as the width remains the same at 71.7 ins. (182 cm).

The ES interior takes a big step forward with design and materials. Genuine stitching and ambient lighting go a long way toward giving the cabin a greater sense of refinement. Optional bamboo wood in the hybrid is nice, but with its heavy gloss appears artificial.

Lexus’s directive for the ’13 ES was spaciousness, and that has been achieved. Thanks to a carved-out instrument panel, the front passenger seat seems a mile away from the dash, helping make the 0.3-in. (8-mm) loss of legroom from ’12 to ’13 model less obvious.

Front-seat legroom was sacrificed a bit to create a more spacious rear seat, something requested by current ES owners in all markets including the all-important Chinese buyers. Rear-seat legroom is a generous 40 ins. (102 cm), an increase of 4.1 ins. (10.4 cm). It’s also 4 ins. (10.2 cm) more than in the short-wheelbase LS.

The rear seats in the ’13 ES are among the most comfortable in recent memory: nicely sculpted and with just the right foam density.

With few competitors following Buick’s decision to veer toward athleticism, the ’13 ES should have an easy go in the market. The wild card will be the upcoming ’13 Toyota Avalon, which is more fashion-forward and almost as well-equipped, and likely for less money.

But for those who need the cachet of a Lexus badge in their driveway, the ES is a fine choice.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

’13 Lexus ES 350
Vehicle type 4-door, front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6, aluminum heads, block
Power (SAE net) 268 hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 248 lb.-ft. (336 Nm) @ 4,700 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 94 x 83
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 6-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase 111.0 ins. (282 cm)
Overall length 192.7 ins. (489 cm)
Overall width 71.7 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 57.1 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 3,549 lbs. (1,610 kg)
 
Base price $36,100, not incl. $895 destination and handling
Fuel economy 21/31 mpg (11.2/7.6 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Acura TL, Infiniti G, Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CTS, Lincoln MKZ, Buick Regal
Pros Cons
Ah! Comfort Fun factor minimal
Higher-quality interior Glossy bamboo
Fuel economy good for hp Turbocharged comps livelier