If you are looking to buy a luxury hybrid sedan, there is really only one model that comes to mind; the Lexus ES 300h. The longtime segment-leader makes a powerful case for itself, but I continually find myself less than enthralled with the machine. When I reviewed the 2015 model I found it to be competent, comfortable and efficient, but I didn’t think that it was worth the price premium over its nearly identical sibling, the Toyota Avalon Hybrid. For 2016 the ES 300h has received a thorough refresh inside and out with new looks and improved equipment. Will this newer more attractive ES have what it takes to earn a recommendation from yours truly? We spent a week putting it through the paces to see.
The first thing you notice about the new 2016 car is the dramatically improved looks. The spindle grille has been a sticking point for a while, but Lexus has finally learned how to drape it across the nose of a car in a way that is equally aggressive and elegant. On the 2016 ES 300h, it looks gorgeous with the wide opening making the front end look lower and wider than it really is. It’s a great visual trick.
The new grille meshes will with the headlight sharp and pointed headlight housings, and the jagged chrome details that frame the fog lights and lower edges of the bumper add even more drama to the front end. Every surface finish, detail and visual flourish works to draw your eyes to the center of the car. I love it.
Moving around the car you will notice new wheel designs that complement the new nose, and the two-toned gray and silver coloring looks striking against our testers Nightfall Mica blue paint. The only problem in the visual profile of the car is that the 17-inch wheels looks a bit small for the large openings in the body. Everything else on the car is so taught and stretched visually that the wheels look proportionally inadequate.
Out back the changes are far more subtle, but still make a difference. The taillights are shaped the same, but the interplay and design of the red against the white has been altered to make the lamps look more modern and interesting. The chrome strip that splits them no features a “y” shape that embraces the innermost angled edge of the taillights, whereas the old model just draped across the top section. The bumper is sculpted just a bit deeper, and the lower valence is new.
Inside things look largely similar, but there are some very important and distinctive changes that make the cabin look more luxurious and current.
Gone is the tacky gated automatic shifter, replaced with the new corporate unit that features a leather boot and a more ergonomically shaped knob to top it all off. The steering wheel has also been altered. The new unit is a little more sculpted and the layout of the controls a touch more intuitive. The shape and padding of the center has also been refined to look a bit nicer and more luxurious as well. The final major change involves the surface finishing for its wood trim. The old ES had all of its wood trim finished in a thick glossy clear coat that would have looked right at home in a 1960s Cadillac. The new car has a soft matte finish that is much more contemporary. It is also nicer to the touch.
Aside from the improved looks inside and out, there is actually very little that has changed for the new ES 300h. It still hides the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder motor and electric hybrid system under the hood. It still makes the same 200 horsepower, and it still has the same 40 mpg fuel rating.
This is where things start to go south for me in regards to recommending the new ES. The looks are a dramatic improvement, and the interior alterations, while very minor, make a big difference in regards to overall perceived quality and luxury. That said, without improving the driving dynamics it is still incredibly hard to recommend the ES 300h over the Avalon Hybrid. You lose a bit of leather, you lose a small bit of technology, and you lose that Lexus badge on the nose, but otherwise these two cars are almost identical.
When you consider that our ES 300h carries an MSRP of $51,164 and you can sang an Avalon Hybrid Limited with every option for less than $44,000, it is a hard argument to make. Now let there be no mistake about this, the Lexus ES 300h is still the best car in that particular niche segment, but it’s not $6,000 better than it’s platform-mate the Avalon. There are lots of people out there who would gladly pay for that extra bit of wood and that big badge emblazoned across the nose, but I am not one of them.