2014 Lexus ES300h hybrid

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One reason the 2013-14 ES300h is so quiet is that its handsome new body shell is not only aerodynamically “clean”—generating very little wind noise and vibration—but also well insulated, to block most of the tire roar.

Electric power truly suits Lexus. Electric motors are dead quiet, just like most Lexus vehicles, so maybe it’s fitting that the company turns out some of the most agreeable of all gas-electric cars. But these hybrids haven’t been tremendous fuel misers, at least in our experience. At least until now.

Lexus signs its hybrids with an “h.” The $120,000 LS600hL managed about 19 miles per gallon overall.

Our brilliant $70,000 GS450h ponied up 27 MPG overall. And now this $46,000 ES300h is averaging 38 MPG. Saturday, on a 120-mile stretch of interstate with the cruise control set at 75, it banged out 41.7 miles per gallon—without resorting to ECO drive.

Wow. This is almost Prius territory, yet without the hair-shirt characteristics of that car. Just like the gas-only ES350 that impressed us in September, the ES300h is a four-door smoothie with upper-class accommodations for 4.5 people, and all the toys and cachet that come with the Lexus badge.

Well, most of them. For this kind of money—ES300h prices start at $40,000—we can’t expect all of the features of sedans that cost 20 to 90 grand more.

The ES lacks the huge split computer screen of its more costly siblings, there are fewer apps in its hard drive, and there’s no “Snow” setting, adaptive cruise control and a few other items, but the biggest noticeable difference is under the hood.

The LS600hL has a combined (gas V-8 + electric motor) output of 438 horsepower; the GS450h (gas V-6 + electric motor) has 338 HP. The ES300h gets by with a 4-cylinder gas engine and, with its electric drive motor, just 200 horsepower.

The main menu of the ES-model Lexus Enform system. Navigating through these apps and their menus is via a mouse-type controller on the center console. Brace your wrist against the leather-covered pad next to the mouse, and using the system is quick and easy.

That’s 68 horsepower less than its sister ship, the ES350. But while the gas-only ES350 has a 6-speed automatic (and got 25 MPG), the ES300h has a continuously variable transmission that is almost always in the sweet spot.

Like the gas and electric powerplants, the transmission is governed by a computer that weighs a bazillion variables to balance acceleration, speed and fuel burn. So this ES isn’t slow; it’s just slower than its stablemates—but much better on gas. Hoo-rah.

Those hair-shirt traits of the Prius include lifeless steering, spongy brakes, rubber-band acceleration, tippy handling, a low-budget cabin and an uncomfortable ride, all accompanied by unsettling noises.

By comparison, its hybrid ES cousin suffers only from a bit of slack in the drivetrain—roll onto the throttle and you feel a bump as something (the gas motor?) re-connects—and an occasional high-pitched whine as you brake to a stop. Neither flaw is gross, and after a while both fade into the background. The automatic engine re-start at stoplights is almost unnoticeable.

Like the 350, the 300h lets the driver choose ECO, Normal or Sport mode. Sport stiffens up the steering too much. ECO retards everything, including fuel use, so the car feels like it’s slogging through wet sand. Normal mode is the most livable; and for brisker acceleration, just click the gear lever into “S.” The ride is compliant and quiet, just like the ES350’s.

On top of its base price, our car had Lexus’s Enform infotainment system, part of a $2,625 Hard Disk Drive Navigation package. It also came with a $1,370 Luxury Package—items that no Lexus should be without—and a handful of individual upgrades, including blind-spot monitors, high-intensity headlights, rain-sensing wipers, a pushbutton back-window shade and steering-wheel heat.

No longer a warmed-over Camry, the ES model line was completely re-done for 2013-14, and it may now be the best value in the Lexus lineup. In the front seats, the mid-size ES comes within an inch or so of the full-size, range-topping Lexus LS sedan, and its back seats have even more legroom than the LS. Space-wise, the ES300h loses only in the trunk, which gives up three cubic feet to 108 pounds of electric batteries.

Lexus expects 25 percent of ES buyers to go for the hybrid version. Since the ES300h delivers great fuel efficiency with little or no loss of drivability, comfort or luxury, and costs only about three grand extra, I reckon it’ll be more yet.

—Silvio Calabi