Up until last year, the luxurious Lexus ES sedan had always been based on the popular Toyota Camry. But as of the 2013 model year, that's no longer true. Now, the newly redesigned ES uses the same platform as the larger Toyota Avalon, so there's more interior space and cargo room than ever before.

In addition to its larger size, the ES' redesign also brought about another big change to Lexus' most popular sedan: a hybrid version with a 4-cylinder engine. We spent some time driving the 2014 Lexus ES 300h to find out if the new hybrid -- and the new ES in general -- is worth Lexus' premium prices.

Focus on Smooth

Although Lexus has pushed hard in recent years to cultivate a more performance-oriented image, you can tell that the ES is one car that's focused on snagging a different group of buyers. Instead of looking for handling- and power-obsessed car enthusiasts, the ES remains designed for and primarily aimed at shoppers who put luxury and comfort over speed and driving enjoyment.

An example: The interior doesn't have the same sharp-edged, driver-focused look as the cabin in Lexus' sporty IS sedan. Instead, the ES is filled with wood trim, large buttons, easy-to-read gauges, and a general look and feel that's described by one of our staffers as "plush." In essence, it seems the ES is designed to pick up all the buyers lost by the larger GS sedan's transition to a more performance-oriented image.

The same is true on the road. No one who drove the car came away with the feeling that it was exciting or sporty. Sure, some drivers said the ES' acceleration was surprisingly strong for a 4-cylinder. But mostly, our staffers described the ES' driving experience with words such as "quiet" and "luxurious," though one driver noted that it's a little sharper than previous ES models. We suspect that's exactly what Lexus wants us to think of the ES, and if that's the case, the brand is certainly on the right track.

Hybrid Woes

There are two sides to the ES' hybrid system: one that manages to help the sedan return stellar gas mileage, and another that disrupts the otherwise pleasant driving experience.

That's right: Despite Toyota continually being among the leading automakers when it comes to hybrid sales, the ES 300h's hybrid system is still surprisingly intrusive. For one thing, it's hardly seamless; you can easily feel the car make the transition from gas to electric power, which isn't a complaint we have about the far-less-expensive Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Honda Accord Hybrid.

But it's not just that: Several drivers also complained of a difficult, grabby brake pedal, likely the result of the sedan's regenerative braking system. The good news is that Lexus has figured out how to make the hybrid battery less invasive on the ES' trunk space, apparently by fitting a slightly deeper trunk floor.

With that said, our issues with the ES' hybrid system aren't fatal flaws, and if you can live with them, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that you'll get an impressive 40 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway. While we couldn't quite crack 37 mpg in combined city and highway driving, the point remains: For an upscale sedan, the ES is surprisingly efficient.

Pricey, but Worth It for the Right Buyer

In the end, the window sticker on our Lexus test car came to around $48,000 -- big money for the ES, considering its 4-cylinder engine and the fact that it's so clearly based on the Avalon, which starts around $33,000 with shipping.

But we happen to think the 2014 Lexus ES 300h is a good value, provided you're the right shopper for it. Here's what we mean: The ES is an excellent vehicle for drivers interested in a plush sedan with a focus on gas mileage, interior quality, passenger room and trunk space. It's not such a good bet if you want crisp, exciting styling, strong acceleration or sports-car-like handling. But we suspect there are a lot of drivers who fall into the former category, and for that reason, we think the ES 300h will have no trouble finding success among a wide variety of car shoppers.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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