The 2018 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid and 2018 Lexus ES 300h are comfortable, luxurious cruisers with an ace up their sleeves. Thanks to gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains, these two cars are roomy enough for five passengers yet they’re among the most fuel-efficient new cars available today.
Both go about their business in a similar fashion. Mostly, they eschew sportiness in favor of cosseting interiors with soft leather upholstery, elegant wood trim, and high-zoot audio systems. Yet they’re distinctly different. We rate the entire Lexus ES lineup at 7.2 out of 10, while the MKZ shows its pedestrian roots (it’s closely related to the Ford Fusion) and scores a 6.7.
The two sedans stand in contrast to compact luxury cars like the BMW 3-Series and Lexus IS in that they’re front-wheel drive and tuned for comfort rather than performance. The MKZ’s 2.0-liter inline-4 pairs to an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack for a combined output of 188 horsepower. The ES 300h checks in with a larger 2.5-liter inline-4 with an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack that’s rated at 200 hp. Both sedans use continuously variable transmissions.
In our testing, we’ve found both to provide good off-the-line acceleration. The Lexus is about 300 pounds lighter than the Lincoln, which helps explain its more sprightly feel. Neither delivers much road communication through its leather-wrapped steering wheel. The ES has a more precise feel on the road and it’s a touch quieter to our eyes. In particular, the Lexus ES makes a terrific long-distance mile-eater.
A comfortable, commodious interior aids the Lexus’ cause. Its power-adjustable front seats are all-day plush and can be wrapped in ultra-soft leather for an extra charge. Narrow roof pillars afford a terrific view out. The ES 300h’s rear seat is also stretch-out spacious, although its middle seat is best for those of more narrow stature.
The MKZ doesn’t make as good of an impression inside, until you realize that its price starts about $6,000 lower. Like the ES, the MKZ’s interior can be swathed in dressy leather and real wood trim on Premiere and higher trim levels, which begin to erode its pricing advantage. In the rear seat, the MKZ’s sloping roofline cuts about an inch further into head room and forces riders to duck slightly as they slide in.
If there’s a downside to hybrids, it’s usually battery placement. In both the ES 300h and the MKZ Hybrid, those batteries rob some trunk space. Lexus says there’s 12.1 cubic feet of cargo room in the ES 300h’s trunk, while Lincoln quotes just 11.1 cubes in the MKZ Hybrid. Both of those figures represent about a 4 cubic-foot sacrifice in the name of electrification.
On the tech front
The MKZ Hybrid eclipses the ES 300h in terms of infotainment. Lexus fits a 7.0-inch display to the ES, but it’s controlled via a finicky, computer mouse-like controller that takes considerable acclimation. Even after hundreds of miles behind the wheel, our testers still find it challenging to operate. Additionally, there’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility. Instead, Lexus offers several apps that use a Bluetooth-paired phone’s data plan.
The system in the MKZ is far superior, even if it’s lacking in features. The 8.0-inch touchscreen is bright and easy to reach, while the baked-in menus are a cinch to navigate. Speaking of navigation, it’s standard on MKZ Hybrid Premiere and higher trim levels. Oddly, Lincoln offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on some of its models but not the MKZ; it uses older software.
The tables turn when it comes to safety. The Lexus ES 300h comes standard with a full suite of advanced safety gear like automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and automatic high-beam headlights. That tech is optional for a hefty $2,500 on higher trim levels of the MKZ Hybrid. When so-equipped, the MKZ matches the ES 300h’s Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS.
The MKZ Hybrid’s base price undercuts the standard, non-hybrid version by about $400. Lexus positions the ES 300h as a premium alternative to the ES 350h. Loaded up with the options you can expect to see on a dealer lot—leather upholstery, power moonroof, navigation, and advanced safety gear like automatic emergency braking—the ES 300h runs about $45,500 and the MKZ Hybrid comes in at about $43,200.
That’s a hefty difference if you’re paying cash, but Lexus’ sterling residual values means the ES 300h may be cheaper to lease.
One place where the MKZ stands out is its Black Label trim level, which does more than just swathe the interior in dressier leather. Owners get white-gloves treatment at dealers when it comes time for service, and they get an annual detail job for their shiny MKZ Hybrids. That said, an MKZ Hybrid Black Label can top $55,000 with a few options selected.
Finally, what may have brought you here in the first place was the promise of excellent fuel economy. Both sedans deliver comparable numbers on the EPA’s test: 41 mpg city, 38 highway, 40 combined for the MKZ Hybrid, and 40/39/40 mpg for the ES 300h. It’s a margin so slim, your choice can hinge entirely on price and taste.