Hybrid drivers, generally, are not performance drivers. It’s a different mindset – whether enthusiastic volunteers in the war on climate change or just looking to stick it to Big Oil, their automotive passions run more to maximizing fuel efficiency than power-to-weight ratios or zero-to-60 times. But then, hybrid vehicles haven’t exactly encouraged anyone to enjoy driving for its own sake. That is changing, though.
Lexus’ GS 450h is at the forefront of a new breed of electric/gasoline hybrids whose performance compares favorably with conventional models. Mating a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6, with variable valve timing, that puts out 292 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm with a permanent magnet electric motor-generator yields an overall propulsion system good for 340hp. Hardly AMG territory, granted, but there’s more to the story than just these numbers. Delivering the power through a continuously variable transmission whose electronic controls effectively mask that familiar CVT drone/whine (at least until you push it hard), the initial GS450h experience is one of calm detachment. A wide torque band and a rate of acceleration (Lexus claims a zero-to-60mph time of 5.2 sec) that your brain continually registers surprise over, given the peaceful way in which it is delivered, create an air of unreality, like you’re in an interactive time-lapse photography exhibit.
This level of performance in a vehicle weighing in at nearly 4200 lbs normally requires at least two more cylinders, a lot more cubic inches and mpg figures edging toward the single digits. Yet the 450h promises to gobble gallons at the rate of only 22 per mile for city driving, and 25 on the highway. I had to push hard to bring fuel consumption under 20mpg, and pussy-footing around yielded an average of 24.5, so these are real numbers. Hybrid enthusiasts used to squeezing twice as many miles out of their Prius’ tank may sneer at these numbers, but then they are neither the target demographic nor a philosophical match for this car.
Those who do fit the bill expect a high level of comfort and refinement to go with the driving experience, and here Lexus delivers in the manner you’d expect. Rather than over-the-top opulence, the interior is more self-confident sophistication, with subtly shaped panels and covers that glide open to reveal small nooks and mirror controls, beautifully illuminated instruments that effectively equalize for all lighting conditions, and a nicely intuitive sat-nav.
The sophisticated feel extends to the leather seats, which are comfortable without being overly cosseting. Taller drivers may find the head room a little tight, though, and taller passengers will definitely need to stretch their legs on longer trips. And if you’re going on an overnight, you’d better pack light – the hybrid system’s batteries fill in much of the trunk space, leaving less than 11 cubic feet free.
A kilowatt meter replaces the tach, while the hybrid monitor’s graphic display in the center screen enables you to follow along as the system takes power from its gas and electric sources, and recovers it as the brakes regenerate energy to charge the batteries. It’s actually quite addictive to watch the various elements chime in, but when it starts to get tiresome, you can click away to the next trip computer option. Collectively, they underscore just how much technology is packed into this car.
That we’ve got this far without mentioning the exterior styling might seem a red flag, but in this case it’s merely a matter of impression priorities. There’s nothing wrong with the GS 450h’s shape, just nothing especially memorable about it. The streamlined shape fits the hybrid profile, and the ability to pass by prying eyes unnoticed is arguably a virtue in a car well suited to speedy touring (our test car, in Black Opal, was particularly inconspicuous). In an era when sport sedans tend toward overwrought design elements, it’s actually refreshing to see Lexus hasn’t felt the need to beef up the GS 450h with convoluted cladding. (A subtle rear-deck spoiler is a $200 option.) Still, if you need to make a dramatic visual statement with your cars, you’ll have a significant customization project ahead of you here.
All the electronics undeniably make it all a bit clinical, particularly the softly weighted electronic power steering – you certainly never feel inspired to take the GS 450h by the scruff of the neck and throw it around. But then that would hardly be the point.
At an MSRP of $56,300, the GS 450h commands a premium of $11,300 over Lexus’ 300hp V6-powered GS 350, and $2,830 over the 342hp V8-powered GS 460. Ours stickered out to a cool $67,360 with the Power Active Vehicle Stabilizer system ($3320), sweet Mark Levinson audio system ($1780) Pre-Collision System ($2,850) and a few other gotta-haves. That puts it in company with the likes of Jaguar’s XF Supercharged. Still, for those seeking to strike a balance between fuel efficiency and exuberant motoring, the GS 450h should strike a chord.
Three things struck me about the Lexus. One was the pitiful size of its trunk. Secondly, however hard we drove the car, its fuel consumption never dropped below 24mpg, which is obviously excellent for such a powerful luxury car. Thirdly, don’t ever forget that this thing is fast. Given the car’s refinement, it becomes way, way, way too easy to break the speed limit, and it will accelerate hard.
However, I didn’t like the constantly variable transmission at all, as it takes too long to find its ideal ratio once you reach your desired speed, so it sounds like the engine is over-revving. Another issue is, should you back off during acceleration – perhaps because the car in front hasn’t moved with the same alacrity – when you get back on the throttle there is a gaping hole in time before the power kicks in again.
Aside from that, the GS 450h is like any other Lexus GS: comfortable, refined, roomy for passengers, trustworthy in its handling and generous in its specification. But is it worth $67k? You’ve got to really want one, and be really keen on hybrids.