Hybrid technology is complicated, but it amounts to an electric motor that aids a car’s gasoline engine. The assistance can manifest itself as increased fuel economy, improved performance or both. America has embraced the fuel-efficient hybrid, but the performance hybrid has yet to catch on. Toyota Motor Company, the leader in hybrid technology, has found sales success with fuel-economy-based hybrids such as the Prius, Highlander Hybrid and Camry Hybrid. Toyota’s luxury division, Lexus, introduced the GS450h performance hybrid last year with modest results.
With sales of only about 160 cars per month, the GS450h is on pace for roughly 2000 sales in 2007. That’s not the type of success Toyota is used to, but that doesn’t mean the GS450h is a bad car. Let’s examine how it stacks up against other GS models as well other cars in its class. To find out, we’ll first take a look at what you get for your money.
The GS450h is part of Lexus’ midsize luxury lineup that competes against the likes of the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The GS stable also includes the GS350 and the GS430. The GS350 starts at $44,845 and has a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 303-horsepower. Standard features include curtain side airbags, front knee airbags, antiskid control and leather upholstery.
The $55,615 GS450h uses the same 3.5-liter V-6 as the GS350, but it is teamed with two electric motors to produce an aggregate 340 horsepower. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gear ratios instead of changing gears, though the driver can also manually choose from six preset gear ratios. The GS450h also has rear side airbags, front and rear obstacle detection, a rearview camera, rain-sensing wipers, and a power rear sunshade-all of which are optional on the GS430. That would be more than enough to justify the $2,525 price difference if the powertrains were equal, but they’re not. The GS450h’s powertrain is better. In fact, it’s a technological marvel.
The GS450h’s gas engine doesn’t start until it’s needed, and it shuts off at stoplights, so the car can be on and the engine off. The electric motors are capable of powering the car at low speeds. The powertrain is more impressive, though, when you stomp the throttle. The GS450h can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a scant 5.3 seconds, 0.4 second faster than the V-8 model, and about a second faster than the base V-6. V-8 versions of the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class are slightly faster than the GS450h, but they also cost about $4,000 more. The V-8-powered Infiniti M45 is just as fast and costs about $5,000 less.
The upshot is the GS450h is fast. You will have no problem merging on the freeway, making that tight pass, or getting off to a quick start. Mixed with that V-8-like power is V-6 fuel economy. The EPA ratings are 25 mpg city and 28 highway, compared to 21/29 in the base V-6 model and 18/25 in the V-8 version.
Ride and handling are also quite good, though not up to the world-class standards set by BMW. The adjustable suspension includes sport and normal settings. As expected, handling is a bit sharper in sport mode, but the ride becomes a bit jiggly. The steering is nicely weighted and direct, but not as firm or as sharp as some of the best in the class.
Inside, the materials and build quality match anything offered by the competition. Attractive, soft-touch surfaces abound. While it takes a little time to get used to using the numerous controls, Lexus has, thankfully, opted not to use a central command system like Audi’s MMI or BMW’s iDrive. There a couple hybrid-only features. A power meter, which shows the kilowatts of “boost” the electric motors are giving the engine, takes the spot of the tachometer on the instrument panel. And those who choose the $1,900 navigation system get Consumption and Energy Monitor screens. The Consumption screen displays fuel economy in real time and one-minute increments, and the Energy Monitor screen shows when the gas engine and electric motors are in use.
In the final analysis, Lexus has a bit of a problem. The GS450h is simply a better buy than the V-8-powered GS430. It’s faster, it handles a bit better, fuel economy is improved, and the price is about a wash. Is it better than the competition? Not necessarily. The Infiniti M45 trails the GS450h only in fuel economy, and costs less. For pure driving enjoyment, the BMW 550i is a better choice. And for prestige, you might want to go with the Mercedes-Benz E550. But if you want V-8 power with V-6 fuel economy in a competitive luxury package, you might want to give Lexus’ performance hybrid a try.