Does the idea of a “performance hybrid” seem like a contradiction of terms?
You know: hybrids were originally conceived to save fuel and emissions, but in early 2005 the up-line division of the dominant hybrid seller revealed its power-biased pre-production alternative, and in 2007 Toyota’s first Lexus GS 450h spawned a new category.
In 2013 Lexus gave the GS line a complete make-over, and the 2014 hybrid version carries forth with an estimated 0-60 sprint in 5.6 seconds, and 31 mpg combined compared to the original’s 23.
What is the GS 450h about? It’s an alternative not only to conventional stablemates, but also to upper-mid-level German sedans – be they standard, hybrid, or diesel – as well as U.S., Japanese, and Korean competitors.
A variety of performance hybrids have come along in recent years, as have elite cars, including the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder, and Ferrari LaFerrari. More are believed pending by Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, and others … so, the idea of using electric motors like a zero-emissions turbo does seem to have some merit.
In the case of the GS 450h, its claim to fame is V8-like performance from a V6 hybrid powertrain 10-percent more potent than its V6 GS siblings. This it does while delivering EPA mpg numbers better than a four-cylinder Toyota Camry.
Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive
The midsized, rear-wheel-drive luxury performance sedan does otherwise owe all to the Prius which pioneered Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.
Comparable architecture behind the GS 450h’ full hybrid series-parallel hybrid powertrain sees Lexus match up a 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V6 with two electric motors.
Lexus uses both a water-cooled 200 horsepower 650-volt motor generator and a 180 horsepower motor which works as the primary generator as well to start the engine for the stop-start equipped hybrid.
Energy from the generator and regenerative braking is stored in a nickel metal-hydride battery in the 13.5 cubic-foot trunk.
Its Atkinson cycle engine retained from the first generation develops 286 horsepower – 20 less than the same-displacement Otto cycle V6 in the GS 350 non-hybrid – and the electric side of the powertrain nets 338 horsepower for the 400-pound heavier hybrid.
Its sophisticated gas engine uses a high 13:1 compression ratio, and a dual-injector system combining direct fuel injection with port fuel injection for each cylinder.
Power is routed through a CVT automatic. A conventional shifter is primarily used to select drive modes, and a center console-mounted control offers different drive modes from tame to aggressive.
Choices are “Eco,” “Sport,” and ”Sport Plus.” There’s also two-speed reduction, Snow mode and for sporting drivers, included are paddle shifters letting the transmission simulate multiple gears.
The EPA estimates mpg at 29 city, 34 highway and 31 combined. Improved engineering and engine computer controls yield the same power as the first GS 450h but beat its rating of 22 city, 25 highway, 23 combined.
Styled Inside and Out
Sheet metal comprising the company’s “L-finesse” design language speaks of luxury, comfort, and performance blended Lexus-style.
It does add to a more purposeful stance than the previous GS that showed more than a passing resemblance to a gussied up Camry.
Underlying it all are subtle additional chassis welds and other structural enhancements for a more solid platform, with suspension upgrades as well.
Lexus’ GS line is targeting the likes of the emotionally evocative BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 series, Mercedes E-Class, and we’d be remiss not to mention Infiniti’s offerings – and Acura is also poised to enter this space.
Inside, the Lexus truly stands out at least as much, if not more, and has won awards for its well designed layout. The upholstery is nicely constructed with stitched leather. Aluminum, soft-touch materials, and bamboo accents contribute to a casual-luxury ambience with a sustainable twist.
The dash is divided into upper and lower zones, with info including the instrument cluster and 12.3-inch-wide split display screen when equipped with the optional navigation system.
On the lower half is clustered climate and audio controls. Our $68,692 example lacked the optional Mark Levinson sound system others have raved about, but connectivity and infotainment is first rate.
Bluetooth is standard, and text-to-speech text messaging as is a surround-sound audio system with a CD changer, satellite radio, an iPod/USB interface and an auxiliary audio jack.
Operating the 12.3-inch screen may also be via a mouse-like controller that works reasonably intuitively, and the cursor hops to logical choices when required.
The system also provides the Lexus Enform application suite. Here you can pair a smart phone via Bluetooth or a physical connection, and tap into Internet search engines and apps.
Also available is blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure prevention, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision warning system and an automated parallel parking system.
The Driving Experience
When you want, the GS 450h lets you plod around in highly adjustable sofa-like chairs, insulated and isolated from excessive engine noise or road harshness, while netting fuel efficiency not far below hybrids with less than two-thirds the power.
Fuel economy we found is as advertised, but the vehicle’s alter ego will swill more fuel if asked to show off.
If desired, the car can do a passing imitation of a BMW M5 – with the emphasis on imitation. Actually the hardest-edge performance sedans are faster and more focused than the GS 450h, but it is no slouch.
Shifting to Sport mode changes the display from blue to red and quickens accelerator response. Shifting to Sport Plus further tightens suspension settings to the standard Adaptive Variable Suspension – an upgrade over the base GS 350.
Also, the digitally-controlled analog eco gauge benignly showing driving efficiency can be switched to something driving enthusiasts feeling deprived by the Prius will instantly recognize – an analog tachometer.
In all cases, the ride is firm, but still compliant, while eating most bumps and road imperfections with the best of them.
Throw it into a set of bends, and feedback and control are respectable well into extra-legal territory. Its 4,190 pound heft will be felt compared to the 3,795-pound-and-up GS 350 – which is available in rear or all-wheel drive, and rated 0.1 seconds slower to 60.
The CVT under manual control allows full use of the power, but its up/down shifts are not nano-second-quick as with a good dual clutch transmission, and just OK.
In short, this is a fun, comfortable and sporty car. It’s not disappointing but the blend between a car catering to both fuel misers and fringe lunatics can only be stretched so far between two opposite sets of vehicle requirements.
For those looking for maximum tire shredding ability, there are more purposeful vehicles out there. For those wanting a large dollop of fun-to-drive, style, comfort, and better fuel economy than previously thought possible for a car like this, the GS 450h could be the ticket.
It’s been noted Lexus’ $47,700-plus GS350 starts $12,730 less than the $60,430-plus GS 450h, and this is true. Less often reported is the hybrid is equipped with more standard features, and a similarly outfitted GS 350 might cost only $5,000 less. Our test car’s bottom line was $68,692 and the options add up just as fast on the non-hybrids, including the $2,250-more-dear AWD GS 350, and $53,390 GS350 F-Sport.
For the extra outlay you get the satisfaction of stretching every gallon of gas, emitting fewer hydrocarbons, and not having to stop so often to refuel the same-for-all 17.4-gallon tank.
The GS 450h is thus a package deal. The company sells about 20,000 GS sedans per year, and as many as 6-percent have been the hybrid variety, but lately it’s been around 2 percent. Then again, this is true of several hybrid variants in this echelon, including the quicker, cheaper, auto-trans-equipped Infiniti Q50 hybrid that nets comparable mileage.
Only Tesla’s all-electric Model S is breaking the niche-category mold in the green car sales race. If used hard, the Tesla will use much more electricity than commonly advertised, and eat range, but since mid-2012 it’s had by far more takers.
Other similar competitors could be the sporty, less-efficient BMW ActiveHybrid5, more comfort-oriented Mercedes-Benz E400H hybrid, or you could wait for the pending Acura RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD which may be a showstopper.
Perhaps Lexus might consider discontenting the hybrid to make the choice more clear-cut between the hybrid and non-hybrid? We’d suggest more radical measures too, like going after Tesla with an EV, or considering a plug-in hybrid version, but Toyota’s next eco solution on the horizon is a fuel cell sedan planned for 2015.
So the GS is what it is; a polished ensemble of hybrid tech biased for speed with respectable gas mileage. It is a truly enjoyable car, easy to live with, and satisfying on a number of levels. It’s the original performance hybrid, has created a new segment, and still holds a place for those who can appreciate what it offers.