Gearheads, take note: Formula 1 racing is now permitting gas-electric hybrid technology in F1 competitions. Picture for a moment a 20,000-rpm, 750-horsepower machine braking into a chicane…and zipping onto a straightaway on battery power.
Automobile shoppers can get a taste of the F1 gas-hybrid future today—by driving the new Lexus GS 450h sedan.
While it’ll never compare with Formula 1 cars for speed, this gas-electric hybrid provides race-car-like acceleration and luxurious appointments in the same package.
The Hermes of Hybrids
Slip behind the wheel of this $55,000 machine, and “hybrid” will be the first—and last—thoughts that come to mind. First you’ll note, with geeky chic, that the car has not a tachometer but a “kW” gauge for—that’s right—kilowatts. A display near the 160 mph speedometer shows a battery in various stages of charge. The center console’s screen will toggle to hybrid mode and display your energy consumption.
And consume you will. Ever so gently depress the accelerator and the GS will stalk silently to 15 mph on full electric mode. But mash the go pedal, and five Mississippi’s later you’re passing 60 mph—a fraction of this car’s top speed—and looking for gobs of open pavement ahead for decidedly un-environmental antics.
See, the GS 450h is perhaps the purest expression of power harnessed for the “no compromises” side of the hybrid ledger. Toyota mated a high-output, electric motor-generator rated at 197 horsepower with a 297-horsepower, 24-valve, 3.5-liter gasoline engine to yield the Hermes of hybrids, a 339-horsepower brute (don’t ask; Toyota wizardry at work here) that motivates this 4,100-pound luxury sedan.
Join the Club
There are too many superlatives to mention. This is the fastest mass-produced hybrid car on the planet. It’s the first purely rear-wheel-drive hybrid sedan. And yet it has superlatives that transcend hybrids. This car’s engine and continuously variable transmission (with modes for sport, snow, and normal), covered with Lexus’s typically decadent cockpit of leather and (Mark) Levinson, offers enough performance and prestige to make any upwardly mobile executive consider joining the hybrid club. The raw numbers—0-to-60 in 5.2 seconds, 60-to-zero braking in 123 feet, top speed of 131 mph, seating for five, 37.5 decibels at idle—add up to “luxury vehicle to be reckoned with,” as do expected luxury features such as satellite radio, voice-activated navigation system, Bluetooth technology, backup camera, leather…the list goes on.
The question, then, is will hybrid owners let this beast into the club? Its EPA highway rating is 24 mpg; however, several auto publications reported trip mileage more in line with 22 mpg— bordering on ghastly in the hybrid fraternity, but downright gaudy to buyers who expect this level of performance to consume a gallon of premium for every 12 to 15 miles of pleasure. Few, if any, high-horsepower luxury sedans in the world can boast the combination of speed and quasi-economy as the GS 450h. Fewer still boast, as this Lexus does, of being rated a Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) in California, which certifies a car’s emissions are 90 percent cleaner than the average new car in California.
The Lexus GS 450h may be rejected as self-indulgent by the Prius crowd, but 450h drivers can turn those tables by flaunting its SULEV status and 25-mpg highway rating to their luxury-sportcar brethren.
The Lexus brand injects passion and drama into its styling language. The GS sedan’s evolving new look has settled into a low, stretched shape with a long hood, a set-back greenhouse, and short rear deck. With lines that are clean and fluid, this car simultaneously expresses simplicity and class. But the virtues of this design are functional, as well as aesthetic. The GS’s sleek shape combines with engineering focused on reducing aerodynamic turbulence beneath the car, to reduce drag. This results in a quieter interior and greater fuel efficiency.
The advanced GS features high-intensity-discharge headlights with an available system that automatically compensates headlight aim for different passenger loads. The power-adjustable mirrors have de-fogging heat elements, and fast-acting LEDs are used in the rear brake lights. The GS also offers rain-sensing wipers and available 18-inch wheels.
For 2008, the GS 450h receives minor updates which include a new front fascia, revised grille, and integrated turn signals in the side mirrors.
The interior of the Lexus GS 450h is opulent and plush—from the stainless-steel scuff plates, to the buttery soft leather, to a barrage of techno-savvy amenities. This is a world-class luxury car.
Designed around the cockpit, the GS gives the driver every possible creature comfort. That starts with a highly-bolstered 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with heat, complimented by a wood-trimmed, thick-rimmed, electric tilt/telescoping steering wheel. The dash, laden in handsome wood trim, houses a sophisticated instrument panel. Buttons and controls are very ergonomic and offer soft-touch electronic actuation.
The face of the center console is a seven-inch electronic screen with touch-screen controls, which operates the audio system, climate control, and optional navigation system with backup camera. Unlike the frustrating i-Drive feature from BMW, this system makes navigating through the submenus simplistic and straight-forward. Furthermore, voice recognition makes the system a hands-free experience.
Passenger safety for the GS is unparalleled. There are a total of 10 airbags, including dual-front airbags, front and rear seat-mounted side airbags, driver and front passenger knee airbags, and full-length head curtain airbags. Lexus’s optional Pre-Collision System activates the seatbelt pretensioners, as well as taking other safety measures when an imminent collision is detected. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued a top “Good” rating for both frontal-offset and side-impact safety.
The rear seat offers room for three, but is a bit tight for the person in the middle position due to the elevated center cushion. It does, however, provide plenty of leg- and shoulder room for two passengers.
The only obvious shortcoming for the GS’ interior design is trunk space. The hybrid battery pack reduced the space to 7.5 cubic feet, which is much smaller than other sedans of similar size.
To state the obvious, the GS 450h is expensive. Base MSRP is $54,655 and can easily and quickly climb from there when piling on the options. But for that price, not only are buyers getting the Lexus prestige factor, they are also getting Toyota build quality.
Government fuel economy ratings for this hybrid is 22 city/25 highway. That’s not bad, but compare those figures to the gas-powered GS’ 19 city/27 highway. In overall combined fuel economy, the two vehicles are actually very comparable. But the standard GS has a starting base sticker of $44,915, almost $10,000 less than the GS 450h.
Considering that kind of premium and virtually no significant fuel economy advantage, when would the GS 450h make sense? When you crave performance, prestige, and a hybrid badge all in one package—and price is no object.
“After driving the GS 450h, we were impressed. This is a hybrid with oomph as well as the great engineering on which Lexus has built its name. Given the reputation behind the vehicle, does the 450h deliver on its promise? Yes on performance, yes on quiet, yes on high-end comfort and yes on all those green-friendly bonuses you expect of a hybrid.”
“I can’t help wishing that the wonderful hybrid powertrain in this car had been tuned more toward the economy end of the spectrum since, let’s face it, warp-speed acceleration isn’t going to make the world a better place to live in. But Lexus is in the business of selling the 2007 GS 450h to its target market, and that group of buyers will be giddy with excitement over this remarkable car and the superior driving experience it offers.”
“The battery pack acts like an electronic supercharger to give the gas engine a huge boost when needed…You sacrifice room to the battery pack, which takes up about half of the trunk space. The area behind and below the rear seat and rear-window parcel shelf is where the batteries reside…Though the fastest machine in the Lexus fleet, the GS lacks stand-out styling to call attention to its fleetness. Like all Lexus vehicles, it settles on conservative design that borders on bland.”