Lexus GS450h

Lexus GS 450h

Gearheads, take note: Formula 1 racing is talking quite seriously about permitting gas-electric hybrid technology in F1 competitions as early as the 2008 season. 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 28 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 offered in California in 2004.

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 28-mpg highway rating to their luxury-sportcar brethren.