Ever since the Prius unexpectedly became the Xerox of hybrids and a greenie icon, Toyota has been trying to figure out how to apply the technology to its other models. Its results have been decidedly mixed, nowhere more so than with its luxury lineup. But with the 2013 Lexus GS 450h, Toyota thinks it has finally figured out what a hybrid luxury car should be.
From a sales perspective, the first-generation GS 450h was a disappointment. While we liked it quite a bit when we test-drove it a couple years ago, Lexus just hasn't been able to move the metal. Introduced to much fanfare in 2006 as a 2007 model, the GS was Lexus' second hybrid and the first rear-wheel-drive hybrid on the market. Lexus touted it as a performance sedan, even as Toyota was heavily marketing its hybrids as fuel sippers. Whether consumers were confused or not, they never took to the hybrid GS. Sales peaked at just below 1,800 in that first year and have gone down in each successive year. In 2010, Lexus sold barely 300 GS hybrids, roughly four percent of total GS sales, which were about 7,000.
The cognitive dissonance presented by Lexus hybrids has been an issue since the brand launched its first, the 2006 RX 400h SUV. Only marginally more powerful than the standard RX, its improvement in fuel economy was similarly slight at launch. The LS 600hL – the brand's halo car before the LFA sports car came along – is a six-figure, 20-mile-per-gallon hybrid marketed as having V12 performance with V8 fuel economy, the rough equivalent of ordering a Diet Coke with your Super Size Big Mac Extra Value Meal. The "Lexus Prius" HS 250h, with neither particularly good fuel economy (35 mpg combined) nor any sporting aspirations, has been a critical and sales disaster and is rumored to be on the chopping block. While Toyota's simple, "better mileage" definition of its hybrids is clear, Lexus has combined green machine and muscle car in varying doses, such that you never quite know what you'll be getting with a gas-electric Lexus.
While the new GS 450h continues to pay homage to two different masters, Lexus has, from the outset, done a better job at splitting the difference. With an entirely new V6 engine and revised hybrid system, the 2013 model has remarkably improved fuel economy, while sacrificing just a bit on the raw performance side. According to Lexus, the new model will be rated at 31 mpg combined (29/34 city/highway), an improvement of eight miles per gallon over the old 2011 model. Do the math and that's a 35-percent improvement, which seems like a pretty good tradeoff for less than half a second in 0-60 time. By Lexus' stopwatch, the 2013 GS 450h does 0-60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds, compared to 5.2 seconds for the old GS hybrid.
The 2011 GS was offered with three engine choices: A 303-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, a 342-hp 4.6-liter V8, and a hybrid V6 with a combined output of 340 hp. Lexus has simplified all that in the 2013 redesign and now your choices boil down to hybrid or not, with the V8 gone. According to Lexus, nobody bought the V8-powered GS 460 anyway, and by its estimation, the new hybrid will serve well as the top-of-the-line model. The new hybrid V6, while still displacing 3.5 liters, has been redesigned to run on the Atkinson cycle, hence the improved fuel economy. Total system output is 338 hp, compared to the non-hybrid's 306.
The hybrid battery pack still uses nickel-metal hydride batteries, but they have been repackaged to give the GS hybrid more trunk space (13.2 cubic feet, up from 10.6 on the old model). Toyota has also upgraded the hybrid controller (it's now similar to the one found on the LS 600hL) for improved cooling and thus, greater efficiency. Maximum voltage is limited to 500 in eco mode, while peaking as high as 650 volts in Sport mode. And yes, there is a Sport mode in the 2013 GS 450h, just as in the standard GS. In fact, there's even a Sport-Plus mode in the hybrid, which stiffens up the shocks, as well as offers the more aggressive throttle response and tighter steering feel of the regular Sport mode. Putting the drive selector into Sport also pulls a nifty trick on the hybrid's power gauge, which as you can see in our Short Cut video below, magically turns into a tachometer, not unlike it does in the CT 200h. The GS hybrid also has a button-activated EV mode, just like Toyota's other hybrids, and a button for traversing slush and snow.
Thankfully, we drove the car in Southern California along with the standard GS 350, so we didn't need to press the latter, opting to leave the drive selector alone and stay in the same normal mode used for EPA testing for the majority of our time behind the wheel. During our short afternoon, we saw 29 miles per gallon during a 100-mile drive that included some rigorous right-pedal application and manual shifting of the car with its steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The fuel economy was clearly the thing about the GS 450h that impressed us most, but the hybrid also benefits from all the styling, interior and chassis upgrades afforded the standard GS 350, as detailed in our First Drive. We're quite fond of the GS overall, and while we're not so sure we agree with Lexus' proclamation that the hybrid stands atop the model range – more like beside it – it is the only way to get the optional bamboo interior trim, which looks quite nice. And how else would you not-so-subtly let your passengers know that you care about the environment than to bedeck it with a sustainable plant?
Turning to matters of greater importance, our initial impression was that the GS 450h felt a lot heavier than the standard GS. Indeed, at 4,190 pounds there's nearly 400 more pounds of Lexus in the hybrid. When we did punch up the Sport-Plus mode to try and make the car feel smaller, it helped, but there was still no confusing the hybrid for the standard GS. Good thing most owners aren't going to have both cars parked side-by-side in their driveway.
But thanks to the almost-instant torque of the GS 450h's electric motors, the car can leap off the line with a good bit of aggression, though dead-stop acceleration in a hybrid is always going to feel different than it would in a V8. Smooth power delivery is the GS's forte, and the extra push of the electric motors at speed is blended with the torque of the engine as well as we've felt in a hybrid. The brakes, on the other hand, still feel like regenerative brakes. They bite like real brakes, but then the hybrid system's computer takes over the car's deceleration and your attempts at modulating them will go for naught. This is probably the biggest impediment towards making a hybrid sports sedan feel "right," and suffice it to say that Lexus has yet to find that magic.
But it has found the right trade-off between performance and fuel economy. While this "top-of-the-line" model isn't any faster than the GS 350, and given its weight penalty it's not the standard model's dynamic equal either, the GS 450h still seems more like what a hybrid Lexus should be. Lexus made a big deal at its introduction about the GS 350 being a "no compromises" sports sedan, but the irony here is that Toyota's engineers made a lot of good compromises to make the hybrid turn out this well.
Pricing of the GS 450h won't be announced until March 2012, ahead of an April release. Lexus is holding firm on the GS 350 at a base price of $46,900 (plus $875 handling), but there's no telling if it will do similarly with the hybrid. The outgoing GS 450h carried a hefty $12,050 price premium over the base GS, but did include a higher level of standard equipment. Lexus has some ambitious expectations for the hybrid GS, especially when you consider that it hasn't cracked four-digit sales since 2007. Lexus reps said they expect 10 percent of GS sales to be hybrids, which would put annual sales of the GS 450h at about 2,400. Yes, that's a projected 800 percent improvement.
But before we deride this as simply crazy talk, it's worth reflecting on the most recent hybrid to join the Lexus lineup, the 2011 CT 200h. The 42-mpg compact hatchback has far outpaced expectations, selling over 12,000 units through November. Its raison d'etre is to offer high mileage first, albeit wrapped in a sporty package. That the GS 450h is now following suit shows that perhaps Lexus has finally decided paying fealty to fuel economy makes as much sense for it as it does for Toyota.