Click the Lexus GS450h for a high res gallery

Since debuting the Prius just over a decade ago, Toyota has been gradually spreading its hybrid drive technology through its product lineup including the Lexus brand. Later this year, Lexus will be getting its first hybrid-only model in the form of the HS250h but it's first hybrid sedan was actually the GS450h which went on sale as a 2007 model. As with the LS600h that we tried out a year ago, the GS450h is promoted by Toyota as option that gives performance of a larger engine with the efficiency of a lower displacement. So, unlike the Prius which goes for the big mpg numbers, the Lexus hybrids post more typical results for their segments.

As a mid-sized luxury sport sedan, the GS falls into a segment with competitors such as the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes Benz E-Class and the Acura TL. All four of these are very close in overall size, although the Lexus is the only one with a hybrid powertrain option. Based on the nomenclature, Lexus expects the GS450h to have performance similar to the vehicle with a 4.5L V8 with the efficiency of a 3.5L V6. Follow the jump to see if they succeeded.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

At 190 inches from bumper to bumper, the GS has very manageable dimensions and the 112.2 inch span between the axles leaves plenty of room for passengers. Appearance-wise, the current third generation GS evolves a fast-back profile that it has carried since the original debuted in 1991. This time around, it has discarded the frumpiness that the last model had thanks to a taller and shorter rear deck and bigger wheels that give a sportier character to the car. The GS has always been sort of an odd-ball in the Lexus lineup from the Giaguaro-designed original to the current generation which is arguably the most attractive car in the range. While no one would accuse the new Acura TL of copying the GS in its detailing, it's profile certainly draws inspiration from this car.

The obsidian black paint of the GS glistened in the rare sunshine and frigid air that accompanied its time in the ABG garage. As one would expect of a car in this luxury segment, our tester was very well equipped even before adding options. All five seating positions were lined in smooth black leather as were the sides and bottom of the steering wheel. Unfortunately, leather that's been sitting in single digit temperatures overnight can draw the heat away from your backside very quickly, so the heated front seats were a welcome feature. It's just too bad the heating elements were not added to the steering wheel rim as well, making gloves necessary until the interior warmed up. Peering through the steering wheel, the gauges are clear and legible. Rather than the usual flat black, the gauge faces are done in a black machined metal finish that adds another unique visual touch.

The seats themselves were very comfortable but the side contouring didn't feel as robust as that in the Acura. Toyota still has much to learn about seat design from Honda. The layout of the center stack controls is fairly clean and uncluttered, especially when equipped with the optional navigation system. Note that word optional. Given that you can now buy portable navigation units (albeit with a smaller screen than in dash units) for as little as $100, the $1,500 tag for the nav option on a $56,000 car shows that car companies still make most of their margins on the up-sell. This is not an issue unique to Toyota, almost every automaker does this.

Coming back to this car, one of the ways that Lexus tidies up the interior is by hiding infrequently used controls. When I first climbed in I couldn't find the side mirror adjustment anywhere. Typically you find this either at the left end of the dash or on the door panel. I finally noticed a button on the lower part of the left end of the dash that lowers an auxiliary control panel. Hidden here are adjustments for the mirrors, mirror fold and parking assist on/off among other things. Fortunately, the GS offers a memory that stores the positions of the steering wheel, seat and mirrors for up to three drivers.

In the back, the sweeping roof-line of the GS cuts into headroom for taller passengers although six footers should still have plenty of space. The passenger volume between the axles is maximized so rear passengers have plenty of leg room to stretch out. In profile, it's apparent that the GS doesn't have a huge overhang in the back. That means that even the non-hybrid GS doesn't have a huge trunk, just a mere 12.7 cu ft. With the nickel metal hydride battery up against the back of the seat, trunk space drops to only 10.6 in the GS450h.

However, the GS450h is not made for hauling cargo. If you need that, get an RX. The GS, like its smaller sibling the IS, is more driver oriented. While Toyota-badged hybrids have been described by many (yours truly included) as having the personality of a typical refrigerator, the same cannot be said of this car. The winter weather limited the opportunities to really push the GS hard, but with a little prodding going around corners, this car felt much more surefooted than expected. Unlike its lesser corporate cousins, the turning the steering wheel in the GS not only elicits some resistance, it actually seems to be in proportion to the forces being generated between the front tires and the road surface.

Like other Toyota hybrids, the electronic continuously variable transmission features a pair of electric/motor generators. Combined with the 3.5L V6, the net output of the drivetrain is an ample 340 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. Although the spec sheet lists the torque peak as a rather high 4,800 rpm, the curve feels fat thanks to the electric motors. The torque response doesn't feel quite as robust as the diesels from German automakers, but the GS450h will never leaving you feeling left behind either. Lexus claims 0-60 acceleration of 5.2 seconds for the hybrid GS; that may be a tad optimistic, but there is no doubt this is a quick car.

Over the unimproved cart paths that pass for most southeast Michigan roads, the GS suspension felt rather tight with limited body roll. The hybrid comes standard with a driver selectable adaptive damping system with sport and comfort modes. Frankly, I couldn't really tell the difference. Regardless of mode, the suspension feels great on smoother roads, but over the frost heaves and craters that characterize this region, a little more compliance would be appreciated in the comfort mode.

Since this is a hybrid, readers of this site might wonder how that aspect of the car works. In short: very well. The on/off transitions of the engine were very smooth for the most part although there was an occasional shake noticeable. Our experience with this car showed yet again that batteries and cold temperatures don't mix well. Until the car and battery warmed up, there wasn't much assistance from the electric part of the powertrain although this car did seem to do better than other hybrids we've driven in cold weather including the Highlander last winter.

Getting the GS to operate in electric only mode was possible but challenging. Off the line, anything but the slightest touch of the throttle will have the engine starting. Attempting to get the GS to operate in this fashion will only frustrate the driver and those in other cars being held up by the snail like behavior. Avid hyper-milers need not apply for the GS. Once up to speed, backing off on level ground can trigger the engine to shut off at speeds well into the upper thirties. Frankly however, this kind of driving was simply to irritating to be worthwhile. Part of the problem is that the GS, like other Lexus models, is very quiet and its actually quite difficult to tell audibly when the engine has shut off. As a result, the driver has to keep an eye on either the center screen or the small information display in the cluster to try and discern when EV mode is active, both of which have safety implications.

Instead, the GS driver is better off to just get in the habit of driving sensibly most of the time, avoiding jack-rabbit starts and other aggressive behavior. When a winding road does present itself, the GS chassis is certainly up to the task of making the commute entertaining and the combined output of the hybrid drive system makes merging with freeway traffic or passing on a two-lane effortless. Honestly, this is actually quite a fun car to drive with ample room for four adults and five in a pinch.

In spite of the hybrid badges however, what you won't get is stellar fuel economy. After a week with the GS - and spending a lot of time trying to squeeze the most of the hybrid drivetrain - the best I could manage was 21 mpg. Admittedly the GS450h would surely do at least several mpg better in warmer weather. However, in the environment I had to evaluate, which was very similar to the temperatures during my drive of the Mercedes E320 BlueTec, it was no contest. The E320 averaged 29 mpg with much less concentration on driving style and got well up into the mid to upper 30s cruising on the highway. The best the GS could manage for that was upper 20s. The Acura TL I drove last fall averaged 20 mpg. Similarly the BMW 535d I drove last winter averaged 27 mpg. The GS450h starts at $56,400 and our example had a bottom line of $63,675. For comparison, the Acura TL SH-AWD priced out at $44,000 and the E320 at $58,345.

The GS450h may be marginally quicker than its GS350 conventional sibling. However, it carries a base price $11,000 higher than the conventional model and has the same 25 mpg highway range. The hybrid beats the conventional model on the urban loop 22 mpg to 18 mpg, but its not clear how much of a real world difference this would make. For an automaker, these types of luxury hybrids seem to do more for their green credentials, as well as helping to subsidize the development cost of the technology for more mainstream models like the Prius and Camry, than actually providing much in the way of real benefit in and of themselves. Having said that, their existence does help to make the mainstream models more financially viable and that's probably a good thing. If you're in the market for a fine sports sedan, the GS is definitely worthy of consideration regardless of which engine you opt for.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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