Review: Lexus GS450h uses electrons for fun

Lexus GS450h - Click above for high-res image gallery

The love affair with batteries begins as a child. By the time your fifth Christmas rolls around, the moment you unwrap an electronic gadget your mind is already processing the thought, "Santa better have brought batteries..." Not only does that relationship continue as an adult, but what was once a simple tryst – "Mom, I need batteries for my Coleco Football" – has turned into a full-on romance (with every associated frustration) of our beloved battery-powered gizmos.

Like, for instance, the Lexus GS450h. One of the sleepiest of sleeper sedans, its batteries aren't responsible for keeping it running, only for supplementing the power of its 3.5-liter V6. And while hybrids have generally left us tepid, after a week with the Lexus, we're almost ready to ask automakers for another Christmas gift: Put batteries in everything, and do it just like this.

Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

The IS and GS are the runners in the Lexus pack, but we see the GS so rarely that we tend to forget it exists. And no wonder. The GS is the second slowest-selling Lexus in the brand's lineup. The first? The SC. A base LS is $20,000 more than a base GS, but the top flight sedan outsells the sport sedan nearly two-to-one. It's a pity because the GS represents a fine combination of performance and Lexus-ness, much more so than the IS because of the GS' larger, more luxurious cabin. Yet that could be the reason it rarely occupies a spot in most would-be buyer's minds: It's a Lexus, but it's the most un-Lexus-like pup in the litter.

In the looks department, it's definitely a dues-paying member of the club. Lexus' design language is so comprehensive that you would need the eyesight of a flatworm not to recognize it. Yet even among the L-Finesse lines, the GS has always stood out because of its rear end. Its abridged backside has always come off as excessively hefty compared to the much sleeker front, particularly on the first-generation model. Thankfully, that unbalance has been addressed over the years, yet there remains something about the liftback-looking C-pillar-into-trunk treatment that works on a Jaguar XF in a way that doesn't quite settle with us on the GS.

Nevertheless, for all of our grousing, the GS is a decent looking car. We were never unhappy to grab the keys and take it absolutely anywhere.

Inside, it's a similar story. A Lexus cabin is a room at the Ritz – you know what you're getting. Everything was there, and it's a quick job to figure out where it all is. The GS' center console has the same number of buttons as its stablemates, but they're round instead of square, and each one enjoys about a half of an inch of separation. That layout makes them easier to find and use, and dispels the Mission Control sensation some of other cars in its class evoke.

A special mention goes to the steering wheel, which is nothing short of fabulous. Perfect size, perfect weight, perfect tactile feel (the wheel, not the steering). At first we were delighted to find it bereft of paddle shifters, imagining good ol' common sense had prevailed and the higher-ups realized that no one was going to be playing Jensen Button in their GS. Later, though, we wondered if they would've added to the experience and allowed us to enjoy the GS a little bit more.

Keep the Lexus key nearby, press the start button and the sounds that greet you are the sames sounds you enjoyed before the starter was depressed. Silence. The GS starts in electric mode and there's nary a noise to be had inside the cabin. There's no thrill in creeping noiselessly down an alley in a Prius or an Insight; that's what those cars are for. It's goofy, we know, but we got a serious kick out of rolling in silence, especially in a car one wouldn't expect to be mute. Bring on the electric Murcielagos already...

Better than that were the sounds it made when we finally did get on it: This is a Lexus that actually sounds like a car, not a library. There's wind noise and tire noise and the sounds of thumps while going over bumps. That's not an indictment – far from it. The GS actually sounds like a performance sedan. And when you finally stand on it, there's more than just a bit of aural activity coming from the engine compartment.

The GS 450h is the world's first performance luxury hybrid, and we loved its performance. That's right, love. Why? Because batteries rock. They make things happen right now, and anytime we dabble in acceleration our preferred phrase to begin the proceedings with is "right now." Acceleration from a stop isn't cheetah fast – cheetahs take time to get up to speed. This is gazelle fast. When you're being chased by something with teeth that's already running 60 mph, you don't have time to meander up to speed. The GS 450h accelerates like it doesn't want to be eaten. Instant torque, party of one, your stoplight is ready. And this is in any gear, at any speed. Hit gas and there's no "and," you just go. We were surprised to find out that it takes 5.2 seconds to get to 60, but over a sustained acceleration the limited battery power can only do so much. Oh, and the 450h does weigh a hippo-riffic 4,132 pounds – about 200 more than the GS 460.

In corners, the GS remains perfectly horizontal through turns due to its Active Power Stabilizer Suspension System – flat as week-old soda or a zombie's EKG. It is not at all concerned with mid-corner bumps, either. Yet when the driving is hard and the road turns, we found the GS does as well, into two different performance sedans: One with the Traction Control on, another car with it off.

The steering is fine. It isn't pinpoint precise, but we never had any questions about wheel placement. However, play the throttle with anything less than virtuoso finesse – something we challenge anyone to do in any Lexus that isn't the LFA – and the transmission will hunt its way through gears both in turns and coming out for reasons we couldn't understand. Over the course of several drives we were never able to get it right. The GS 450h has 340 total horsepower and 267 pound-feet of immediate torque, plenty of goose to keep it lively if it could just choose the right gear. This is where we thought paddle shifters could help, since we would have no problem choosing the proper ratio for the task. Yes, you can use the tunnel shifter manually, but it's set so that upshifts are forward, and this particular driver finds that counterintuitive and ends up hitting the rev limiter at the exit of a turn.

But never mind that. The larger distraction was the traction control, so severely intrusive it could wear an honorific like Master Joykill or King of Pain. The front outside wheel does a lot of work and its limits are reached quickly, and as soon as it starts squealing the TC shows up and hoses everything down. Power is cut, brakes start dancing, lights start flashing, the rear wheels do a little hop step to get things back in line. Effective, yes, like blowing out the candles on your birthday cake with a fire brigade ladder truck. It's homicide for fun, and it keeps the car at about a fifth grade level.

Then we turned the TC off and discovered that the system sells the car and its driver short. It was like unlocking an easter egg. That one little dash light transports you from elementary school to graduate school, maybe even postgraduate. Going hard into bends was an invitation to an understeer party, but you can kick the back out with a bit of throttle (if it manages to remain in the right gear) and get it to come around. We didn't think we'd be doing such things in a Lexus – let alone a hybrid – but yes, we did, and we liked it. When you stand on the gas again and give the transmission something to do, the electric boost gets you going again immediately. If you get carried away with the two-plus tons and the GS detects things going bonkers, the TC snaps on again for last-minute bacon-saving.

Surprisingly, we preferred the way the brakes performed after they'd been worked hard for a while. When fresh, nothing happens during the first bit of brake pedal travel, but when things firm up engagement is about a half-inch away. After the car has run some laps, the huge power remains, but you've got more pedal travel with which to modulate. It's not a setup for trail braking; it's better done with a stab to shed speed once you learn the timing. Of course, that makes it more challenging to use the throttle as best as one can, and that helps to keep the car hunting through the gears.

For comparison we also drove the GS 460. That's the rear-wheel-drive V8 version with 342 hp and 339 lb-ft, and the kilowatt meter from the GS 450h swapped out in favor of a tachometer. Other than that, and the aforementioned 200-pound weight gap, there isn't much difference between the two. Except that the 460 doesn't just sound like a car, it feels like a car. First gear puts the power down quickly enough, but after that it... slowly... builds like any ol' engine. That's the feeling, at least. In reality, it's but 0.2 seconds slower to 60, clocking 5.4 seconds. But it feels like driving a glacier after the 450h.

That acceleration is most noticeable on the highway where the 460 needs to downshift when duty calls, but the 450h just runs away. We didn't test it, but we wouldn't be surprised if the 50-70 mph times showed even more separation.

To make the 460 even less compelling, it packed one regrettable surprise: Its exhaust note. Unless you're beating up on the throttle, the V8 version drones with a limp, soggy burble. It's as if they forgot to tune it.

Something else we didn't expect: The brakes feel different on the 460; easier to modulate out of the box, with less grabbiness. The 460's transmission, the same as in the 450h, still chases down gears through turns. Put it in Sport mode and the car drops a gear and behaves better, but it still needs to downshift and takes longer to get itself on the trot again coming out of turns. The normal setting in the 450h is almost like the Sport in the 460 because of the battery power, which could be why we didn't notice any substantial difference between Normal and Sport in the 450h.

And good luck getting frisky with the back end in the 460. There simply isn't enough power immediately available to yank itself out of turn, a state aided by the transmission's indecisiveness, so you'll only find yourself heading for the oncoming lane – or the cliff – if you want to play Formula D-style. Thankfully, the spirited stuff means you leave behind the leaf-blower-under-water exhaust noise, and the car gets its raucous on, joined by a quiet rush of wind and the tires doing a hard day's work.

The GS 450h, then, is a much more lively prospect, although hobbled by one minor and one serious hurdle: The surge and the price.

Cruising down the highway it feels like there are minute surges in electric power, as if your foot is resting on a transformer. It didn't affect anything – the speedometer remained unmoved – but it took a couple of days to get used to.

And then there's the sticker. The base GS 450h is $56,550. The GS 460 is $53,470, the new Mercedes E550 starts at $56,300 and the new BMW 550i at $60,400. The E has 382 hp and is just as quick to 60, the BMW has 360 ponies but is just two-tenths of a seconds slower, and both are slightly larger inside and out. Highway mileage is a dead heat, but predictably the Lexus beats the others in the city by a not-insignificant six or seven mpg.

It might be asking a lot for Mercedes and BMW buyers to switch to a Lexus whose only monumental advantage is urban fuel sipping. And it might be asking a lot to have Lexus buyers stump up for a car that looks like, but doesn't sound or act like, any other Lexus, and must be driven for thrills to be fully appreciated. That could explain the car's sales numbers: Not enough people can appreciate what they're supposed to get from it.

Still, it is a fine car on paper and on the road, and in spite of all the six-figure vehicular phenoms we've driven, we won't forget pulling away from a light on PCH and thinking, "More!" If we had to have a Lexus and our budget was limited to $200,000, we would forget all the rest. The GS 450h is the one. Well, there is the IS-F, too...

Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

Share This Photo X