The media and the public are crazy for hybrids, which they see as a magical-mystery powertrain that transforms an ordinary car into a fuel-sipping, earth-saving machine. That image has made Toyota's Prius (a 100,000-plus seller last year) an environmental icon and has cast a green glow over all of Toyota. So it's somewhat surprising that the Lexus GS450h hybrid has a very different story to tell.
Lexus chief Bob Carter says, "We believe that power, smoothness, and environmental friendliness are far more important [than fuel economy] to the luxury market." Thus Toyotas will be engineered for maximum fuel efficiency while Lexus hybrids will offer performance with less guilt.
The GS450h pairs its electric drive system with a rather large V-6 displacing 3.5 liters. The gasoline engine on its own makes 292 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque; add two electric motors (one drives the rear wheels, the other acts as a starter/generator) into the mix and the combined power output rises to 339 hp. Despite carrying 389 pounds more than a GS430, the GS450h has enough power to zip the big sedan from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds (according to Lexus), which, the company points out, bests all its V-8-powered rivals. The EPA ratings of 27 mpg city and 28 mpg highway aren't exactly a quantum leap over the GS300's 22/30 mpg or even the GS430's 18/25. Nor are they as good as the Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI's 27/37 mpg. Of course, the hybrid is significantly cleaner than a gasoline GS and far less polluting than the diesel Benz-even the upcoming Bluetec version. Still, a combined 28 mpg hardly seems like the sort of thing that merits a tax credit at the expense of your fellow citizens.
Whether or not you question this hybrid's priorities, you have to admire its execution. With most hybrids, including the current Prius, the strangeness of their mechanicals sometimes shows through. The hybrid system in the GS450h is so highly evolved that its only remaining unusual behaviors are positives.
As in other hybrids, a push of the starter button brings stony silence. But what's unusual about the GS450h is that when the engine wakes and comes onstream, it's so seamless as to be basically imperceptible. The situation is the same when it cuts out. The gasoline and electric propulsion units really do work as a single entity.
Toyota also has come a long way with its regenerative brakes, which used to be touchy and weird but in the GS450h are actually easier to modulate than the nonhybrid car's. Similarly, the continuously variable transmission acts more like a standard automatic in its engine-braking abilities-just slide the lever over into "S" and toggle down through six "gears." The faux downshifting doesn't help with acceleration, but the GS doesn't need it. Thanks to the boost from the rear-wheel-driving electric motor that achieves its peak output at 0 rpm, throttle response is immediate. Floor the gas and hold it there, and you do get the sustained engine note that characterizes a CVT drivetrain-and bothers some drivers-but that's the only remaining whiff of unconventionality.
Lexus makes much of the performance of the GS450h, and the numbers are indeed impressive. But the car is too computerized to really speak to the enthusiast driver the way, say, the BMW 5-series does. Still, the GS450h is a technological tour de force. We just wonder if its hybrid heart is in the right place.