When hybrid cars started appearing on the market around the turn of this century, they were universally Spartan. Their one luxury was the readout on the dash that gave you electronic feedback about your driving habits. Fifteen years later, hybrids come in all shapes, sizes, and classes, including full-on luxury, like the Lexus GS450h. It offers good fuel economy, but when you’re driving a $60,000 car, is “economy’’ really what you’re after?
The hybrid drivetrain combines to make the Lexus GS450h the most powerful car in the GS lineup. The gas-powered, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6 is good for 286 hp, and the permanent electric motor can develop 200 hp. When they combine, the power rating is 338 hp, which bests any other GS by 32 hp.
Unlike GS350 rear-drive trims, the GS450h has a continuously variable transmission, as opposed to an 8-speed automatic. It features shift paddles so you can manually shift “gears,’’ but it’s not really something the car excels at. To really feel the promise of such a setup, you have to experience something like the twin-clutch, direct-shift gearbox on a Volkswagen, rather than a CVT whose manual mode just holds the engine at a higher RPM longer. Continuously variable transmissions do offer somewhat higher fuel mileage than a traditional automatic by keeping the engine at optimal RPM, but they simply sap all the fun out of driving something with a modern 7- or 8-speed automatic.
It puts a damper on the additional power in the GS450h and delivers a performance similar to the lesser GS trims. Lexus proclaims that the car is quicker by a tenth of a second than the rear-drive versions of the other GS trims, and is two-tenths of a second faster than the all-wheel-drive versions you’re likely to see in New England. But when Car and Driver evaluated this hybrid against its traditionally powered stablemates, it came in at as much as two-tenths of a second slower.
Part of the reason this car is only marginally quicker despite the power is weight. Adding an electric motor and a battery pack equals as much as 400 pounds, or about a 10 percent gain on the scale, and it’s something that became evident when I had to make an abrupt maneuver on the highway.
As I was merging into the middle lane, another driver quickly merged into the same space from the passing lane. I swerved a bit and got on the brakes and the GS450h wagged its tail a little more than I would’ve expected from something with performance aspirations. Keep in mind, I was driving the car in Normal mode, rather than the Sport or Sport + modes that boost suspension responsiveness. The GS450h also offers an EV mode that allows you to drive for short distances on battery power alone, which is a usable feature in the traffic in and around Boston.
Fuel economy for such a big car isn’t bad at an observed 26 miles per gallon average. The EPA suggests that you can see as much as 34 miles per gallon on the highway. It gives the GS450h a not insignificant 10 miles per gallon average advantage over the GS350 AWD. But it also comes at a price. An all-wheel-drive GS350 starts at $49,950. The GS450h starts at $60,430. Our tested version climbed past the $62,000 mark. That’s a lot of gas.
The price and the handling in Normal mode are my two biggest reservations. On the plus side of the ledger, the GS450h features a passenger cabin that easily rivals competitors from Europe. Stepping into the GS450h, the first thing you’ll notice is how much brighter it is than lesser trims in the GS line.
Our tested version featured the optional Luxury Package with light gray perforated leather interior, made even brighter by the light-colored bamboo trim on the console, dash, and steering wheel. This, along with the sunroof, makes the GS450h seem much bigger inside than it really is.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m really tired of seats that try to be Recaro racing buckets. There’s a place for those kind of seats, and it’s not in the cabin of a luxury car. According to my backside, the GS450h has the most comfortable, luxurious seats of any luxury car on the market today. They’re supportive, but in a way that recalls the buckets of the old Saab 9000 Aero, which are the benchmark for comfortable automobile seats.
One of the first things I do when I get in any new car is pair my phone. On some cars, it can be a maddeningly frustrating process, but in the GS450h—and all of the Lexus cars I’ve sampled—it’s simple to figure out how the pairing process works. Take this tip, auto manufacturers: If your customer selects “BLUETOOTH’’ under the media menu and a phone or media player isn’t found, begin the pairing process automatically with an option to cancel out, instead of having to initiate the process manually.
The cabin can be complemented with an available Mark Levinson audio system. With 17 speakers located all over the place, the system cranks out 835 watts of power. This ain’t your daddy’s Sparkomatic. It rocks. Lexus pretty well integrates all of the infotainment technology by means of the console-mounted joystick, but also keeps intuitive knobs and buttons for the radio and heat controls, which is a welcome departure from the era when manufacturers decided to bury all of those controls under sub-menus.
But with the exception of the bamboo trim and the hybrid drivetrain, you can get everything on the GS450h in any other GS trim, at a significantly reduced price. You could buy 2,500 gallons of gasoline with the price difference, enough to get you 50,000 miles, even at the GS350’s least optimistic fuel economy estimate. With that in mind, the question remains: Why spend the extra dough?