A More Sensible Luxury Hybrid
The first-generation Lexus GS 450h didn't make sense to a lot of people.
Lexus promised V8 performance with V6 fuel economy. But hybrid geeks were thrown off by a combined mileage rating of only 23 mpg, while driving enthusiasts were put off by its lifeless steering, portly curb weight and intrusive stability control system.
It didn't help that the GS hybrid cost some $3,000 more than the V8-powered GS 460. Yeah, we woulda had a V8 for sure.
With the 2013 Lexus GS 450h, Toyota's luxury brand is taking a different approach. This time the emphasis is on fuel mileage, as in an estimated 35 percent improvement over the 2011 model. And this time around the GS hybrid is taking the place of the V8 model, so it's hybrid or nothing. Bold move.
The GS 450h continues as a series-parallel hybrid, which means it's capable of operating in electric-only, gas-only, or a combination of the two modes. Its 286-horsepower 3.5-liter gasoline V6 now uses the Atkinson cycle for greater fuel efficiency.
There's also an increased compression ratio (13.1:1, up from 11.8), a new mid-port intake tumble generator and Lexus' combo of direct and port injection, which Lexus calls D-4S. Although the Atkinson cycle is more efficient, the downside is that it has a narrower power band. No problem when you have a second power source on-board.
In the GS 450h the extra power comes from a water-cooled 30kW (41-hp) permanent electric motor powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. In Sport mode, the system voltage is bumped up, which raises the battery power to 52 hp (39 kW) for a total combined hp of 338. The gas engine and electric motor drive the rear wheels independently or in tandem, depending on what's needed.
Also helping to reduce fuel consumption is better cooling of the hybrid's power control unit. The GS's Eco mode takes it a step further by limiting the electric motor to a maximum of 500 volts. And lastly, the regenerative braking operation range has been expanded.
The result? An estimated 29 city, 34 highway and 31 combined mpg, a colossal improvement over the previous GS hybrid's numbers (22 city/25 highway/23 combined mpg). Even more impressive is the fact that Lexus claims that the new 2013 Lexus GS 450h will hit 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and carry on to a top speed of 131 mph. It may be more efficient, but it's certainly not any slower.
Stiffer and Lighter
Just like the 2013 GS 350, the new GS 450h carries over an identical wheelbase and overall length, but is 2 inches wider and 1.2 inches taller in an effort to gain some interior space. It worked, as head-, knee and foot room are all reasonable now for slightly above average-size adults. That goes for the backseat as well. Lexus engineers also created more trunk room by vertically stacking the battery pack, so cargo room is up by nearly 3 cubic feet.
The 2013 Lexus GS 450h has more than just all-new sheet metal. The body is also 14 percent stiffer due to an increased number of spot and laser welds. Meanwhile, the interior was put on a strict diet, with the engineers told to lighten every material possible to make up for the car being slightly larger and stuffed with more features.
We were told at the car's press launch that the 2013 model is in fact 14 kilograms (31 pounds) lighter than the 2011 model, but a quick check of Lexus' own specs lists the 2011 model's curb weight as 4,134 pounds versus the 2013 car's 4,190 pounds. Maybe it's new math.
The interior of the previous GS 450h was hardly its weak point, but Lexus sought to improve it for 2013 anyway with an all-new design and a higher grade of materials.
A couple of things stand out: First, Lexus lowered the comfortable driver seat a small amount so that you sit more in the GS, not on it. Second, the GS 450h comes with a bamboo steering wheel and trim pieces, which Lexus says "reinforce the sustainability of the GS 450h." Whatever, it's cool, especially because it's left au naturel, without the usual wood clearcoat.
The materials generally are a step up from the previous GS, although a few of the plastic buttons (particularly for the HVAC controls on the center stack) feel a little cheap and don't quite match the tactility of the rest of the cabin.
Order the optional navigation system and you'll get a gigantic 12.3-inch display screen, controlled via a second generation of Lexus' Remote Touch controller, a device that looks and acts like a computer mouse. You'll also have the handiness of the Lexus Enform App Suite, which lets you access your mobile phone apps through the display screen, for searches with Bing, OpenTable (restaurant reservations), MovieTickets.com, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Yelp (restaurant/business reviews) and of course Facebook.
The 2013 Lexus GS 450h shares its updated chassis with the standard GS 350. That means a wider track, increased use of aluminum for the front double wishbones and a multilink setup in back that uses a new rear subframe and more aggressive geometry.
But the big news is that Lexus' Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system comes standard on the hybrid model. It's a softer setup than on the GS 350 F Sport, but the principle is the same: The shocks are constantly adapting to road and driving conditions and they're driver-adjustable.
Toggling the Drive Mode selector lets you choose among Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. The first three mostly deal with throttle calibration, but Sport Plus dials back steering boost and firms up the shocks, while raising the stability control's intervention point (a Lexus official told us it could be fully defeated, but no amount of button pushing/holding did the trick).
On a fast and twisty back road, the 2013 Lexus GS 450h felt heavy and a bit ponderous through turns in the Sport setting. There's a definite feeling of some major weight being thrown over to one side as you enter high-speed bends. But cue up Sport Plus and there's a big difference in terms of body roll, precision and confidence, and the weighting of the steering is heavier and more precise.
Driving around town, the first thing you notice is that, well, it simply doesn't have the smooth, supple feel and sound of a V8. In other words, it's not a great replacement, at least if you're more than an A-to-B type of person.
The electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) still rubberbands a bit and there's still some steady-state throttle surge. The brakes are far from linear, too, as they have an abrupt initial tip-in, then become difficult to modulate for a smooth stop.
Drive it casually, though, and the GS 450h is reasonably quiet and seamless. Floor the throttle and, although the CVT hangs the revs up high, it surprises you with how deceptively it gets up to speed, and the force with which it keeps pushing forward.
The Bottom Line
The 2013 Lexus GS 450h will begin production at the Tahara, Japan, plant in late April/early May of next year. Pricing is a long ways off from being set, but a reasonable guess is around $60,000 (the current model begins at $58,950).
This is an improved GS hybrid for sure, if not in pure drivability then in terms of interior quality, design and definitely handling due to the standard-issue adaptive suspension. Lexus isn't expecting the GS 450h to set the world on fire with sales numbers. It's guessing that the GS 450h will account for less than 10 percent of the total GS mix.
Sales expectations aside, the 2013 Lexus GS 450h at least makes sense this time around. It's still got the sauce to back up its rep as a performance hybrid, but now it gets the kind of fuel economy for which owners could actually be smug about. And isn't that the point of hybrids anyway?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.