I was about to pass judgment on the fuel-efficiency of the 2007 Lexus GS 450h when a friend of mine, a real captain of industry, telephoned. I told him what I was driving and that it was a hybrid.
"What kind of mileage are you getting?" he asked.
"About 22 miles per gallon," I answered.
"Twenty-two?! That's fantastic!"
Considering that my friend is in the target market for this scary-fast luxury sport sedan, with an all-new and super-smooth powertrain, I gave his opinion extra weight. To me, "hybrid" means fuel-efficiency. To my friend it means, well, a way to appease his conscience while having a blast behind the wheel. (Note: The non-hybrid GS 430 won our Japanese sport sedan comparison test, beating out the 2005 Acura RL and the 2006 Infiniti M45.)
Power vs. fuel economy
This hybrid, the first rear-wheel-drive hybrid, is all about performance and power, no doubt about that. It's so quiet and so fast it offers a new driving paradigm in which seemingly anything is possible. Is 75 mph not fast enough for you? Let's try 90. Dab the accelerator and the engine responds with a great visceral thrust. Seconds later, there you are, flying by lesser cars in astonishing silence, as if they are being gobbled up and spit out the rearview mirror.
Is this a good thing? Do you really need all this power? That isn't a relevant question for buyers in this category, like my friend, the captain of industry. These people want everything all at once and, with this car, that's quite possible. We only hope that the people who buy this car will use that power responsibly.
To be fair, this remarkably smooth and powerful hybrid powertrain delivers performance at a savings. To get this kind of power from a conventional engine, you'd need a monster V8 getting perhaps 12 to 14 miles per gallon. (In fact, Lexus named it the 450 because it delivers the power of a 4.5-liter V8.) This 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6, with variable valve timing, delivers 292 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.
The gasoline engine collaborates with a new high-output, permanent magnet electric motor-generator rated at 197 hp (actually the system uses two motor-generators, but only one drives the wheels). With the gas and electric motor combined (using a mysterious formula), the total system power is 339 hp. Lexus says the 450h will accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and get up to 28 mpg. Our testing delivered zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds, and over about 300 miles of driving, we averaged 22 mpg. For that kind of performance, even 22 mpg is darned good.
A new driving paradigm
But the specs tell only half the story. The 450h delivers something a conventional engine could never offer, no matter how gargantuan it is. The hybrid powertrain is mated to a newly designed, electronically controlled continuously variable transmission that somehow doesn't produce the irritating drone that plagues earlier CVTs. Instead, the transmission — which offers three driving modes: Sport, Snow and Normal — feels like you're driving in a parallel universe where the torque band is as wide as desire itself.
There are so many safety/performance systems under the skin that Lexus has lumped them all under the heading of Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM). VDIM includes a host of acronyms such as ABS (Antilock Braking System), BA (BrakeAssist), EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution), ECB (Electronically Controlled Brakes), EPS (Electronic Power Steering), TRAC (Traction Control), VGRS (Variable Gear Ratio Steering) and VSC (Vehicle Stability Control). These computerized systems work together with advanced engineering that simultaneously enhances driving pleasure while adding safety.
Several of our editors objected to the feel of the front and rear ventilated disc braking system, saying it was nonprogressive, providing too much initial clampdown with a light touch. However, the GS 450h came to a stop from 60 mph in only 123 feet — not bad for a car with a curb weight of 4,134 pounds. The different brake pedal feel is easily adjusted to and quickly blends into the overall driving experience.
When the car is driven for performance, a "sport" suspension setting can be selected that noticeably firms up the double-wishbone, coil-spring suspension. This Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system, along with an optional active stabilizer, reduces body roll during cornering.
At the track, the GS went through the slalom in 6.4 seconds at 63.6 mph. The steering felt a bit numb but the ratio was pleasing. The stability control was activated if there were any sudden steering inputs. During high-speed maneuvers, the grip was exceptionally well balanced, thanks in large part to the 18-inch Z-rated Yokohama tires. For acceleration trials, the car was tested with the traction control (TRAC) turned off, but it re-engaged automatically at speeds over 32 mph. It was nearly impossible to detect the traction control interfering with acceleration; instead it seemed to make more power available to the driver.
Improved hybrid powertrain
Interestingly, our drivers found this hybrid system more refined than earlier such systems. The GS 450h operates in all-electric mode up to about 15 mph, delivering a wonderfully smooth surge of acceleration. Then, when the gas engine kicks on, it fires up seamlessly without any of the disruptive shudder experienced in earlier hybrids. Test drivers tried to deplete the battery pack's power, but found the regenerative braking to be extremely efficient as well as quiet.
While we rave about the driving experience, there are also a few unexpected drawbacks to this otherwise amazing car. Because hybrid batteries are stored behind the backseat, the trunk offers only 7.5 cubic feet of storage space, while the non-hybrid GS 430 offers about 13 cubic feet. Four suitcases or golf bags would be nearly impossible to fit in the GS 450h's trunk for the four passengers it can comfortably accommodate; it seats a total of five, but the center seat in the rear is raised and would be uncomfortable to sit on.
Interior design and layout
The car we tested was a preproduction model, so it's possible there will be changes to the interior once production starts. However, we were annoyed by the reflection from the high-gloss wooden center panel that surrounds the gearshift. The dashboard, a black textured surface, has been given character lines similar to a car's angular exterior styling. This is attractive but creates a hazy look to the inside of the windshield.
And finally, many controls — including the trunk release and fuel-door release — have been mounted behind a drop-down dash panel to the left of the steering wheel. If this panel is left open, the driver will bang his or her knee when climbing in or out of the car.
Still, this is a handsome luxury sport sedan that is endowed with many thoughtful features and comes loaded with advanced technology. The optional navigation system (and rear backup video camera) has a high-resolution screen with enhanced graphics. The Adaptive Front light System (AFS) helps the driver see around corners; the interior lighting is subtle but elegant, like a night at the opera. The rear sunshade automatically folds down, and the wing mirrors tilt down to aid visibility when the car is put in reverse to park.
Heated and ventilated front seats provide 10 different adjustments to offer customized comfort for the driver and front passenger. While the seats are extremely comfortable, make sure to give this vehicle a longer test-drive; some of our taller drivers complained that they weren't comfortable with the headroom.
A tough competitor
A car should be evaluated in terms of its target audience. With that in mind, I gave the GS 450h to a top Edmunds.com executive for his opinion. The next morning, he enthusiastically reported that it was one of the few cars he had driven lately that he would consider spending his own money on. "I think BMW and Mercedes will be watching this car very closely," he said. Final pricing had not been announced as we went to press, but Lexus said the GS 450h would sell for about $6,000 over the GS 430's price tag of about $51,000. This means that when it rolls into showrooms in April it should compete favorably against the German cars that often dominate the luxury sport sedan market.
I can't help wishing that the wonderful hybrid powertrain in this car had been tuned more toward the economy end of the spectrum since, let's face it, warp-speed acceleration isn't going to make the world a better place to live in. But Lexus is in the business of selling the 2007 GS 450h to its target market, and that group of buyers will be giddy with excitement over this remarkable car and the superior driving experience it offers.
System Score: 10.0
Components: The GS 450h offers the top-of-the-line Mark Levinson audio system as an option. This is Mark Levinson's Premium Surround System and its components list is an alphabet soup of advanced digital technology. We couldn't possibly list everything here, but the speaker array consists of the following: four 25mm tweeters, five 65mm midranges, four 16cm woofers and one 25cm subwoofer. Mark Levinson claims that this system is the only surround-sound system specifically designed for an automotive application. It supports CDs, CD-R, DTS 5.1 CDs, DVD video, DVD audio and DVD-R. As advanced as this system is, we found the controls easy to use, whether you're fingering the steering wheel knobs or the center stack display.
Performance: There are several systems on the market today that can be justifiably called faultless and this is one of them. No matter where you're sitting or what kind of music you're listening to, it all comes through in perfect detail. Dig into the menu and you can fine-tune the listening environment to suit particular tastes, but left alone it rarely suffers any noticeable defects. Bass is tight, accurate and never overbearing, while highs come through with flawless accuracy. Crank it up and it never loses its ability to generate strong, distortion-free sound that completely envelops driver and passengers alike.
Best Feature: Easy-to-use interface that doesn't detract from the listening experience.
Worst Feature: Only comes bundled with navigation system.
Conclusion: Yet another top-of-the-line factory system that redefines the limits of automotive audio technology. — Ed Hellwig
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
If we needed further proof that Toyota will eventually rule the world (can't have too much of that, right?), the GS 450h happily obliges. This proof isn't based on the car offering incredible value, extreme driving pleasure or even superb fuel mileage — it doesn't offer any of those things. But it is damn quick and extremely confident in terms of handling and braking, and it gets the kind of fuel economy most 5-second zero-to-60 luxury sedans can only dream of. It also offers this combination of traits at a reasonable price, at least by V8 luxury sedan standards.
But the GS 450h's silver bullet — aimed straight at the hearts of Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar and Mercedes — is that Toyota has now clearly mastered the art of combining electric motivation with internal combustion. Unlike the Insight, Prius, Civic, Accord and Escape hybrids that came before it, the GS 450h suffers no ill effects from its hybrid drivetrain. Power (and plenty of it) comes on immediately and smoothly when applying throttle. Braking does have a hint of mushiness as the electric motor switches to generator mode, but it's something most drivers won't notice, and those who do will get used to it in less than 15 minutes (it took me about five).
This means Toyota has mastered the art of hybrid transparency. It has now created a faster and more fuel-efficient Lexus luxury sedan that's so smooth, the uninformed driver might not know it's a hybrid. If you don't think that's huge, consider the days when fuel injection was, at best, a dubious advantage over carburetion. Then consider fuel injection's role in the market today.
Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds says:
Like many others, I found the high price of gas tweaked my interest in hybrids. Early examples have shown that it is possible to combine reasonable performance with superior fuel economy. The Lexus GS 450h isn't just a reasonable performer, it's downright fast. But is it really using hybrid technology to produce superior fuel economy, which is presumably what environmentally conscious customers expect? Somehow this quandary got me thinking about a certain film by Rob Reiner.
Salesman: "If you look here, you'll see that it has this hybrid powertrain that gives you that extra push when you need it." (Points to dial labeled to 11)
Customer: "But if you only let it go as high as 10, couldn't you calibrate the system for more fuel economy?"
Salesman: "This hybrid goes to 11."
Personally, I'd only endure sacrifices such as the hefty price premium, too — small trunk, whiny regenerative brakes and arguably close-but-no-cigar feel of the electronic power steering — if I were going to get a more profound fuel-economy benefit. Still, the GS 450h does provide a noticeable, if not staggering, fuel-economy boost without giving up any forward thrust. That is no small trick, but the result is a car that is not so much green as it is a shade of chartreuse.