November 14, 2006
It does seem kind of strange, on the face of it, to tout a hybrid vehicle as a performance car, but that’s exactly what Lexus did at this year’s Canadian Car of the Year competition. Instead of slotting the new $76,900 GS450h into a luxury-car class (its price, indeed, would have qualified it for the $75,000-and-up prestige car category), the company instead chose to pit its top-of-the-line midsizer against such opposition as the 8,200-rpm Audi RS4, the BMW M Coupe and the Ford Shelby GT500.
With its whisper-quiet drivetrain and sumptuous leather interior, the GS450h is unlike any of those cars, but there is no doubt that it’s a performance car. It is, indeed, the quickest version of the GS body you can buy – a hybrid sedan that’s also the performance and price flagship of its line-up. Powered by a 3.5-litre V6 augmented by electric power driving the rear wheels, the 450h flies. Unlike gasoline-powered engines, which need to rev to produce power, electric motors produce full torque the moment they start spinning, giving the GS electrifying acceleration off the line. On the highway, digging into the gas pedal is like switching on a turbocharger as the engine "power" needle swings up (there is no tachometer) and the pictogram in speedometer shows power flowing from both sources.
It may be fast, but at least initially, the GS450h doesn’t really feel like a performance car. That’s largely because we’re used to a lot of noise and drama from fast cars as they climb up to high speeds. Instead, in this Lexus, hard acceleration is accompanied by eerie silence, removing some of the thrill. You quickly get used to it as the quiet cabin just makes it easier to enjoy the excellent Mark Levinson sound system complete with 6-disc CD changer and – yes, your eyes do not deceive you – a tape player at the bottom of the centre stack!
"What’s up with the tape player?" a friend of mine asked. "Isn’t this car supposed to be high-tech?"
Rest assured that it is. The fully-loaded 450h comes only one way, with every gadget in Lexus’ substantial songbook. A central touch-screen flanked by eight round buttons summons up not only the audio system, but the controls for your Bluetooth-connected cell phone, a DVD-based navigation system, the dual-zone automatic climate control, address book, calendar, rear-view camera and car set-up. Thanks to the touch screen, all of the functions are pretty easy to use, but I do wish that the interface for them was a bit more consistent. For instance, the radio controls show your six presets in three rows of two, labelled each with a number and the name of the station; switch to the CD player (which you have to do with an extra set of buttons down near the tape player) and you get your CDs laid out in front of you – in two rows of three!
Indeed, given all of the gadgets Lexus has installed in the 450h – and its desire to maintain a clean cabin ambiance despite all those controls – you begin to understand why the German manufacturers in particular are exploring centralized turn-and-click controls. Even with the touch screen, the GS’ cabin is full of buttons and controls that could be combined into a set of menus; a flip-down panel to the left of the steering wheel alone contains almost twenty buttons to control everything from the side-view mirrors to the instrument dimming to the trunk release. Get into a BMW 5 series or Audi A6 after driving a GS and you understand that, while their integrated electronics systems are far from perfect, they are at least a step in the right direction.
You do, of course, get used to it all – as you do with everything. And the cabin is at least constructed with Lexus’ typically fastidious attention to detail. Even upholstered in fairly dull grey leather, my red tester’s interior was beautifully finished, with top-quality materials throughout. Construction was impeccable, too: with almost invisible panel gaps and no squeaks or rattles. More importantly, the GS’ cabin is roomy – it feels a half-size bigger than most similarly priced German competitors and offers excellent rear legroom. One tall passenger, however, did complain about limited headroom thanks to the sweeping roofline in front.
It’s only when you get to the trunk that you really notice – save for the unique alloy wheels with their chrome centre splines and the tiny "hybrid" badges on the sides – that the 450h is any different from any other GSs. To put it mildly, the trunk is small: it’s as tall as the regular GS trunk (which itself was already smaller than an E-class, A6 or 5-series) but only about half as deep thanks to the presence (in the vertical wall) of the electrical system. If you plan on using the 450h for long trips or to carry a lot of luggage, you’d best make sure all your stuff will fit.
Long trips are, of course, what this car excels at. The ride is glassy-smooth unless you punch up the jiggly sport setting on the suspension (which is activated by a switch on the centre console). The cabin is whisper-quiet even at continent-crushing speeds. Thanks to the ministrations of the hybrid system, the GS’s range is excellent for a fast, powerful luxury car: not only did I manage just over 10 L/100 km in a week worth of mostly urban driving, but the fuel tank’s range easily eclipsed 500 km.
Find yourself on a more challenging road than your typical superhighway and the GS performs well, but isn’t really that involving. The steering has a synthetic, sort of video-game feel to it: indeed, thanks to electric power assistance, the 450h’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system can actually introduce steering corrections when you’re sliding. Grip from the 18-inch Dunlop tires is excellent, but the 450h feels heavier through corners than its German competitors, as well as more conventional GS models, which aren’t carrying the extra weight of the battery and electric system. As for the braking, stops are short, but feel can be pretty inconsistent, depending on how much power the hybrid system wants to regenerate as you slow down. Overall, the experience is impressive, but not as involving as, say, a 5-series BMW.
Then again, for people looking at a 450h, the fact that it’s not a 5-series is certainly going to be part of its attraction. Thanks to its distinctive style and decidedly futuristic drivetrain, this is a car for people who want something other than the default choice – something more technically interesting and something that delivers a truly different experience. The 450h does all of that and more. Its engineering – which not only gives you lots of toys to play with inside but also plays a role in reducing its fuel consumption and emissions – makes it the technophile’s choice in a fiercely competitive luxury-car set. People who choose it will be more than happy to overlook a few foibles in order to drive the highest-tech thing on their block.
Manufacturer’s web site