April 28, 2008

Photo Gallery: 2008 Lexus GS 450h

Specifications: 2008 Lexus GS 450h

The Guide: 2008 Lexus GS 450h

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Winnipeg, Manitoba – It hasn’t been long since I reviewed the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and to say that I was a little underwhelmed would be like saying the Youth Criminal Justice Act is just a little too lenient on repeat offenders.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully support the auto industry’s efforts in the quest to reduce our carbon footprint on this planet. And the concept of a gas-electric hybrid is appealing because it ostensibly allows a vehicle so propelled to travel significantly farther on a tank of gas than would a conventional vehicle with only a gasoline engine under the hood.

But here’s the rub: your mileage will vary: guaranteed. And in the Highlander’s case, fuel consumption soared when the ambient temperature was on the wrong side of zero. But this one, happily, was different.

Normally, it’s not easy to justify the financial rationale for buying a hybrid version of a car over its gas-powered siblings. But with the Lexus GS 450h (that’s ‘h’ for ‘hybrid’), I was duly impressed by the big car’s ability to act like a hybrid, even in cold weather, while still offering the drivability one expects from its conventional brethren: a situation where the Highlander hybrid failed to deliver.

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The GS 450h is a mid-luxury sedan from Toyota’s upscale division that possesses all of the performance and creature comforts one expects for its $71,100 starting price. In keeping with automakers’ current practice of slashing prices for 2008, that sum is $5,800 lower than it was last year and actually includes more than $6,900 in added value according to Lexus.

It’s one of three hybrid models offered by Lexus, which is more than any other luxury brand has. In fact, Lexus is the only luxury manufacturer to offer hybrids at all, although that will soon change as the Big Three German manufacturers are working on their own hybrids. The others in the Lexus stable include the stretched, ultra-luxurious LS 600h L sedan (at $125,000) and the RX 400h crossover (for a more palatable $55K).

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The GS hybrid commands a premium of $18,200 over the base GS 350 sedan. In Manitoba, we can subtract $2,000 because it’s a hybrid and as such is eligible for a rebate under the province’s green initiative. For that princely price difference buyers get, in addition to the hybrid powertrain, 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio (the 350 makes do with a mere 10 speakers – why bother?), premium leather seats (ventilated, of course), 18-inch alloys rather than 17s, rain-sensing wipers, swiveling headlights, rear seat side airbags, power rear window sunshade, parking sensors, and a navigation system with a backup camera.

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In fact, the car is so well equipped that there are no factory options available for the GS 450h. To compare the hybrid’s price relative to gas-powered versions of the car, we look at the loaded rear-wheel-drive GS 350 which stickers for just over $60K, and the all-wheel-drive version when loaded up gets up to the mid-$60s. Only the rear-drive GS 460 with its 342-horse V8 and eight-speed (yes, you read that right) automatic transmission commands more dollars than the hybrid.

The GS’s powertrain, as with all hybrids currently for sale in Canada, includes a gasoline engine and a battery-powered electric motor. Toyota tends to prefer the use of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in their hybrids, whereas some of General Motors’ hybrid offerings have conventional automatics. A CVT offers nearly infinite drive ratios to both maximize performance and minimize fuel consumption, whether the car is a hybrid or not. Not since the days of the Honda Insight has a manual transmission been offered on a hybrid.

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The gas engine is a 3.5-litre V6 that is configured in "parallel-series" with a high-torque electric motor to produce a combined 339 hp, which, you may notice, is only three horses shy of the more expensive GS 460’s output. The configuration, common to all Toyota hybrids, allows the vehicle to be driven on electric power in certain situations, such as rush-hour crawling or circling a parking lot to find a space.

I drove the GS hybrid immediately following my week with the Highlander and found that it behaved much more like a hybrid should, even in cold weather. Where the Highlander refused to shut off the gas engine in stop-and-go traffic as long as I needed heat in the car, the Lexus did so happily, even with the automatic climate control set at 22 degrees.

As a result, my fuel consumption was lower in this Lexus than in the Highlander, even though the official city consumption is rated at 8.7 L/100 km, or nearly 20 percent higher than that of the Highlander. (The gas GS 460 is rated at 12.4 in the city.)

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Toyota could only offer generic reasons as to why my consumption with either hybrid (around 14 L/100 km) was so much higher in winter than the published figures, but I would suspect that the more expensive Lexus has a more advanced hybrid design or a higher capacity battery pack than the Highlander which allowed it to behave as a proper hybrid should.

One look in the GS hybrid’s trunk and it’s obvious where those batteries are stored: its volume is a scant 229 litres compared to the gas car’s 360.

My other complaints about the Highlander revolved around its driving experience. Specifically, the CVT made it feel sluggish and the front-drive biased AWD system resulted in torque steer issues not present in the gas-powered Highlander.

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I’m happy to report that the Lexus suffered neither of these maladies. For one, the CVT is a much more performance-oriented unit. It keeps the engine loafing along when power demand is low, but has no problem spiking the revs up immediately in response to throttle input. And the fact that it’s a rear-driver is in keeping with its premium luxury sedan role. Funny thing: this actually feels like a performance-oriented vehicle, with every member in its 339-horse stable at the ready.

So at the end of the day, the Lexus is a much more successful hybrid execution than is the Highlander, and as such I wouldn’t write it off as a poor choice compared with the V8-powered GS 460.

Unless, of course, you value your trunk space.

Pricing: 2008 Lexus GS 450h

Base price: $
A/C tax $
Freight: $
Price as tested: $


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