Somewhere on the continuum between Toyota’s Prius C and the new million-dollar gas-electric hypercars from Porsche, McLaren and Ferrari (really), there’s a zone that separates hybrids as economy transportation from hybrids as ultimate speed sleds. We know that electric motors can help small internal-combustion engines stretch a gallon of gasoline from, say, 30 miles to 50 or more, at least at low speeds. But for big gas engines, add-on electric motors are now providing extra wallop—carving a second or two off the 0-to-100 MPH sprint, for example. The GS450h sits in the zone that divides these types of hybrid cars; it enjoys some of both benefits.
There are in fact two extra electric motors buried within this Lexus. One under the hood largely services the batteries; it’s the second one, built into the differential, that feeds more oomph to the back wheels. The gas V-6 up front makes 286 horsepower; the electric motor at the rear can jack that up to a combined total of 338 HP. Lexus doesn’t publish torque figures, but the electrics provide an impressive shove of acceleration.
There’s another surprise here too: a CVT, or continuously variable transmission—something usually found only on economy cars and riding lawn mowers. Lexus, however, calls it a controlled variable transmission, and its stellar behavior justifies the new name. Not till I tried to get frisky with it in manual mode did I realize it wasn’t a normal transmission with distinct gears. The point of a CVT is to keep the engine in its best operating range, and this one does a good job here as well. We averaged 27 miles per gallon overall and the GS450h’s 34 highway MPG rating for 2013 seems realistic. These are very good numbers for a large and sumptuous sedan that can dust off slower traffic—and also creep through a mall parking lot under electric power only.
Despite its quickness and the capable handling of its adaptive suspension, this isn’t a sports sedan. (For that, you’ll want the lighter, less-expensive and more nimble GS350 F Sport.) It’s an updated luxury cruiser for today’s congested and connectivity-obsessed highway culture. The GS450h is as comfortable tied up in city traffic—where the engine shuts itself off, to save gas and cut exhaust emissions—as it is flying serenely across the great plains on I-80.
Lexus also has done a fine job of submerging the unpleasant parts of a driving a hybrid. The engine stop-start feature is now barely discernable and response is immediate; the throttle doesn’t feel like it’s on a rubber band; the brakes bite down in linear fashion; and the car’s balance is not upset by the addition of several hundred pounds of electric motors and batteries.
The GS450h is a complex and highly sophisticated piece of mechanical, electrical and ergonomic engineering, but Lexus has boiled everything down to apparent simplicity. (For instance, in normal mode, the big dial next to the speedometer simply indicates “charge,” “eco” or “power.” But selecting Sport mode not only amps up the electric drive motor, it also magically converts that dial into a tachometer.) The unique mouse-type computer controller is easier to operate than many other luxury cars’ “user interfaces,” and the split-screen computer monitor is among the largest and most readable out there.
Overall, the instrument and control panels are so elegant that they’re both non-intimidating and downright attractive, and the redesigned cabin is as tasteful and comfortable as we’d expect from Lexus. The optional blond bamboo trim contrasts beautifully with rich, dark-toned leather and synthetics. I don’t recall gripping a bamboo steering wheel before, but it’s highly agreeable.
At $59,000 to start and here optioned up to a full $70,000, the 2013 GS450h isn’t just good “for a hybrid,” it’s a good car, full stop. In fact, it’s a good deal more than just good. If I were shopping for a luxury sedan with less than Powerball money, the GS450h would make my personal short list—even though it’s a hybrid.
Rectification. Last week’s column about the good-news, bad-news Enclave drew a quick response from Buick: “All Enclaves are assembled in Lansing. It is exported to China. We do not build or assemble Enclaves in China.” There you have it; shame on me—and my source.