Lexus GS450h Review
Remember the dorky kid who aced college, landed a great job, maybe even got married, but still never got a firm grasp on how to enjoy life’s rich tapestry? That’s the Lexus GS450h. For all its hybrid gee-whiz engineering, swanky trimmings and performance credentials, the Lexus GS450h is only really a great idea on paper. Sure, it’s got lower emissions, less fuel consumption than its petrol-powered equivalent and significantly more performance. But the Lexus Hybrid is a genius in dire need of a spiritual advisor.
The styling tells the story with its bold lines, broad shoulders and stunning lack of attention to detail. Up front, the GS’ trapezoidal grille– flanked by ovoid lenses and rhombus-like headlights– inflict geometric overkill on an otherwise cetacean canvas. Sadly, the GS' tall frame kills an otherwise sporting profile; everything south of the beltline looks obese and clumsy. Fortunately, multi-spoke 18" hoops with chrome accents help avert your eyes from the plump yet stunted posterior with its B-movie bug-eyed taillights. Clearly, the "L-Finesse" GS needs Giorgio Giugiaro’s loving hands.
In contrast, the GS’ interior is a symphony of chrome, leather, ebony wood and white LED accents. The cockpit’s squidgy polymers and tastefully arranged switchgear offer the automotive equivalent of a relaxing swim in an edgeless pool. In Audi and Lexus' sybaritic showdown, the Japanese automaker is gradually pulling ahead. For example, while the A8 serves-up an exquisite dash and console combo, Lexus' cohesive design motif delivers a perfectly layered, multi-dimensional gestalt. Audi’s dash may seem like it was carved from a single piece of granite, but Lexus’ seems lovingly sculpted from the same stone.
The GS’ sensuous wood and leather tiller alludes to the brand’s trademark perfectionism. Smoked disco ball gauge faces add a bit of visual excitement to the borderline OCD. The Mark Levinson beatbox adds brilliant highs, life-like middles and full-bodied lows– setting the new standard for factory tunes. The GS’ ventilated hides keep the backside cool, but finding the right fan speed involves one too many menus via the (otherwise excellent) touch-screen Navigation system. And that’s where the GS450h picture starts to lose focus.
Check out the mileage on the Lexus hybrid’s information screen. In urban stop/start duty, the GS’ gas engine kicks in frequently and abruptly, taking over from the batteries. With the Levinson blasting and the A/C cranked, the GS450h's mileage never once threatened to get out of the lower twenties. Lower the A/C, hit the open road, set the cruise control to 65mph and you’re looking at… 25mpg. This is not what a Prius driver would call a hybrid halo car. OK, so the Lexus is a “performance hybrid.” All is forgiven, right?
If you’re a straight line junkie, yes. Acceleration is muscle car brisk. Hit the GS’ gas from a standstill and the torque-rich electric motor satisfies with a shove in the seat and a hum under the bonnet. After a brief powerband intermission, the CVT transmission throws the rev-happy 3.5-liter V6 in the mix, facilitating 0-60 runs that last a scant 5.2 seconds. Keep your foot in the juice and the CVT pushes the engine closer to redline, catapulting the GS down the highway.
Now, throw a corner at the GS and you’ll understand why Lexus won’t let you give the electronic Nanny the afternoon off. Everything's peachy at 70% effort. The sedan’s delightfully firm steering, solid chassis and buttoned-down suspension let you run the hybrid through the twisties like an equivalent Bimmer. Push harder and the various subsystems start to fight for control. The traction control incorrectly modulates the finicky powerband, inducing all-you-can-eat buffet levels of understeer, triggering stability control. Diehard pistonheads are done before they begin.
The large disc brakes feel a bit touchy– charged as they are with regenerating power as well as curbing momentum– but they stop the “fun” with genuine conviction. Unfortunately, dropping anchor at speed induces massive nosedive, which dramatically increases the chances of an understeer slide. Worst of all, the flawed underpinnings throw the famous Lexus ride in the trash, shaking the rearview mirror at every pothole. The 40-series tires take most of the blame, transmitting every surface imperfection directly to one's posterior. Top it off with a Porsche-sized cargo hole and the GS Hybrid's synergies seem less than entirely appealing.
Forget about the GS450h’s poor ride/handling balance (if possible) and consider the model’s real competition: the superb V8-powered GS430. Lexus’ gas-only model offers a perfectly linear powerband, a world-class autobox, 400lbs less in tow, better handling and a bigger trunk. The penalty: three to five miles less travel per gallon of gas and no planet saving feel-good factor. Like the childhood genius who struck it rich, the GS450h proves that appearances can be deceiving. Whether you’re a hybrid sedan or a Geek, developing genuine character is a bitch.
[Lexus provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]
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Back in 2001, it cost about $100 to recycle a battery pack the size of that in the Lexus GS (132 pounds). Costs then were about a dollar per pound. With NiMH this cost was entirely offset by the value of the nickel recovered, which at the time worked out to about $100. (Nickel is about 24% of the weight of an NiMH cell, $3/pound back in 2001.) (I did learn that nickel now costs $16/pound--about $400 extra for this battery pack vs. 2001--haven't heard about this.) Even going with the high number and assuming two-thirds of the cost is energy (it's probably less), we have about $70, or roughly 35 gallons of gas. How long does it take the GS 450h to save 35 gallons of gas? If it gets 22 mpg, and the non-hybrid gets 19, then it saves about 0.7 gallons per 100 miles. So about 5,000 miles.
Excellent analysis. Granted it doesn't make the GS 450h a better car, but it does disprove the big-picture hybrid energy cost issue. That is, as long as Nickel recycling prices stay like this.