The Lexus GS450h is essentially the GS430 with its 300 horsepower V8 and automatic transmission replaced by a hybrid-electric drivetrain with a continuously-variable transmission (CVT). The visible differences are few: it has the same classy, curvy, attractive shell, with small HYBRID badges here and there. On the inside, the tachometer was replaced with a kilowatt gauge marked to 250 kW; a small blue zone below 0 tells how much power is being recovered (by braking or by coasting). The big center screen has additional views, so you can see your average gas mileage (in a histogram, showing gas mileage for each minute of the past 30 minutes) and get a graphical display of where the power is coming from or being stored.
As with the Toyota Prius, once it's warm, the GS450h shuts off its engine when stopped (e.g. at stop signs) or coasting; but it's not noticeable, due to the effective sound and vibration insulation, which make it hard to tell when the engine is running at idle. The giveaway was a telltale little shake now and then when the engine stopped after idling for a moment while the car was stopped. There was no real giveaway when coasting; the engine could be either on or off with no real indication.
The 450h designation departs from Lexus' typical naming scheme (carline, S for cars or X for trucks, and engine size), because the extra motor provides about the same extra power as another liter of displacement would. This logic works for sprints, but you don't get the same instant-on response that you do from the 4.3 liter V8 in the GS430. Part of the reason may be the CVT, which has to downshift - so to speak - to get into the engine's power band. Electric motors theoretically have peak torque right off idle, but with the motor powering the front wheels and the engine powering the back wheels, the motor has to wait for the engine and transmission to contribute its piece. Thus, takeoff could sometimes be a little slower than expected. It's still amazingly, heart-thumpingly quick; just not instant.
Cornering is not as nimble as with the GS430, and it seems that the stability/traction control system cuts in more often, both on turns and on acceleration. Acceleration is extremely fast nonetheless, though it might not feel nearly as fast as it is. The CVT, with its smooth transition from one gear ratio to the next, is partly at fault; a common complaint of cars with CVTs is a "slowness" not borne out in the numbers. The very quiet engine also removes some sensation of acceleration, as does the way the engine reaches a particular rpm and holds it while the CVT varies gear ratios to increase speed. The GS450h can move like a bat out of the inferno, and post stunning 0-60 and quarter-mile times, but between the sound insulation, the lack of vibration, and the CVT, it doesn't always feel like the speed demon it is. The GS430 gives instant oomph at any speed, and when you hit the gas, the transmission downshifts immediately and firmly, jerking the passengers back in their seats; though a little less speedy, it feels quicker. But if you're looking for a car that can run like nobody's business, and still look and feel like a luxury car, while getting the gas mileage of a V6-powered Camry (if the EPA is to be believed), the GS450h makes the cut.
Being a Lexus, the loud-exhaust routine is not done. The exhaust remains silent; there is no muscle-car rumble, though the power is certainly there. We averaged a mere 16 mpg with our GS430 test drive; the GS450h brought us 20 mpg, and the mileage probably would have been much better had we not been driving in winter, with the cold weather forcing the engine to remain on longer to keep us (and the catalyst) warm. In city or tough commuter traffic, the 25 mpg EPA estimate is probably quite achievable; hybrids thrive on the conditions that destroy gas mileage in a typical V8-powered car.
The grippy tires and advanced stability control kept the driver in full control most of the time - it might be a luxury sedan, but the Lexus can take corners at absurd speeds, thanks to the stability control. Unlike the 430, though, the stability control engages quite frequently. In snow, the optional summer tires on our test car proved to be hazardous, providing almost no traction. The CVT does help by providing a snow mode, where the gearing is kept relatively high, so that movements of the gas pedal are dampened down to reduce slippage.
The brakes are quite good, unlike the heavy boats of yesteryear; and the interior, though nicely sized, is not huge (nor is the exterior unparkably big). But that rather feel of being totally cushioned from nasty external influences - the silence and the knowledge that you are driving one of the world’s best and most prestigious mass-produced makes - remains intact, sans the old-fashioned wallowing.
The suspension can be switched to a sport mode, which makes it a bit stiffer, passing more road feel through. Even in normal mode, with the standard 18 inch wheels shod in thin layers of rubber (245/40R18 Z-rated tires), the ride was stiff for a Lexus, with some shocks being passed right through. The high body stiffness and sound insulation did eliminate the usual subsonic boom from going over bumps. The overall balance is still good for most people. The tires, though, were terrible on snow - even with all the stability features in play and the CVT in snow mode, the Lexus can easily get out of hand. That's common to many sporty cars, to be fair.
Safety is assisted by standard side curtain and side impact airbags for both front and rear passengers, tire pressure monitoring, driver and passenger knee airbags, height adjustable headrests for all seats, stability control, a first aid kit, and other features. As one might expect, stopping power is impressive, with four wheel antilock disc brakes.
Interior space is good for four passengers and their luggage, which is more than you can say for most sporty cars. Rear leg room is not generous, but it is sufficient.
The red-stained wood and leather steering wheel added to the feel; surfaces are generally pleasant to touch and made of appropriate materials. The 450h interior, with its more conventional wood stain, was considerably more attractive and went well with the black plastic and leathers. The wood trim helps to make the Lexus look more like, well, a Lexus; though the passenger still sees a huge, curving expanse of fairly plain black plastic. At night, the interior is lit with a multitude of bright blue LED lamps instead of traditional bulbs, which saves power and reduces long-term maintenance.
The instrument panel has large gauges dominated by a 160 mph speedometer, which seems a bit excessive; it cramps legal speeds into a relatively small area. The gauges are clear and easy to read in all types of light (though setting the brightness is not as easy as one would think, thanks to an over-application of gadgetry).
There are three driver presets for seat positions and radio stations - most cars have two at most - and all four windows have auto power down and auto power up with pinch protection, which ends up being more convenient than you'd think. What's more, there are presets for both driver and passenger - each of the front doors has its own triplet of buttons.
The GS series' navigation system has an extra-large screen, even the cars without the nav system get it. This is a shame, because it makes using the climate control and stereo system unnecessarily painful and distracting. In a car as well-designed and generally impressive as the GS, the contortions this system puts people through seem thoroughly out of place and unnecessary.
With or without the nav system, then, you have to use the big screen to access sound and vent system features that should really be given to knobs. As an example, one would think that bass and treble would be adjusted using the large tune knob. Here, you have to press the Audio button next to the touch-screen (far away from the stereo), then press Sound, then press (or hold down) a + or - sign by bass, treble, or midrange. Balance and fade are handled the same way. You can easily switch modes (e.g. AM or CD) using buttons or a steering-wheel control - other wheel controls are volume and up/down - but changing audio properties requires an attention-diverting trip to the screen. This could be less dangerous (any time you're not looking at the road, it's dangerous) if the system remembered audio settings by station or mode, but it doesn't. Given that there is a tuning knob anyway, using pushbuttons for the audio controls just seems illogical. Some climate control functions, such as shutting off the air conditioner compressor and manually changing fan speed, also require trips to the touch-screen.
On the lighter side, the touch screen does provide a great deal of audio, climate, and trip information in a large. convenient space. The trip computer has distance-to-empty, gas mileage since the last refill (not since the last checkpoint), and average speed and distance (for this trip). That information is also provided right on the odometer, which can easily be cycled between range, tank average mileage, current gas mileage, and an "odometer only" display; temperature and time are always shown over the big screen. The touch screen itself can also be shut off, or used as a telephone book.
The navigation system is fairly standard issue. The weak point is its predeliction for ignoring smaller roads and putting the driver through huge detours, even though you can see the road on the screen; the system just won't use it. It also seems haphazard in the items on the list of attractions. The strength, compared with other navigation systems, is the ease of entering a destination, with a choice of ABCD or QWERTY entry keyboards on the screen, and touch-typing on the screen itself. That makes it faster to put addresses into the system.
The big screen really shows its merit when you order the backup camera, which is under the trunk lid; the tiny camera shows a bird's eye view of what is behind the car as you back up. It isn't meant to show the distance to the next object (it's not very good at that), though it's quite handy for getting right up to the line in a parking space; it's there to save the life of that child who started walking behind the car as you were backing out of your driveway. A surprising number of children die each year in driveway-leaving accidents, and we're glad to see that backup cameras are becoming more popular each year. It's a great invention. On the GS, it goes on automatically as soon as you get into reverse.
Superimposed on the screen, if you get the parking alert system and press the hidden button that turns it on, is the parking alert icon, showing the car and any areas where you are getting close to a solid object (as sensed through detectors in the bumpers). The Lexus has several sensors in each bumper, including two set at angles; and since it knows (and shows) which way the wheels are pointed, it can figure out what you have a likelihood of hitting, and sounds the audio alert appropriately. The system is a bit conservative, going into solid-beep and red-bar mode with a good few inches left, but that's probably a good thing. The displays (in the instrument panel, replacing the odometer, and on the big center-stack screen) show 1-3 bars around the sensor that's detecting an object to tell how close you are, and turn from yellow to red to show that you should really be stopping now. It's the best system of its kind we've seen, and it's good to see it in both front and back.
Other controls are standard for the class, except for the awkward drop-down panel to the left of the steering wheel, which contains mirror controls, the backlighting rheostat, trunk and gas cap releases, headlight washers, and the trip odometer controls. If equipped, this panel also includes the on-off control for the parking alert system and the convenient rear sunshade up-down control. A word about that sunshade: a press of a button brings it up or pulls it down, and it covers nearly the entire rear window. Though it does a good job of shielding passengers (usually children?) from the sun, it is also very easy to see through, so that leaving it up is not an issue most of the time. This is one of the nicer options for parents, or for those who find the auto-dimming rear-view mirror to be inadequate.
Storage pockets abound, including sturdy map pockets on all four doors that fold out if needed, an overhead sunglass tray, a dual-level center console, and a little space in the glove compartment, which also contains the massive owner's manual and a much smaller, more colorful guide to get people quickly started on the many features the GS can have. The center console doubles as an armrest, sliding forward if needed; as an armrest, it covers the central switchbank, which includes the three-way transmission switch (power, standard, snow) the sport/normal suspension switch, and the seat warmers/coolers. The front has cupholders under a cover, while the rear has cupholders inside a drop-down center console which also provides oversized-object trunk access. On the back of the front seats are well designed map pockets for rear-seat passengers; unlike mesh versions, these probably will age well.
Control backlighting is good at night, with all but the steering wheel controls, stalks, and overhead buttons (for the optional sunroof and the interior lights) lit up. The climate control fan is fairly quiet even when going at a high rate, and the stereo has good sound and an easy to use six-disc changer right in the dashboard. Dual zone climate control is standard, along with a smog sensor that can temporarily shut off outside air, and a filter for the rest of the time.
Visibility is good in all directions, despite a small blind spot caused by the rear pillar; the headlights are extremely bright with the high intensity discharge headlights and well focused, and the power-folding outside mirrors include an anti-glare coating as well as defrosters; what's more, the mirrors automatically tilt down when you reverse (so you can see the parking-space stripes or curb better), quickly enough to be useful. Likewise, the optional rain-sensing wipers actually come on when the windshield gets wet, and have no compunction about moving to high gear when needed. One nice touch is a delayed extra-single-wipe after the washer system is activated, to get that little drip that always shows up when the wipers are done.
The GS has a huge number of interesting features, from the "garage door controls and compass integrated into the auto-dimming rear-view mirror" to the "smart locks." Keys never need to leave your pocket; you unlock the door by touching the handle (all doors unlock if you touch any but the driver's door handle), start the car by pressing a button, and lock the car by pressing a button on any of the four doors. If the battery dies, you can slide out a mechanical key and use it in the driver's door.
All windows (and the sunroof if you have one) can be opened from the outside to let heat out quickly, and from the inside, all windows have express up and down controls (with pinch protection).
Many adjustments are easy to make, though it apparently takes a dealer to set some preferences (e.g. default locking behavior; we're not sure why Lexus doesn't integrate this into the trip computer, as Chrysler and General Motors have). The seats are very adjustable, with electric height, fore/aft, bolster, and other controls; the steering column has power tilt and telescope; and, as mentioned earlier, the gauge backlighting can be adjusted (some cars only let you adjust night-time brightness, but the GS lets you adjust daytime brightness as well). The front seat goes very far back, making it convenient to use a laptop from the driver's seat while stopped.
The base price of the GS450h four-door sedan is a whopping $55,595, including destination charge. The GS430, on the other hand, starts at $52,000. Those looking at the numbers will see that the extra cost is a bargain in some ways; Lexus claims that the GS450h does 0-60 in an amazing 5.2 seconds, while the V8 model, which we think feels faster, takes a full half-second longer to make the sprint. Yet, the 450h managers to get far better city mileage - a full 7 mpg better - and about 3 mpg more on the highway. Those who spend more time in traffic, and who want to reduce their impact on the environment or their support of bloodthirsty oil-supported dictators, may find that the GS450h is well worth the extra cost. In a typical year, the government tells us that the hybrid option will save just $320, but that equates to 3 barrels of oil. What's more, the engine produces proportionately few pollutants; it's a Bin 3, super ultra low emissions vehicle (SULEV).
Either way, the GS450h is nearly as quick as an automatic-transmission Corvette, but with full sound insulation, four comfortable seats, and plenty of space in front, back, and in the trunk. The Corvette, for what it's worth, is rated at 17 city, 27 highway, with the automatic.
The GS450h comes with a boatload of advanced technology: the V6 itself has dual variable valve timing; the CVT has a snow mode and power mode; the electric power steering is variable-ratio; the car rides on an adaptive variable suspension; the brakes are electronically controlled and regenerate power; the high intensity discharge headlamps are auto-levelling to save other drivers' sight, and include integrated fog lamps. The variable intermittent wipers can be set to automatic mode, sensing rain. A tire pressure monitoring system and dual zone thermostatic climate control system with a smog sensor (it won't take in fresh air when in the presence of bad pollution). Bluetooth is built in for easy cellphone handoffs. Then there's the vehicle stability control with all-speed traction control, both state of the art. And the safety features... airbags everywhere, in short, as well as pretensioners, advanced ABS, and brake assist.
More conventional features include the theft deterrent system, tool and first aid kits, perforated leather trim, standard heated seats, genuine wood trim, dual power heated outside mirrors, ten-speaker CD stereo with six-disc in-dash changer, antenna embedded in the rear window, power locks and power trunk closer, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, and wheel-mounted audio and trip computer controls.
Our test car had only a few packages. Run-flat all-season tires ran to $480; again, all-season may be a bit of a misnomer. The Mark Levinson audio system added $1,780 but we'd stick with the standard, very good audio system. The navigation system, which allowed voice activation, ran another $1,900. A rear spoiler added a mere $200, and the trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks were, mysteriously, $194 and not standard.
The total seems rather high until you realize how little $60,149 can buy if you look in the wrong places - for example, a Mercedes or a Cadillac Escalade. The GS provides many safety features, almost guaranteed reliability, an excellent dealer channel, stunning speed, and pretty good gas mileage for a luxury sedan. On the other hand, if you’re into the feel of performance and not actual track numbers, and can give up some of the luxury and actual speed, there are also some rather nice alternatives (albeit without the top-of-class reliability) — the Hemi Charger SRT-8 and BMW 3-series come to mind. But you’d give up some comfort and gas mileage.