Luxist Drives the Lexus GS 450h and Demands More Batteries in Every Car
The love affair with batteries begins as a little kid. By the time your fifth Christmas rolls around, the moment you spot an electronic gadget your mind is already processing the command, "Santa better have brought batteries..." Not only does that affair continue as an adult, but what was once a simple tryst – "Mom, I need batteries for my Coleco Football" – has turned into a full-on romance with every associated frustration due to the profusion of battery-powered gizmos.
Like, for instance, the Lexus GS450h. One of the sleepiest of the sleeper sedans, its batteries aren't responsible for keeping it running, only for supplementing the power of the 3.5-liter V6. Hybrids have generally left us tepid, but after a week with the Lexus we're almost ready to ask carmakers for another Christmas gift: put batteries in everything, and do it just like this.
Gallery: Lexus GS 450h
The IS and GS are the runners in the Lexus pack, but we see the GS so rarely that we tend to forget it exists, and sightings are accompanied by "What's that? Oh, that's right..." The GS is the second slowest selling Lexus in the line after the SC. A base LS is $20,000 more than a base GS, but the top flight sedan outsells the sport sedan nearly two-to-one. It's a pity because the GS represents a fine combination of performance and Lexus-ness, much more so than the IS because of the GS' larger, more luxurious cabin. Yet that could also be the reason for its being set off to the side in buyer's minds: it's a Lexus, but it's the most un-Lexus-like pup in the litter.
In the looks department, it's definitely a dues-paying member of the Lexus design club. The brand's aesthetic language is so comprehensive that you would need the flatworm's eyesight not to recognize it. Yet even among the L-Finesse lines, the GS has always stood out for us because of its rear end: that abridged backside has always come off as excessively hefty compared to the much sleeker front. It was especially bad when the car first came out and it looked like it was dragging a giant trunk behind it. Because it was. It has been addressed over the years, there remains something about the liftback-looking C-pillar-into-trunk treatment that works on Jaguar XF in a way that doesn't quite settle with us on the GS. The second-generation car was, to our eyes, the most visually composed.
Nevertheless, for all of our grousing, however, the GS is a decent looking car. We were never unhappy to grab the keys and take it absolutely anywhere.
Inside there is much the same to be said as for outside. A Lexus cabin is a room at the Ritz – you know what you're getting. Everything was there, and it's a quick job to figure out where it all is. The GS' center console has the same number of buttons as its stablemates, but they're round instead of square, and each one is separated by about a half of an inch. That layout makes them easier to find and use, and dispels the Mission Control sensation some of the other cars evoke.
A special mention goes to the steering wheel, which is nothing short of fabulous. Perfect size, perfect weight, perfect tactile feel (the wheel, not the steering). At first we were delighted to find it bereft of paddle shifters, imagining good old sense had prevailed and higher-ups realized no one was going to be playing Jensen Button in their GS. Later, though, we would wonder if they wouldn't have helped us enjoy the car even more.
Keep the Lexus key nearby, press the start button, and the sounds that greet you will be those same sounds you were enjoying before you pressed the start button, since the starts in its electric mode. There's no thrill in creeping noiselessly down an alley in a Prius or an Insight; that's what those cars are for. It's goofy, we know, but we got a serious kick out of rolling in the run silent, run deep mode in a car one wouldn't expect to be mute. Bring on the electric Murcielagos already...
Better than that were the sounds the car finally made when we did get on it: this is a Lexus that actually sounds like a car, not a library. There was wind noise and tire noise and the thumps of going over bumps, and all in good ways, orchestral ways, like a performance sedan should sound. All right, orchestral might be a bit much, but you get what we're saying. There was no engine noise -- for that you have to stand on it. But it's quite a bit of aural activity for a Lexus, and it works.
To the drive: the GS 450h is the world's first performance luxury hybrid, and we loved its performance. That's right, love. Why? Because batteries rock. They make things happen right now, and anytime we dabble in acceleration our preferred phrase to begin the proceedings is "right now." Acceleration from a stop isn't cheetah fast – cheetahs take time to get up to speed. This is gazelle fast: when you're being chased by something with teeth that's already running 60 mph, you don't have time to meander up to speed. The GS 450h accelerates like it doesn't want to be eaten. Instant torque, party of one, your stoplight is ready. And this is in any gear, at any speed. Hit gas, go. We were surprised to find out that it takes 5.2 seconds to get to 60, but over a sustained acceleration the limited battery power can only do so much. Oh, and the 450h does weigh a hippo-riffic 4,132 pounds – about 200 more than the GS 460.
In corners, the GS is remains perfectly horizontal through turns due to its Active Power Stabilizer Suspension System – flat as week-old soda or a zombie's EKG. It is not at all concerned with mid-corner bumps, either. Yet when the driving is hard and the road turns, we found the GS does as well, into two different performance sedans: one with the Traction Control On, another car with it off.
The steering is fine; we never had any questions about wheel placement. However, play the throttle with anything less than virtuoso finesse – something we challenge anyone to do in any Lexus that isn't the LF-A – and the transmission will hunt its way through gears in a turn and coming out of it turn for reasons we couldn't understand. We were never able to get it right. The GS 450h has 340 total horsepower and 267 lb-ft of immediate torque, plenty of goose to get keep it lively if it just chose the right gear. This is where we thought paddle shifters could help, since we would have no problem choosing the proper ratio for the task. Yes, you can use the tunnel shifter manually, but it's set so that upshifts are forward, and this particular driver finds that counterintuitive and ends up hitting the rev limiter at the exit of a turn.
Never mind that: the larger distraction was the TC, so severely intrusive it could wear an honorific like Master Joykill or King of Pain. The front outside wheel does a lot of work and its limits are reached quickly, and as soon as it starts squealing the TC shows up and hoses everything down. Power is cut, brakes start dancing, lights start flashing, the rear wheels do a little hop step to get things back in line. Effective, yes, like blowing out the candles on your birthday cake with a fire brigade ladder truck. It's homicide for fun, and it keeps the car at about a fifth grade level.
Then we turned the Traction Control off and discovered that the system sells the car and its driver short. It was like unlocking an easter egg, in that one little light transports you from elementary school to graduate school, maybe even postgraduate. Going hard into bends an invitation to an understeer party, but you can kick the back out with a bit of throttle – if the car has managed to remain in the right gear – and get it to come around. We didn't think we'd be doing such things in a Lexus, but yes, we did, and we liked it. When you stand on the gas again and give the transmission something to do, and it finally does select one gear with which to do it, the electric boost gets you going again immediately. If you get carried away with the two-plus tons and the GS detects things going bonkers, the TC comes on again.
We preferred the way the brakes performed after they had been worked hard for a while, and were a little tired. When fresh, nothing happens during the first little bit of brake pedal travel, then when things firm up it's all on in about half an inch. After the car has run some laps, the huge power remains but you've got more pedal travel with which to modulate it. It's not a setup for trail braking; it's better done with a stab to shed speed once you learn the timing. Of course, that makes it more challenging to use the throttle as best one can, and that helps to keep the car hunting through gears.
For comparison we drove the GS 460. That's a rear-wheel-drive V8 with 342 hp and 339 lb-ft, and the kilowatt meter in the GS 450h is replaced by a tachometer. Other than that, and the 200-pound weight gap, there isn't meant much difference between the two. Except that the 460 doesn't just sound like a car, it feels like a car; first gear puts the power down quickly enough, but after that it... slowly... builds like an internal combustion engine. That's the feeling, at least. In reality it's but 0.2 seconds slower to 60, clocking 5.4 seconds. But it feels like driving a glacier after the 450h.
You really notice it on the highway. The 460 needs to downshift when duty calls, where the 450h just runs away. We didn't test it, but we wouldn't be surprised if the 50 mph-70 mph times showed more separation.
On the subject of sounds, the 460 did have one regrettable surprise: its exhaust note. Unless you're beating up on the throttle, in which case it sounds like a proper V8, the car drones with a limp, soggy burble. It's as if they forgot to tune it.
Something else we didn't expect: the brakes feel different on the 460, easier to modulate out of the box, with less grabbiness. The 460's transmission, the same as in the 450h, still chases down gears through turns. Put it in Sport mode and the car drops a gear and behaves better, but it still needs to downshift and takes longer to get itself on the trot again coming out of turns. The normal setting in the 450h is almost lije the sport in the 460 because of the battery power, which could be why we didn't notice any substantial difference between normal and Sport in the 450h.
Good luck getting frisky with the back end in the 460, though. There simply isn't enough power ready quickly enough to yank itself out of turn at all, a state aided by the transmission's indecisiveness, so you'll only find yourself heading for the oncoming lane – or the cliff – if you want to play Fast and Furious drifter. Thankfully, the spirited stuff means you leave behind the leaf-blower-under-water exhaust noise, and the car gets its raucous on, joined by a quiet rush of wind and the tires doing a hard day's work.
The GS 450h, then, is a much more lively prospect, although hobbled by one minor and one serious hurdle: the surge and the price. Cruising down the highway it feels like there are minute surges in electric power, as if your foot is resting on a transformer. It didn't affect anything – the speedometer remained unmoved – but it took a couple of days to get used to.
The other hurdle is the price: the base GS 450h is $57,450. The GS 460 is $54,070. The new Mercedes E550 starts at $56,300, the new BMW 550i at $60,400. The E has 382 horsepower and is just as quick to 60, the BMW 360 horsepower but is is 0.2 seconds slower, and both are slightly larger inside and out than the Lexus. Highway mileage is a dead heat in all the cars, in the city the Lexus beats the others by a not-insignificant 6 or 7 mpg.
It might be asking a lot for Mercedes and BMW buyers to switch to a Lexus whose only monumental advantage is urban fuel sipping. And it might be asking a lot to have Lexus buyers to stump up for a car that looks like, but doesn't sound or act like, any other Lexus, and must be driven for thrills to be fully appreciated. That could explain the car's sales numbers: not enough people can appreciate what they're supposed to get from it.
Still, it's a fine car on paper and on the road, and in spite of all the 6-figure vehicular phenoms we've driven we won't forget pulling away from a light on PCH and thinking "More!" If we had to have a Lexus and our budget was limited to $200,000, we would forget all the rest. The GS 450h is the one.