Luxury Extras and Great Economy Make the Lexus GS450h a Top Choice

By dancurranjr On March 25th, 2009

lexus-gs450hOne of my favourite things about driving a hybrid lately is that manufacturers, for the most part, don’t feel the need to shove their cars in your face and say, ‘Look, I’m saving the world.’ A subtle badge and a quiet whir as the car rolls by, running only on battery power, suffice nicely.

While the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight helped bring hybrids to the mainstream, it’s the hybrid versions of regular, normal-looking cars that are really going to help carry the momentum until people purchase the hybrids purely for their superior economy and lower emissions.

This is where the Lexus GS450h comes in. While obviously it’s not Everyman’s hybrid, it does not try to go out of its way for extra attention. And unlike most hybrids out there, it’s a performer. Coupled with the GS350’s standard 303 horsepower 3.5-litre V6, the Lexus Synergy Drive hybrid system cranks out 339 horsepower, only three horses fewer than the more expensive (and significantly more thirsty) 4.6-litre V8 from the GS460. While there isn’t quite as much torque on tap as in the V8, the 450h definitely gets a bit twitchy in the rearend with the right pedal planted.

To get the GS450h, you simply take the standard GS350 and add on a Corolla, or around $18,000. This premium adds the hybrid system along with every conceivable option available, literally. A 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, heated and cooled leather seats, 18-inch aluminum wheels, automatic rain-sensing wipers, swiveling and auto-adjusting headlights, rear-window sunshade, rear seat side airbags, parking sensors and a nav system with backup camera are all included on top of the extremely well-equipped GS350’s standard kit. Outside of extra floor mats or dealer accessories, there really isn’t anything else you can add.

Inside, bits of tasteful deep-red wood trim adorn the centre console, door handles and semi-sporty-looking three-spoke steering wheel. Slide into the leather front buckets, push the start button and the steering wheel tilts down and extends toward you automatically. Memory switches allow multiple drivers to program the steering, power driver’s seat and side mirrors to reposition themselves at the push of a button.

Facing the driver are a trio of gauge pods, most notably the large kW meter on the left to indicate how much energy is being put into driving by the hybrid system at any given point. Typically this will sit below 50 kW in regular driving, but planting your foot and watching the needle sweep up as you’re pushed back in your seat is an exhilarating experience. Given Edmonton’s winter road conditions, I wasn’t brave enough to keep my foot planted long enough to see where the needle stops its sweep through the gauge, but I was thrilled by the strong response of the continuously variable transmission.

Though I’ve driven quite a few CVTs in the past, this was definitely the sportiest thus far. A “manual” shift option allows drivers to simulate moving through the gears. In the case of the GS450h, using this system will actually slow down the car’s acceleration as you shift the CVT away from the engine’s optimal acceleration range. My preference is to just leave it in drive and go, as I prefer my manuals with a heavy clutch and a tough six-speed.

On the road, the 450h is smooth and quiet to the point that you don’t notice that the transmission is never shifting. Flip the sport suspension switch and the ride firms up and keeps the car flat through corners, with very little hint of body roll. Again, the slippery winter roads prevented me from really testing out the grip levels, but a couple of dry traffic circles showed a slight tendency to understeer at the limit, with a light amount of steering feedback, but not at all disconnected like many other luxury cars.

Head and legroom was reasonable, although the sunroof did make things a bit closer than I like. The rear seats are comfortable for three adults, although legroom gets a bit tight with a taller driver or front passenger. Unfortunately, the rear seats do not fold down, which leads to the biggest issue with this, and many other hybrids — the batteries.

Directly behind the rear seat, taking up a large portion of the trunk, are the hybrid system’s battery packs. Though the trunk is still able to take a golf bag or two, the loss of storage is noticeable. But as far as sacrifices go, the trade-off for the economy of the hybrid system is well worth it.

The GS450h manages to be a standout in the performance and luxury departments while not trying to stand out in the crowd like many other hybrids. For this I applaud Lexus. While reducing our carbon footprint on the planet is important, what’s the point if we’re not able to enjoy our time on it?


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