The Lexus GS300h is the most affordable large hybrid luxury sedan on the market, with a starting price of $79,000.
Unlike its German rivals, the starting price requires no options as it is already well-loaded, so our GS300h test car was stock standard, a near impossible feat for an Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
In fact, its hybrid equivalent in the Mercedes-Benz stable, the E300, is $108,900 while the BMW 5 Series Active Hybrid starts at $119,900. To be fair, the Lexus petrol hybrid drivetrain isn’t a match for either the Benz’s diesel hybrid that is unmatched for efficiency, or the BMW’s 3.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine coupled to an electric motor, which is a performance superstar.
Then again, perhaps that’s central to the appeal of the Lexus GS300h, as it provides adequate power and torque without being over the top and partially negating the point of a hybrid.
The GS300h is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that is coupled to an electric motor. Despite its larger size, it’s essentially a bigger brother of the Toyota Prius engine. With engine and motor working together, it delivers 164kW of power. On its own the electric motor has 105kW, but it’s not as simple as adding the two power and torque figures together for a combined output.
Lexus therefore only quotes that the petrol engine pumps out 221Nm of torque and the electric motor assists with 300Nm more.
With a kerb weight of 1820kg, the GS300h is by no means a sports car, claimed to go from standstill to 100km/h in 9.2 seconds. Yet it rarely feels slow or sluggish.
The Lexus GS range currently consists of the GS250, 300h, 350 and 450h. The difference in price between the GS250 and GS300h is just $2000. For that little bit extra you get claimed combined fuel economy of 5.2L/100km (as opposed to an average 9.3L/100km for the petrol V6-only GS250) although the GS250 is 0.6sec faster to 100km/h. It also gets a traditional six-speed gearbox that works well with the smooth-sounding V6, rather than the hybrid’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) that holds revs high and exposes this luxury car as a slightly undernourished four-cylinder model.
Based on the 4.1L/100km fuel difference and a fuel price of $1.50 per litre, you will save $6.15 per 100km of travel, which means you will recoup your $2000 investment in about 32,500km. That said, the depreciation of hybrids has historically been higher than that of non-hybrid models.
Math and logic aside, the Lexus GS300h is a proper, smooth luxury car. From the outside the quirky Japanese styling of the previous generation has been replaced with a solid, elegant design that is not as outlandish as the Lexus IS range, and should age well.
The GS300h Luxury exudes Japanese craftsmanship and attention to detail, despite being a base model. Everything inside feels nice to touch, and although the eight-inch infotainment screen’s resolution could be higher, it doesn’t look outdated.
The two-tone white leather (proper leather, not part-vinyl as the Germans use) and black interior help the cabin standout. The front seats are plush and very comfortable, while the rear provide ample leg and headroom to satisfy two large adults or three if necessary. Our two year old son happily sat in his Isofix childseat with plenty of room for him to freely kick around without hitting the front seats.
The 452-litre boot capacity is a full 101L down compared to the non-hybrid models, thanks to the electric motor’s batteries that reside behind the rear seat backrest, yet we still managed to fit a large pram and a few others bags inside without a problem.
Lexus’ computer mouse-like controls, the second generation Lexus remote touch (LRT), drives the satellite navigation and audio system. Although significantly improved over the previous version, it’s still fidgety and over-sensitive. It can also be rather frustrating to use while driving as trying to follow the cursor on the screen can be distracting (though it does lock on to app-like tabs). A simple rotary dial – as in all its German rivals – is far more ergonomic.
The satellite navigation and infotainment system itself is also not up to Mercedes-Benz, Audi or BMW standards in terms of display detail, ease of use and advanced connectivity. For example, there’s no internet or app availability. It’s clearly a generation behind the BMW iDrive, Audi Connect and Mercedes-Benz Comand. In one instance, it also continuously asked us permission to reroute its direction due to new traffic conditions, regardless of how many times permission was given.
The Sport Luxury models gain a significantly larger 12.3-inch (with a Mark Levinson 17-speaker, 835-watt audio system) but still use the same interface.
Having programmed in our destination, we took our Lexus out to Jenolan Caves near the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Over the 400km return drive from Sydney – which included plenty of start-stop traffic and highway, it managed fuel economy of 6.4L/100km.
It’s immediately obvious that cabin refinement is superb. Road noise is basically non-existent and the way in which the GS300h’s suspension swallows up road bumps makes for a very smooth and comfortable ride – it’s far more cossetting than the petrol F Sport model we’ve previously driven.
It’s easy to drive and behaves as you’d expect a large car to, but sadly for drivers chasing premium engineering, offers no real dynamic verve. The steering is overly light, and not particularly quick, as it is in an E-Class. But where the Mercedes impresses with tactility and fluency that matches its cruising character, the Lexus disappoints with its vacant patch on centre and vagueness when trying to pin a line in a corner.
Despite being rear-wheel-drive, the electronic stability control (ESC) is overzealous in its operation, limiting the otherwise decently balanced chassis. For all its ESC allows, the Lexus GS may as well have been front-wheel-drive, which could potentially make it even more economical.
Power delivery is smooth, if not a little too linear, but as with the dynamics, there’s no sense of verve. The CVT makes a whiney noise, but not enough to displease. The hybrid system automatically switches to electric-vehicle (EV) mode when stopped, driving at slow speeds or going downhill if the drive selector is left in eco or normal, but it will always keep the petrol engine running when in Sport mode.
Coming up our steep driveway the Lexus stubbornly remained in EV mode, despite not having the means to deliver the needed torque to get up at a reasonable pace.
Only when we forced the accelerator further did it switch on its petrol engine. It struggles to detect gradients, relying instead on the accelerator position and speed to determine a switching point. When everything is on though, the pull of the petrol and electric systems together give a very brisk uphill acceleration.
Out on the open road, combined hybrid powertrain performance feels basically the same in all three modes when the accelerator is flattened.
Blind-spot monitoring systems (which detect a car in the driver’s blindspot and provide a visual warning on the wing mirrors), 10 airbags, reversing camera and sensors plus all the usual electronic safety systems are standard equipement as you’d expect from a Lexus.
The GS300h’s cruise control system is a tad primitive in that it allows the Lexus to run over the set speed limit going down hill, in contrast to its German rivals that simply keep the set speed regardless of road gradient.
Overall, though, for about $80,000 the question comes down to the GS250 or GS300h. Unless you require maximum boot space, it has to be the more frugal and barely slower hybrid. Other cars to consider within a similar price range are the diesel-powered BMW 520d, Mercedes-Benz E220 and Audi A6 2.0-TDI, all of which all use less fuel per 100km than the GS300h without a need for two motors and the added complexity with which that brings.
Nonetheless, you’ll be paying a lot more for options to match the Lexus’ standard specification and interior class. The premium is only worth it if you genuinely love to drive your large luxury car.