I was going to begin this long term wrap up on our Lexus GS 450h with a list of awards that Lexus has won over the years, but the sheer number of accolades this brand has collected, makes that impossible in this space.
There are literally pages and pages of global and domestic awards for almost every Lexus model ever released. I count one-hundred, along with a host of individual honours for the Japanese luxury brand, and a stack of others for specific Lexus models - some over seven consecutive years.
While many believe that Lexus hasn't quite yet nailed the styling of its luxury stable when compared with same segment offerings from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and now Jaguar, Lexus buyers don’t seem all that fussed.
In fact, surveys say, that this rather conservative group of buyers care more about reliability, quality, comfort, and the long list of standard features that a Lexus badge guarantees, than they do about the look of the car.
Take reliability, I’ve been in and out of this Lexus GS 450h up to 10 times a day, seven days a week and in all kinds of weather, and it hasn’t missed a beat. Not that you would ever give it a second thought, this being a Lexus and all.
It wouldn’t matter whether you were living in the Russian Province of Murmansk, north of the Arctic Circle, where temperatures regularly fall to minus 39 degrees, you would expect no less of your Lexus regardless of the sub-freezing conditions in this part of the world.
This is a car company with a reputation for bulletproof reliability, not only through clever marketing mind you, but by sheer word of mouth from owners of these vehicles.
Along with proven reliability, comes the added benefit of ultra low cost of ownership. It’s a substantial consideration for private and fleet buyers alike and a deciding factor in the purchase decision of a Lexus.
I once read an article where a senior Lexus executive in the United States said in his address to the media at a well-known motor show that, “A five-year old Lexus will be more reliable than a new car from any of our competitors”
It was a strong, if not, contentious statement to make in such a forum, but one can only assume that Lexus had the data along with a string of those US based JD Power awards for ‘Long Term Dependability’ and ‘Customer Satisfaction’ to back up the claim.
That said it’s not all about luxury and dependability for those buyers interested in such an unusual car, as is the GS 450h. While those two Lexus trademarks remain core to the brand in equal measure, it’s as much about performance and the cutting edge technology, which this car is brimming with.
For 2010, which is the car we’ve been driving for the last four weeks of our long-term test, Lexus have added a few extra goodies and some faint styling improvements, as well as several safety upgrades to this no compromise hybrid.
For starters, the front grille area flows a little cleaner than the previous edition with horizontal grille lines - it's smoother and faster looking albeit subtle.
There are also some newly designed hybrid blue rear lamps, which along with the blue start/stop button on the dash, serves to further differentiate the model from it’s petrol powered siblings.
I’m still not 100 percent sold on the styling when compared with rival models from Germany and the UK, it lacks overall character, but it’s getting there. If Lexus do manage to get this right with the next generation car, then the Europeans will face a ‘clear and present danger’ on a whole new scale.
Safety enhancements include active front headrests and Advanced Pre-Collision Safety System with pre-collision brake technology, and that’s across the entire GS line up.
Finally, and not before time, Lexus has added full iPod connectivity (before you only had a single audio jack) so that playlists, etc, can be controlled via the remote audio buttons on the steering wheel.
While you do see the occasional GS 450h on the road (and I’m looking for them) there aren’t as many as I would have thought. I’m not sure prospective buyers fully appreciate or even understand this particular hybrid.
This is no ordinary ‘Hybrid’. I mean, it’s not like a Prius, which can deliver crazy low fuel consumption figures around the city, the GS hybrid is a bona fide stealth performance sedan, capable of bullet like propulsion, but never using more than 12.6-litres/100kms.
It’s only when you test-drive the vehicle and experience what the GS 450h is truly capable of, will you start shaking your head in disbelief, as I have been doing for the last few months.
It’s not rocket science, and there's no highly tuned V8 at play under the bonnet. It’s just that the electric motor part of this hybrid, in concert with the 3.5-litre V6 drivetrain, produces around 361 Nm of torque from the millisecond you drop the throttle. It’s a positively addictive driving experience, especially when you’re sitting at the lights on the inside lane and need to re-claim the lead position due to a converging traffic situation.
That’s not all, in-gear acceleration on board the GS 450h is also torque rich and utterly relentless, no matter how steep an incline you’re climbing.
It’s extra smooth too with it’s electric variable transmission or 'Hybrid Synergy Drive', which varies the ratio of two power sources (in this case petrol and electric) to output speed and power, without the need to physically shift from one gear ratio to the next and the loss of momentum that is characteristic of a conventional automatic transmission. In effect, the CVT like transmission offers an infinite range of gear ratios and seamlessly blends the petrol and electric motors for effortless acceleration.
It’s also an incredibly comfortable car, with sumptuously soft leather seats (warmed and cooled of course), which are thickly padded although, it’s a pity the hybrid version doesn’t get a more body hugging seat design, to further differentiate the car from the other GS variants.
That said it’s a daily treat to climb into a car with this level of comfort and kit, without ever having paid for a single option. So sublime is the GS 450h, that it’s easy to take this level of luxury for granted.
The same cannot be said for the GS 450h’s handling prowess. The competition that plays in luxury sports sedan segment, offers some of the best on-road dynamics in the business, and Lexus need to up the ante in this department.
It’s a heavy car at 1865 kilograms (up to 200kg more than its direct competitors) and while it’s confident enough up to a point, it just doesn’t feel as composed as one would like, through the twisty bits.
It’s a combination of balance and weight, as well as the power steering calibration, which despite having plenty of weight on turn in, isn’t consistent or quick enough. It’s as though the system apportions steering weight for the sake of weight alone and the effect is a lack of feel on turn in.
Lexus are capable of much better, as they have proved that with the hard-hitting IS-F, which brings power assisted steering calibration much closer to where it should be on a high-powered sports sedan of this calibre.
To be fair though, the GS model was launched internationally back in 2005, but we’re told on good authority, that we can expect an all-new generation car GS some time around June 2011. If our sources are correct, the new car will be more aggressive in its styling, and offer the kind of performance that may leave the Euro boys standing in the dust.
That said you’re not going to buy a Lexus hybrid such as the GS 450h because it can leaps away from a set of traffic lights quicker than the next bloke, or purely because of the high level of luxury kit on board. You can get all that and then some, with the V8 powered GS 460.
But what you won’t get is a combined fuel consumption of 7.9-litres/100km. Not a hope. This is where the GS 450h cleans up the competition. You can drive this hybrid with considerable intent all week, and the worst fuel consumption reading you’re likely to see is 12.6-litres/100km. It’s also slightly better on the 2010 model, but I can’t offer any explanation for this improvement.
But hybrids are not without a downside, and the GS 450h is no exception. The boot appears ridiculously small to the uninitiated although, truth be told, I managed to squeeze in two large soft bags and a few other odds and ends, but you can forget about venturing anywhere near airport arrivals.
We’re also told by our overseas source that the issue of boot space and the limited rear legroom, has been addressed on the new generation car.
When the GS 450h joined the Lexus GS stable in 2007, I said “Lexus have built a futuristic car for the here and now”. Three years on, and with a few tweaks here and there, this is a car that can still outshine its closest competitors on several key fronts.
For a brand that only came to life in 1989, Lexus have achieved something truly extraordinary, not to mention capturing a significant slice of the luxury car market.
Their most recent and celebrated achievement has been in the development and production of the most sought after supercar in the world at present, the V10 powered hand built LF-A.
If Lexus can add just a small dose of LF-A DNA into their new generation GS cars, then we shall indeed see something very special in 2011, particularly when it comes to hybrid power.