A crafty marketing ploy had delivered a powerful hybrid in a range-topping Lexus.
Road test: 2013 Lexus GS450h
A few months ago, I asked one of Lexus's top brass how the company thought it would be able to appeal to GCC buyers with its hybrid luxury cars. To me it seemed a tough call: in a part of the world where motorists (in general) give scant consideration to the impact of their habits on the environment, would the company ever sell enough hybrids to merit their import? The answer was ridiculously simple. "You make the hybrid models the range toppers," he said. The penny dropped straight away. Genius.
The new GS450h is the first evidence I've seen of this crafty (yet worthy) sales tactic. The four-door saloon is already available in 2.5L and 3.5L V6 guises but the most powerful version is this, the do-gooder hybrid. There's more to hybrid technology than mere planet saving, however, and the 450h actually utilises the power from its twin electric motors to help the petrol engine punch out a not inconsiderable 340hp. And those 340 horses are sent through the rear wheels. The right wheels.
Before we get to the drive experience, let's take a look at the thing. In the past I've been openly critical of Lexus's rather bland styling language, which did nothing to distance the brand from its less glamorous Toyota origins. You certainly couldn't refer to the GS450h's front end as bland - quite the opposite, in fact. Yet, to my eyes, the look is now over the top, over stylised. It will quickly date and it's not in any way beautiful. Instead, it looks like the front end of an Audi A5 that's just started going through the crusher.
Inside, however, it's much more pleasant. High quality leather and plastics merge together in total harmony, although the switches are still a bit low-rent in places. The infotainment screen dominates the dashboard, being the world's largest at 31 centimetres and it's an improvement over the previous one in that it's easier to read. The joystick controller thing is horrid, though, and causes confusion - hardly ideal when you're in a rush. All in all, though, this is a pleasant environment that exudes refinement and high levels of quality construction.
You don't so much fire up the 450h as switch it on. A green dashboard illumination tells you it's ready to go, so you simply engage drive and press the throttle. Off it moves in virtual silence, up to speeds of 30kph or more, until it senses that more oomph is required - say when you floor the throttle or approach an upward slope - at which point the engine kicks in and takes over proceedings. That it does so without even the slightest physical hesitation is testament to the huge advancements made in hybrid drivetrains in recent years. It's extremely clever stuff.
With the petrol engine in full swing, it feeds power back to the batteries and, whenever the car senses it's appropriate, it switches off the V6 and resorts to electric mode. Coasting, standing at traffic lights, whenever the Lexus can stop belching out carbon, it does. And, for once, I really don't mind the fact that a car is taking over proceedings, because it's applied technology that benefits everyone and doesn't turn the 450h into a bore. On the contrary, this is one hybrid that delivers thrills aplenty to go with the clear conscience.
As I mentioned earlier, there's no shortage of firepower and it's all sent through the rear wheels. This could have resulted in an unholy mess of a car, with a confused personality and identity, yet it manages to straddle the roles of planet saver and executive rocket ship really well.
To prove the point, I switch to sport mode and take a sharp u-turn when there is no other traffic around. As the car's mass shifts around and the steering is on opposite lock, I floor the throttle and, even with the traction control on, the rear wheels spin up with a loud chirrup and the rear end struggles to retain grip and composure. If I'd disengaged the electronic nanny, I'd have been all over the place while liquidising those rear boots.
As the engine is worked harder, it gets louder, sounding more like a proper V6 should. And there's something I almost forgot to mention: when sport mode is selected, the analogue power reserve gauge instantly turns into a tachometer - again, technology that's actually useful rather than simply gimmicky. Mid-range power is truly impressive, making for effortless acceleration, but when you've had enough of being a hooligan, everything returns to silent, clean motoring once again. With average emissions of just 141g/km and consumption of 6.19L/100km, the facts speak for themselves. This really is a car for everyone.
The one downside to all this trickery is that it uses a hateful CVT gearbox in the name of ultimate economy, which definitely takes the edge off the experience, offering neither refinement nor involvement. Sort that out, Lexus, (along with that front end styling) and this could be a truly exceptional motor car.