The Lexus brand used to hold an affinity for older drivers, people who could remember when Dewey did not defeat Truman. In our youth-obsessed culture, however, that sort of brand identity does not sell cars, so Lexus set out to change its image in the only way possible: changing its products. Which is why the front of the 2013 Lexus GS 450h looks like the spiky hair of a Japanime character.
And with the GS 450h, looks are more than skin-deep. Despite being a hybrid, often code for slow and wallowy, the GS 450h takes off with the force of a charging rhino and hammers on corners like a swordsmith crafting a katana. It's not the first car I would choose for slewing along backcountry roads, but it can certainly deliver a thrilling ride.
Making all this possible is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine using Lexus' unique combination of port and direct injection, aided by an electric drive system. The engine produces 286 horsepower by itself, a number that seems a little low to me, considering the fuel system. Possibly Lexus could pull more power out of it, but that might adversely affect fuel economy. Torque is only 254 pound-feet.
The electric drive system is a bit more complex, using two motor-generators producing 180 horsepower and 200 horsepower. They pull juice from a 30-kilowatt nickel metal hydride battery pack. Rather than add up power numbers, Toyota cites an honest-sounding 338 horsepower for total system output, and does not give a total torque figure.
The company also cites a 0-to-60-mph figure of 5.6 seconds. When I put the pedal down, the car shimmied a little, the traction control light flashed repeatedly in the instrument cluster, and then the car got down to the business of plowing up the road with a force that felt unstoppable even as it sailed past 60 mph.
Part of that inexorable rush comes because of the continuously variable transmission, a standard part of Lexus' hybrid drive system. There are no power dips due to gear changes; the system just keeps adjusting ratios through a planetary gearset that I do not pretend to understand. Lexus gives this transmission a manual shift mode, but its dirty little secret is that there are no fixed gears. Drivers can tap the paddles to "downshift" or "upshift," but really they are just being faked out by programmed virtual shift points.
The transmission also has a Sport mode, delivering more-aggressive power ratios, and this is coupled with a dial on the console that puts the GS 450h in Sport and Sport Plus modes. I think it is a little goofy when automakers give a car multiple sport setting controls. Why not just make one big red button that says Sport? It is all electronic anyway, so just tie the different sport settings to one control.
As it stands, Sport in the GS 450h means a more aggressive throttle response, and Sport Plus adds a more rigid suspension setting. Yes, the GS 450h also comes with an adaptive suspension, a big part of why it can triple recommended speeds on turns without putting its beam at a 45-degree angle.
There is no explicitly labeled comfort mode. While not in Sport or Sport Plus, the ride still retains a somewhat rigid character, competently handling all the rough stuff but not insulating the driver from it. Lexus has come a long way from the soft suspensions of its prior models.
That same dial with the Sport and Sport Plus settings also has an Eco mode, which detunes the acceleration to help the car achieve maximum fuel economy. Personally, I found it very frustrating to use, and not all that helpful. When I wanted to save gas with the GS 450h, I just accelerated more gradually. After a week of driving in a wide variety of conditions, the car turned in 31.4 mpg average, right in its EPA range of 29 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
Fuel economy in a car this size can only be achieved with a hybrid power train, and it comes in about 10 mpg better than its sibling, the GS 350. And the GS 450h has more power. It's a win-win situation, except for a little lost trunk space.
In the cabin, the GS 450h gets something its nonelectrified sibling does not: matte bamboo trim. I suppose the bamboo, as a sustainable wood, is intended to appeal to greenies, but I just like its texture. Dark wood with gloss so thick it feels like plastic is way overdone. The matte finish on this bamboo trim drives home the fact that this is real wood.