ROAD TEST: Lexus GS 450h

ROAD TEST: Lexus GS 450h

OVERSTEER ROAD TEST: Lexus GS450h

Big, luxurious and bristling with power and high-tech gadgets, the Lexus GS 450h is the flagship of the mid-size GS range. But does it possess the soul and passion Lexus claim it has? We weren’t so sure after the launch and, after a week with one, we are even less convinced. Just as well it does everything else brilliantly then…

When Lexus launched the new GS range a couple of months back, they made the bold claim that the car now had far more passion, sportiness and “soul”. At the time we doubted that claim, and a bit of time spent behind the wheel on the launch drive only served to intensify that doubt.

The GS still didn’t feel like a sporty, exciting sports sedan in the same way a BMW 5 Series does and we were slightly mystified as to why Lexus would even want to try, to be completely honest.

After all, BMW does sporty and exciting damn well, and even arch-rival Mercedes still can’t nail it to the same degree, so why was Lexus trying to make the transition from silent perfection to sportiness and “soul”. Why take on the masters when you already had a damn good – and unique – angle already? We’re still not sure, but were left with one big question hanging over our heads – would this push for more sportiness and soul ruin the company’s single biggest USP, namely as the manufacturer of luxurious, dignified, damn-near silent cars…

We grabbed the biggest, baddest, most luxurious version – the GS 450h hybrid – to find out.

Outside

From the outside the middle-sized Lexus has morphed from a slightly odd, yet distinctive sedan-that-could-be-a-hatch look to a more angular, aggressive car that still manages to look strangely anonymous.

The aggressive, angular grille and frowny headlights make for a distinctive start to proceedings, but things take a turn for the generic as you move down the car. Not necessarily in a bad way, as it keeps a noticeable family resemblance to both the larger LS and the smaller IS, but in turn, it does come off simply looking like a scaled-up IS. Handsome, but not overly interesting.

But then Lexus has always down the subtle thing very well, and that starts to become more apparent the more time you spend with the car; the understated styling grows on you quite quickly and you start appreciating the elegance of the details that marks the Lexus out as being a product of the Japanese eye (the beauty in the detail) rather than the western eye (the beauty of the overall picture). Which I rather like.

Selecting metallic brown as an exterior colour may not be your first instinct when it comes to choosing your GS 450h, as it certainly wouldn’t be mine, but it works. Saying you drive a brown hybrid Lexus may sound like the best way to suggest that you are at least 80, but the color works surprisingly well with the GS’s understated shape and especially well with the – don’t laugh – cream, black and bamboo interior.

Inside

Now, I said don’t laugh, because the combination sounds horrific, but actually isn’t. It is, in fact, stunning and completely fitting with the character of the GS 450h.

The absolutely gorgeous bamboo trim is only available in the luxury pack that adds $24,000 to the price of the GS 450h, but also adds a staggering amount of kit to the already well-equipped Lexus.

Personally, the bamboo trim is almost worth the cost of admission here as it adds an atmosphere of distinctly Japanese elegance to the GS 450h’s cabin, making it feel very special and very Japanese at the same time.

And this is where the GS is at its strongest; when it ISN’T trying to be German. The Germans do the German thing best, so leave it to them. Lexus does elegant Japanese perfection better than anyone else, so stick to that boys. It works.

Bamboo aside, the rest of the interior is as special and comfortable as you would expect from a Lexus. The seats are slightly firmer than expected, but are still wonderfully comfortable and supportive. And massively adjustable. If you can’t find a comfortable seating position in the Lexus GS 450h, you are a truly odd shape indeed…

The dash is dominated by the huge 12-inch screen set deep in the top half and controlled by the now-familiar melted plastic slug joystick on the centre console. The rest of the dash is clean, simple and uncluttered, with most functions taken care of via the huge screen and plastic slug.

Elegant, simple and luxurious, the interior of the GS 450h is damn close to perfect.

Under the bonnet

Here is where the GS 450h truly separates itself from the luxury mid-size herd by packing a lusty 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine hooked up to an electric hybrid drivetrain. While BMW isn’t too far away from launching a hybrid version of the 5 Series in New Zealand, it isn’t here yet, leaving the Lexus as the only player in the luxury/executive hybrid sedan field for now.

You need to shift your hybrid-related thinking a bit when you start getting to these sorts of hybrids, as they are not exactly about hyper-miling fuel miserliness, but more about getting more bang for your buck. So to speak.

Think of the GS 450h as having V8 power in return for V6 fuel economy and you are somewhere along the right track. And boasting 213kW of power and 345Nm of torque, that sounds about right, especially when you throw in consumption of just 6.3L/100km.

Nail the throttle in the 450h and it leaps off the line with an angry snarl. While the acceleration is undeniably charming and V8-like, the snarl is not. Not particularly convincing, that is. It sounds artificial and contrived, and you are not surprised to learn that it is actually a “enhanced” version of the actual engine that has been synthesised and gently played back to you via the stereo’s speakers.

The petrol engine and hybrid drivetrain are very impressive. Smooth, powerful and surprisingly frugal, even the use of the much-hated (by us) CVT transmission can’t detract from its performance. Just a shame about the fake engine note. It is not in keeping with the GS’s stately demeanor and doesn’t convince. Much like the the efforts to make the GS more sporty in terms of handling…

On the road

Lexus’ push for a more sporty nature for the GS has led to an oddly schizophrenic nature to its on road nature, much the same as the forced engine note.

Leave it in Normal mode and the GS 450h is a wonderfully wafty cruiser with a plush ride, yet still retaining decent body control. Chuck it into a corner and there some well-controlled roll, but it turns in sharply and confidently.

Crank the central knob around to Sport and things start feeling a bit contrived and artificial again as the steering weights up a bit and the suspension firms up. It’s not bad, still comfortable and sharpens the GS’s responses up a bit, but feels largely unnecessary, as it was doing a decent enough job of things in Normal.

Give the knob another twist and Sport Plus kicks in and ruins the GS’s ride completely. Super-firm with a jiggly, unpleasant quality to the ride and completely artificial weighted steering that removes all feel entirely, Sport Plus feels like a desperate, utterly misguided attempt to introduce some of that sportiness and soul that Lexus desire for the GS. And it doesn’t work in the slightest…

Twist the knob in the opposite direction and the GS drops into Eco mode, which just robs it of performance. Best just push the knob to drop it back into Normal and then leave it there forever. That works best, suits the GS’s character best and feels the most convincing by far.

Verdict

Superb is a very fitting word to describe the GS 450h. Comfortable, powerful, accomplished and high-tech, the GS 450h is everything a Japanese luxury car should be and more.

It is only when you get to the parts that are trying to be sporty or add soul that the wheels come off. When it tries to be sporty it feels forced and utterly unconvincing. It does it, but it doesn’t particularly impress. The artificial engine note, the overly-firm ride and completely dead steering in Sport Plus only feel fake and contrived and are best ignored.

In its drive to add “soul” to the GS Lexus could easily have ruined it. Fortunately all these things can be switched off or ignored and you can let the GS 450h do what it does best – be a Japanese luxury car.

In trying to add a distinctly German soul to the GS, Lexus have had a rare failure. But fortunately the Japanese soul it already had is still well intact and keeps the GS 450h an impressive and individual car. Although you may not notice that at first glance.

Lexus GS 450h Specifications

Price: $134,900 ($158,900 as tested)
Body type: 4-door sedan
Drive: Rear-wheel drive
Engine Type: V6 petrol/electric hybrid
Engine Capacity: 3456cc
Max power: 13kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 345Nm @ 4600rpm
Fuel Consumption: 6.3L/100km
C02 emission: 139g/km
0 to 100kph: 6.1 seconds
Front suspension: Double wishbone
Rear suspension: Multi-link
ABS Brakes: Yes
Air Bags: 10
ESP: Yes
Air Conditioning: Climate
Lap/diagonal belts: 5
Satellite Navigation: Yes
Electric seats: Yes
Burglar Alarm: Yes
Panic Button: No
Wheel type: 18-inch alloy

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