A Small step in the Right Direction

2009, Lexus, GS 450h

Many folks want to do something about climate change beyond recycling their food scraps and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (both worthwhile). But, they've worked hard and want a luxury and high performance vehicle. Lexus offers you three vehicles with hybrid powertrains, including the GS450h.

The rear-wheel-drive GS sedan sits between the midsized ES sedan and full boat LS. As an upscale cousin of the Toyota Prius, it offers the same hybrid drive technology, using a gasoline engine and electric motor to give higher miles per gallon and lower emissions. At the moment, it is the only hybrid-powered luxury sport sedan in its market segment.

Of course, there's a big difference between this grand, powerful vehicle and the ubiquitous Prius. For one thing, the two-ton GS, thanks to its powerful 3.5-liter V6 gas engine, zooms from zero to 60 mph in a blistering 5.2 seconds. The 3,000-pound Prius isn't even close.

Secondly, GS450h prices start at $57,425-you could buy a pair of Priuses for that.

Thirdly, the GS450h offers only a modest fuel economy and environmental improvement over its non-hybrid siblings-22 City, 25 Highway-versus 48 City/45 Highway for the 2009 Prius. My actual mileage in the GS450h came to 23.4 mpg.

Environmentally speaking, the GS450h nearly matches the Prius in the EPA's Air Pollution score with a 9 versus the Prius's 9.5. The Prius, though, hits a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas while the GS450h gets only a 6.

It's the fourth factor that will make the sale, however. The GS is a real luxury cruiser, with everything you'd want. The 450h hybrid is cleverly marketed as the top-of-the-line GS model, above the V6-powered GS350 and V8-equipped GS460. That means that some features that are options on the others are standard.

For example, you get a power rear sunshade, 10-way power adjustable heated and ventilated seats, rear-seat side airbags, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a rear back-up camera and headlamp washers.

The GS450h is a full hybrid, and can run in gas-only or electric-only modes, or a combination. You can watch this unfold in real time on the seven-inch color screen in the center console or in a tiny, basic graphic on the instrument panel. The latter, with arrows moving between wheel, engine, and battery icons, sufficiently indicates which power source is working and if the battery is charging or discharging.

The GS's regenerative braking system charges the battery whenever the car is slowing down or braking. You can watch the battery icon fill up as you use the brakes.

The electric motor runs the car at startup, so you hear essentially nothing when you push the start button. I found that the car would cruise in electric-only mode in level parking lots and on neighborhood streets up to 40 miles per hour. On the freeway, the gas engine prevails, but, thanks to a specially-designed continuously variable transmission, the motor can give some assistance at freeway speeds as well.

Unfortunately, the hybrid system requires a 288-volt Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack, which is installed behind the rear seat, reducing trunk space. There is only 10.6 cubic feet for cargo-still enough for a whole lot of groceries, but not what you may be used to.

But there are mostly upsides. The car drives pretty much the same as a non-hybrid, except that it's whisper quiet in electric only mode. Actually, thanks to extensive sound mitigating efforts, including a sound absorbing windshield and asphalt sheets behind the instrument panel, it's pretty quiet under all conditions.

You get a lot for your 50 grand. Regency leather seats, in either black, gray, or cashmere, tone in with three specially-matched real wood trims-red walnut, dark gray bird's-eye maple, or golden bird's-eye maple. The steering wheel and shift knob are both wood/leather "hybrids" as well. Of course everything is power assisted and works flawlessly. It's everything that a Lexus should be-just a little less thirsty.

So, how much do you save with the hybrid GS, exactly? Compared to the GS350, average fuel economy is up just one mile per gallon. The V8-powered GS460 is rated only 2 mpg less than the GS350. The Air Pollution score in the EPA Green vehicle guide is higher by 2 points for the hybrid-9 instead of 7. That's not a whole lot, really.

On Lexus' Web site, the GS350 starts at $45,875, including delivery charges, compared to the $57,425 for the luxury-filled GS450h.

The GS450h is a small step in the right direction, and is a delight to drive, but if your green passions are strong, wait for the all-new Lexus HS250h, coming this fall.

By Steve Schaefer

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Images of the 2009, Lexus GS 450h

2009 Lexus 350h front view
2009 Lexus 350h front view
2009 Lexus 350h interior
2009 Lexus 350h interior
2009 Lexus 350h center console
2009 Lexus 350h center console
2009 Lexus 350h rear shot
2009 Lexus 350h rear shot