Our perfect power train combines high performance with excellent fuel economy, an ideal that the 2009 Lexus GS 450h comes the closest of any car we've seen to delivering. Lexus claims 5.2 seconds to 60 mph, yet this big, comfortable sedan consistently registers fuel economy around 23 mpg. As much as BMW or Mercedes-Benz might tweak conventional internal combustion engines to achieve similar numbers, the GS 450h gains its lead through its hybrid gas-electric power train.
The first thing we noticed when the 2009 Lexus GS 450h appeared in our garage was that the cabin tech hadn't been updated from the initial GS model launch in 2005. Lexus had a really good navigation and stereo system back then, but times have changed and the competition has far outstripped these simple components.
We like the navigation system's high-resolution maps, but unlike the luxury competition, they don't show traffic information. Having gotten used to seeing traffic flow information, thereby knowing which routes to avoid, we felt a little blind rolling out in the GS 450h.
Likewise, audio sources are limited in the GS 450h, even with the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system. We slid an MP3 CD into the in-dash six-disc changer, which worked well enough, but a simple auxiliary audio jack was the only connection available for an MP3 player.
Quiet hybrid drive
Typical of Lexus hybrids, pushing the start button (the smart key sitting untouched in our pocket) produced lights on the instrument cluster but no sound from the engine. The GS 450h's cabin is nicely sound-deadened, but not so much as to hide the roar of its 3.5-liter V-6 engine coming to life. No, internal combustion would remain unignited until needed. For now, the big GS 450h rolled out of our garage under electric power.
In Toyota models, the Synergy hybrid system accomplishes fairly smooth transitions from electric to gas power, but you can still feel the engine kick in. Better noise and vibration engineering for the Lexus brand means the hybrid system does its power source shuffling on the softest shoes, not bothering the driver with such mechanical details.
The typical-for-Lexus over-powered steering, an electrically driven unit, meant we could spin the wheel around with one finger. That's nice tuning while milling about a parking lot, but not so good at speed. In the city, we enjoyed the effortless driving characteristics, and found that the GS 450h didn't want for power while it coddled us with seats featuring heating and cooling, and an elegantly simple cabin design.
Having earlier paired an iPhone to the car's Bluetooth phone system, a simple process, we were pleased with the call quality, plus the well-designed onscreen keypad. But using an iPhone meant that filling the car's onboard phonebook would have to be done manually, as Lexus' phone system requires you to push contacts from the phone, a feature not supported by the iPhone.
Getting ready to test the GS 450h's power on the freeway, we discovered the James Bond buttons, revealed by pushing back the console cover a few inches. Although lacking missile launchers and smoke screens, these buttons offered a Power setting for the drive train, a Sport setting for the suspension, and an Off setting for traction control. The drive train can also be set to Snow mode, which lessens torque. Coupled with the transmission's Sport setting, we got the GS 450h ready to show its stuff.
Punching the accelerator from a stop called on both the electric motor and the gas engine to turn the rear wheels, with just a slight bit of lag preventing any wheel-spinning drama. Even trying different combinations of sport, traction control, and power settings, those tires refused to spin free, probably appropriate for the car's intended driver. But we could forgive the lack of theatrics due to the incredible push delivered by the power train. It made us believers of Lexus' 5.2 seconds to 60 mph claim.