Buyers considering a BMW 5-series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or even a Tesla Model S would do well to look at the 2014 Lexus GS 450h. The BMW has its handling, the Mercedes-Benz nearly drives itself, and the Tesla is the best electric car on the market. Against all that, the GS 450h has a no-nonsense character.
The GS 450h is a luxury car for the driver who doesn't want to spend a lot of time thinking about his car.
The unobtrusive exterior design supports this mission. Although Lexus added some unique styling cues in the car's last update, such as its spindle grille and some aggressive air intake, the GS 450h remains a sleeper. The smooth flanks, large greenhouse, and rounded roofline give the car a modern but conservative look.
These design elements, while not exactly sleek, give the GS 450h immense practicality, with easy ingress for both front and rear seats. Enhancing that accessibility, the steering wheel automatically lifted and retracted when I turned off the car, moving back into driving position when I started it back up.
My favorite styling piece in the cabin is the bamboo trim, the sustainability of which highlights the eco-friendly hybrid drivetrain. Personally, I just favor the bamboo's satin finish, which makes it feel much more like a natural material than the multiple layers of glossy varnish which make wood trim in other cars seem like plastic.
What I liked less was Lexus' Remote Touch cabin tech controller, a joystick-like rectangular piece on the console that moves a cursor on the massive 12.3 inch LCD at the top of the center stack. The concept is sound, but the execution is lacking. I found myself consistently missing the onscreen buttons I wanted to hit due to the fiddly controller. Using the onscreen keyboard for alpha-numeric input was particularly annoying.
As with other automakers, there are indications that Lexus will be dumping the Remote Touch controller for a touchpad. The upcoming Lexus RC model appears to have a touchpad controller, which will likely rely more on gesture control.
The 12.3-inch screen is, however, very nice. Although it seems counterintuitive, I find a large screen less distracting than a small one, as it takes less time to for me to perceive the information I need on a big display. Lexus devotes two-thirds of the LCD to a primary screen, and the remaining one-third limited to trip, audio, phone, or climate information.
The GS 450h's navigation system is an option, but should really be standard in a $60,000 car. And while the maps look good and routing takes traffic into account, Lexus really needs to bump up the quality and features. Unlike competitors, the system's maps don't have a perspective view. Despite different graphics, the system is not appreciably different than that found in Toyota vehicles, which somewhat demeans Lexus luxury.
In app integration, Lexus is also a step behind luxury competitors. Where Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz build a data connection into the car, the GS 450h uses the Lexus Enform App Suite, which relies on the driver's smartphone.
Although not built-in, I liked how the Enform apps worked. With the Enform app running on my iPhone and connected to the car via Bluetooth, I could access Bing search, Yelp reviews, OpenTable restaurant reservations, Pandora, and iHeartMusic Internet radio. The location-capable apps were integrated with navigation, so I could easily find a business with a Bing search, then set its address as my destination.
The biggest problem with Lexus' approach is that the apps are all segregated in their own bucket, two clicks down from the main menu. Internet search should really be next to the other destination entry options and, in a car of the GS 450h's caliber, should also be built-in, working irrespective of a driver's phone.
The main audio menu in the GS 450h separated radio and media audio sources, a legacy distinction, but I found that these main menu buttons took me to the same screen, listing all the audio sources (except apps) in tabs across the top. The GS 450h had HD and satellite radio, although the screens for these were crowded. I could plug in a USB drive or iPhone to the car's USB port and get a nice music library interface. Bluetooth streaming worked for a larger selection of smartphones, but there was no capability to select music using the car's interface. I had to select my music using the phone.
With a USB drive or iPhone plugged into the car's USB port, I could also request music through voice command by artist or album name. And while I could also make calls over a Bluetooth-connected phone by contact name over voice command, address entry was less refined, forcing me to say each part of the address separately. And highlighting the imperfect integration of apps with the car, I had to hit a separate, onscreen icon to use voice command with Bing search.
For a premium sound option, this GS 450h had a Mark Levinson audio system, Lexus' brand of choice for many years now. The partnership is a good one, as I've always enjoyed the Mark Levinson audio quality. In the GS 450h, it didn't let me down, producing nicely detailed and well-balanced sound. Turning a bass-heavy track up really loud, I heard a minor bit of panel rattle from the car. Where this system excelled was in vocal reproduction.
The system uses 17 GreenEdge speakers, a brand from Mark Levinson parent company Harman. GreenEdge speakers are supposed to use less power but still produce robust sound. Lexus didn't skimp on the power, though, fitting the GS 450h with a 835-watt amp. With the GreenEdge speakers, I imagine that amp isn't called on to hit its peak output.
Another clever little eco touch in the GS 450h, and something I have not seen in other cars, is an automatic setting for the heated and cooled seats. Set on automatic, the heating or cooling activated in conjunction with the temperature I had set in climate control. The idea is that the seat heating and cooling is a more energy efficient means of keeping you comfortable, so the general climate control system does not have to work as hard.
Of course, the main eco feature of the GS 450h is the gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain, a step up in power and fuel efficiency from the GS 350. The rear-wheel-drive GS 450h gets a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with valve timing on the Atkinson cycle for fuel economy and a combination of port and direct injection. The engine relies on its less noisy port injection at low speeds, then switches to the more efficient direct injection at higher speeds. By itself, the engine makes 286 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque.
Bringing in more power is a 147-kilowatt motor integrated with the driveline. It gets electricity from a 30-kilowatt nickel metal hydride battery pack. As in Lexus' other hybrid cars, a generator converts kinetic energy into electricity during braking, storing it in the battery pack.