We took delivery of the Lexus GS450h in Berkeley, CA. This was to be the first of the three Lexus hybrids we'd be driving over the weekend. Using the Lexus' crisp and colorful touch screen and GPS navigation, we selected our first location--San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel--and took the GS for a spin.
The GS450h is luxuriously appointed, as is to be expected from a $61,405 Lexus. That sticker price includes the $4,780 premium for the Mark Levinson audio system with DVD navigation, which sounded absolutely fantastic regardless of which genre of music we listened to.
The GS's instrument cluster features attractive spun-metal faces with crisp, white backlit text. To the far left, the tachometer has been replaced with a kilowatt meter that shows the output--and charging state--of the electric motor. Just below the central speedometer is an LCD display that can show fuel economy or hybrid-system information, as well as a host of other vehicle information.
Lexus couples the gasoline and electric motors of the wheels with an Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT). The system features a Sport Manumatic mode that allows the driver to select gear ratios by pushing the shifter fore and aft. The system also has three programs for the hybrid system: a normal mode for economy, a power mode for enhanced throttle response, and snow mode for--what else?--snow.
Stopping halfway to admire the GS450h's exterior, we couldn't help but to notice that the sport sedan looks much better in life than it does in any photograph. The size and proportion are similar to BMW's 5 Series, but the aesthetic is distinctly Lexus.
Sport-sedan looks aren't all the GS packs. Flip the switch to put the hybrid drive train into Power mode, and 340 total horsepower and an unpublished--but unquestionably high--amount of torque will rocket the Lexus GS450h forward. A second switch puts the suspension into Sport mode, for tighter handling and flatter turning. There's not much of a harshness penalty for putting the GS into Sport mode, so we never bothered to turn it off.
With 340 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 5.2 seconds, the GS hybrid is competitive with the BMW 550i in performance and is lower in price. However, the GS trounces the V-8 Bimmer with substantially lower fuel economy (22 city/25 hwy. vs. 15 city/23 hwy. mpg).
Arriving at the Fairmont Hotel, we were given a tour of the "eco-chic" Lexus Hybrid Living Suite, developed in partnership by the hotel and automaker. The suite features furniture and materials that are eco-friendly and inspired by nature. The centerpiece is a coffee table that is upholstered with reclaimed leather from Lexus prototype vehicles. Guests staying in the Hybrid Living Suite are given access to a Lexus LS600h L, at no additional charge.
The "L" at the end of LS600h L means "long wheelbase" and, as a result, lots of rear-seat leg room. While stretching out back there, passengers can watch video on the rear seat entertainment system or listen to the Mark Levinson audio system. In this incarnation, the system outputs 450 watts through 15 channels.
After using the LCD display to chose a parallel parking space, the Advanced Parking Assist feature takes over the steering wheel, guiding the vehicle. The only driver input necessary is modulation of the brakes. While we were impressed by the system's accuracy, we were a little disappointed by the unintuitive interface for choosing a parking spot.
Having seen our fill of the Hybrid Living Suite, we switched vehicles and headed north in a Lexus LS600h L in a beautiful Noble Spinel Mica color. The largest of the Lexus sedans, the LS600h L is also the most luxurious and tech-laden of the entire Lexus line. All of this comes at a price. At $117,130 as tested, the LS600h L is arguably the most expensive new Toyota that money can buy!
The LS600h L features LED headlamps for low-beams, a Lexus-claimed first. The LED's low power consumption should be good for reducing strain on the electrical system. A dual-swivel adaptive-lighting system rotates the headlamps at different rates into a turn, depending on vehicle speed.
The LCD touch screen is the centerpiece of the cabin tech experience, and includes displays for audio options, vehicle information, and GPS navigation. The crisp, attractive graphics and text make the Lexus' user interface one of the best we've seen.
The LS has similar a drive train and suspension modes to the GS hybrid, but adds a Comfort mode to the suspension mix, which smooths out the ride. Leaving the suspension in Comfort mode during spirited driving resulted in large degrees of body roll. Selecting Sport mode really made a difference in the driving dynamic of the LS.
The adaptive cruise control uses radar, throttle control and brake control to maintain a preset distance from the vehicle in front of the Lexus. If the vehicle slows, the Lexus slows. If the vehicle brakes hard, the Lexus brakes hard and flashes a warning prompting driver intervention.
Arriving at our next destination, we were presented with the Far Niente Winery's floatovoltaic solar array. The first of its kind, this floating solar array offsets 100 percent of the winery's electric use without taking up any valuable grape-growing land.
The all-wheel drive RX adds a third rear-electric motor to the mix, adding to the current combination of a starter/generator motor and a cruising/accelerator motor. The RX also features an extended EV mode that allows for all electric operation at low speeds and in stop-and-go traffic.