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.
Lexus mates a V-6 engine to an electric motor, giving the GS 450h 340 total horsepower.
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.
These buttons are normally hidden by the console cover, which slides forward.
At cruising speed on the freeway, the GS 450h delivers on its luxury promise, making for an easy and comfortable drive. The suspension handles the bumps and grinds well, although it doesn't quite float over the roadway imperfections like some luxury cars we've driven.
Destination entry is locked out on the touch screen while under way, but voice command proves impressively capable, prompting us for each part of a destination and doing a fine job of understanding our spoken street and city names. Where it doesn't clearly understand a name, it presents a list of options around what it heard. Route guidance from this system is basic, showing decent graphics describing upcoming turns, but not able to read out the street names.
The detail view for audio tracks shows full tag information from an MP3 CD.
Our freeway soundtrack was pumped out through the premium Mark Levinson audio system's 14 speakers by a 330-watt amp. Strangely, music played from an MP3 player through the car's auxiliary input didn't sound very impressive, while music played from an MP3 CD showed much more definition. As we would expect from a car like the GS 450h, the bass isn't particularly pronounced as the system creates a well-balanced sound, even when we subjected it to hip-hop.
The freeway cruising took us to some roads where we could see if the Sport setting for the suspension really does anything. Out on the twisting roads, we put the transmission and suspension in Sport and put the car in Power mode.
Moving fast into a corner, the car kept understeer to a minimum, a surprise with this big, luxury sedan. And there wasn't a lot of wallowing, either, as the suspension counteracted the body roll we expected. The car gave us increasing confidence, and soon we were going through turns at 60 to 70 mph, getting the tires to sing a little but enjoying a pretty sedate experience overall.
The transmission uses variable ratios, but it does have a Sport setting and virtual shift points for its Manual mode.
Lexus equips the GS 450h with its Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM), making traction and stability control work together to quickly adjust braking and acceleration, maximizing vehicle control. At no point did the VDIM system act intrusively, so we assume it was making subtle inputs to keep the car pointed correctly.
Messing around with the different settings, we didn't notice a big difference between the Sport and normal settings on the suspension, other than a rougher ride in Sport. Likewise, the Sport setting on the transmission merely seemed to take the continuously variable gear ratios down quicker when we lifted off the accelerator. Although the GS 450h does have a manual mode for the transmission, these are merely programmed virtual gear points, and not really meant for sport driving.
Of course, the GS 450h isn't really meant for sport driving, either. Although it was untroubled by fast cornering, it also didn't provide much driving satisfaction. From steering to suspension, we felt disconnected from the road. Even in Sport mode, we could feel suspension travel in the corners, leading to a floating feeling as the car came through the apexes. Similarly, the steering remained overpowered, letting us have our way with the front wheels without communicating anything back. Like a good butler, this car does the work, leaving you to enjoy the scenery.
The EPA rates the 2009 Lexus GS 450h at 22 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. During all of our driving with the car, we saw a tank average of 23.2 mpg, which is pretty impressive considering some serious time in the city and pressing it through the turns. For an even better eco-feeling, the California Air Resources Board rates the GS 450h as a SULEV, or Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle.
For performance, the GS 450h does very well. You don't get this kind of power with this kind of mileage in a luxury sedan from anyone else. We have to take the car down some for the disconnected handling feeling. The car doesn't do so well in cabin tech, and here we would look for the next update. There are just so many useful navigation and audio features available in other cars that we missed in this one. For design, the onscreen interface is nice looking and intuitive. The exterior of the car, while a little homogenous, does show a distinctly Lexus look with its almost fastback roofline.
|Model||2009 Lexus GS 450h|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6 hybrid|
|EPA fuel economy||22 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.2 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player support||Six disc DVD changer, MP3 CD support|
|MP3 player support||Auxiliary input|
|Other digital audio||XM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||Optional Mark Levinson|
|Driver aids||Adaptive headlights, rear-view camera|
|Price as tested||$60,705|