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The Lexus brand used to hold an affinity for older drivers, people who could remember when Dewey did not defeat Truman. In our youth-obsessed culture, however, that sort of brand identity does not sell cars, so Lexus set out to change its image in the only way possible: changing its products. Which is why the front of the 2013 Lexus GS 450h looks like the spiky hair of a Japanime character.
And with the GS 450h, looks are more than skin-deep. Despite being a hybrid, often code for slow and wallowy, the GS 450h takes off with the force of a charging rhino and hammers on corners like a swordsmith crafting a katana. It's not the first car I would choose for slewing along backcountry roads, but it can certainly deliver a thrilling ride.
Making all this possible is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine using Lexus' unique combination of port and direct injection, aided by an electric drive system. The engine produces 286 horsepower by itself, a number that seems a little low to me, considering the fuel system. Possibly Lexus could pull more power out of it, but that might adversely affect fuel economy. Torque is only 254 pound-feet.
The electric drive system is a bit more complex, using two motor-generators producing 180 horsepower and 200 horsepower. They pull juice from a 30-kilowatt nickel metal hydride battery pack. Rather than add up power numbers, Toyota cites an honest-sounding 338 horsepower for total system output, and does not give a total torque figure.
The company also cites a 0-to-60-mph figure of 5.6 seconds. When I put the pedal down, the car shimmied a little, the traction control light flashed repeatedly in the instrument cluster, and then the car got down to the business of plowing up the road with a force that felt unstoppable even as it sailed past 60 mph.
Part of that inexorable rush comes because of the continuously variable transmission, a standard part of Lexus' hybrid drive system. There are no power dips due to gear changes; the system just keeps adjusting ratios through a planetary gearset that I do not pretend to understand. Lexus gives this transmission a manual shift mode, but its dirty little secret is that there are no fixed gears. Drivers can tap the paddles to "downshift" or "upshift," but really they are just being faked out by programmed virtual shift points.
The transmission also has a Sport mode, delivering more-aggressive power ratios, and this is coupled with a dial on the console that puts the GS 450h in Sport and Sport Plus modes. I think it is a little goofy when automakers give a car multiple sport setting controls. Why not just make one big red button that says Sport? It is all electronic anyway, so just tie the different sport settings to one control.
As it stands, Sport in the GS 450h means a more aggressive throttle response, and Sport Plus adds a more rigid suspension setting. Yes, the GS 450h also comes with an adaptive suspension, a big part of why it can triple recommended speeds on turns without putting its beam at a 45-degree angle.
There is no explicitly labeled comfort mode. While not in Sport or Sport Plus, the ride still retains a somewhat rigid character, competently handling all the rough stuff but not insulating the driver from it. Lexus has come a long way from the soft suspensions of its prior models.
That same dial with the Sport and Sport Plus settings also has an Eco mode, which detunes the acceleration to help the car achieve maximum fuel economy. Personally, I found it very frustrating to use, and not all that helpful. When I wanted to save gas with the GS 450h, I just accelerated more gradually. After a week of driving in a wide variety of conditions, the car turned in 31.4 mpg average, right in its EPA range of 29 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
Fuel economy in a car this size can only be achieved with a hybrid power train, and it comes in about 10 mpg better than its sibling, the GS 350. And the GS 450h has more power. It's a win-win situation, except for a little lost trunk space.
In the cabin, the GS 450h gets something its nonelectrified sibling does not: matte bamboo trim. I suppose the bamboo, as a sustainable wood, is intended to appeal to greenies, but I just like its texture. Dark wood with gloss so thick it feels like plastic is way overdone. The matte finish on this bamboo trim drives home the fact that this is real wood.
The two cars share the same cabin electronics package, centered on a 12.3-inch LCD in the center dashboard, part of the navigation option. This LCD was the biggest in a production car, until the Tesla Model S started rolling off the line. Most of the time, the screen is configured with a main area, occupying two-thirds of the left side, and an auxiliary on the other one-third.
The controller for the screen is a joysticklike pad that moves a pointer. It does not have the substantive feel I would expect in a luxury car, and although it uses haptic feedback to identify active areas of the screen, I found it difficult to hit the button or menu item I wanted. Turning the haptic feedback to maximum helped, but I think Lexus needs to spend more time refining this controller.
Voice command works in many cases as an easier and safer substitute, not only placing calls by contact name with a Bluetooth-paired phone, but playing music by artist or album name from just about anything plugged into the car's USB port. I found that voice command worked very reliably when I asked it to play music from my iPhone, which I had cabled into the USB port.
CNET's car included the Mark Levinson audio option, an impressive 17-speaker system with 835 watts. Lexus uses Harman International's GreenEdge speakers, which are designed to produce quality sound while using less power than comparable speakers, appropriate for a hybrid car. I was very pleased with this system's sound quality. It proved very tunable, so that if I wanted good highs, I had merely to turn up the treble. Bass also came through very strong, yet without rattling the door panels. However, I did not find this system such a great leap over the GS' base system, which I previously tested in the GS 350. At $1,380 for the option, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it.
Among the audio sources feeding this stereo are HD Radio, Bluetooth audio, and a number of apps, including Pandora and iHeartRadio. Lexus' app integration is called Enform, and it uses the driver's smartphone as its data pipe. In my case, I had the Enform app loaded on my iPhone, which was paired with the car through Bluetooth. With this setup, I could use the in-dash apps, which included OpenTable, Yelp, Bing search, and the aforementioned audio sources.
With my iPhone 3GS, Enform over Bluetooth was a little fussy, occasionally refusing to connect. But I could always go back to the cable, which proved more reliable. I really liked the Bing integration, which included voice activation. Pushing a microphone button on the screen, I could give it a search term, like "pizza" or "hamburger," and it returned a list of local businesses matching the term. Once they were onscreen, I could make any of those business results my destination.
Enform works very well for a first-generation service, but it could be better integrated with the car. First of all, the apps folder is buried under a few menu screens. Bing is the only app that offers voice command, and activating it uses a different button than the car's main voice command button.
I do like how it can push addresses from apps such as Yelp and OpenTable into the navigation system. This navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive, but only shows 2D views. The system does integrate traffic, and suggests detours if there is a traffic jam ahead. But I found it was not particularly aggressive about avoiding bad traffic.
This car also had the blind-spot detection option, one of my favorite features, which lit up an icon in the side mirrors if there was a car in the next lane over. Lexus also offers an impressive array of other driver assistance features, such as a head-up display, night vision, and adaptive cruise control.
The 2013 Lexus GS 450h shows that tech can lead to excellent automotive performance while delivering outstanding fuel economy. At the same time, Lexus pushes the cabin technology with an advanced voice command system and very practical app integration. Hitting heights in all those areas, the GS 450h earns CNET's Editors' Choice Award.
However, there are still some areas that could be improved. The cabin tech controller does not work as well as I would expect for a luxury vehicle. And the navigation system, while working perfectly fine, does not have as refined-looking maps as I have seen in cars from Audi and BMW.
|Model||2013 Lexus GS 450h|
|Power train||Hybrid 3.5-liter V-6 engine with electric drive system, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||29 mpg city/34 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||31.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based, with integrated traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list integration|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora, iHeartRadio, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Mark Levinson 835-watt 17-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, night view, lane-departure prevention, blind-spot detection, head-up display, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$68,814|