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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.
Lexus rates the total output for the drivetrain at a respectable 338 horsepower.
Although the combination of gasoline engine and electric motor power to the driveshaft is certainly complicated, Lexus pulls it off seamlessly. When I came to a stop, the engine quietly shut down. As I started accelerating, the electric motor served to push the GS 450h forward, joined by the engine as my foot on the accelerator called for more power. Crawling along through city traffic, I often couldn't tell if the engine was actually on, and had to see if the green EV icon was lit up on the instrument cluster.
With the GS 450h's hybrid system, Lexus notes the car's EPA fuel economy estimate as 29 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. For a car this size, those are impressive numbers, pointing to a low 30s average. While running at 70 mph down a flat freeway, I watched the car's trip computer run all the way up to a 40 mpg average, suggesting potential for mid- to high-30s average for some drivers. My average, taken after a course of city traffic, freeway driving, and using Sport mode, came in at 31.4 mpg.
A big dial on the console let me choose from a selection of drive programs. I could push it down for the standard drive mode, twist left for Eco, twist right for Sport, and twist right a second time to get Sport Plus. Eco detuned the accelerator a bit, making light acceleration easy. I actually found Eco pretty reasonable for city and highway driving, especially as the drivetrain would give its all when I jammed the accelerator to the floor for a passing maneuver. In the standard drive mode, the throttle reacted a little more quickly with the power.
In Eco and standard, the instrument cluster showed a speedometer and a power gauge, both analog, with the needle of the latter indicating when I was using all the power or recharging the battery with kinetic energy. Switching the car to either of its Sport modes changed the power gauge to standard tachometer, a little bit of translucent materials and backlighting magic that works very well.
Sport mode makes the throttle more sensitive, bringing the power on faster in the pedal travel. Sport Plus merely makes the car's adaptive suspension a little more rigid.
The shifter, sitting right near the drive mode dial, also has a Sport position, along with a manual mode which let me select from eight gears. Actually, those gears were merely a representation, an attempt by Lexus to replicate the feeling of a transmission with fixed gears. The GS 450h's transmission is continuously variable, comprised of an electronically controlled planetary gear set capable of constantly changing the drive ratio to suit the engine, vehicle speed, and throttle input.
Given the system, Lexus could have given the transmission's manual mode 100 "gears."
Very linear acceleration, with no abrupt torque shift, results in the continuously variable transmission and electric drive motor working with the gasoline engine. It's a good fit for a luxury car, and contributes greatly to the GS 450h's general comfort. That, and the numb electric power steering, also tend to reduce driver engagement.
And supplying that sort of unconcerned driving experience seems to be the main theme of the GS 450h. Getting into the driver's seat, I didn't worry much about traffic or the terrain through which I would be passing, knowing the car could handle it all without fuss, while providing me with plenty of comfort and a nice-sounding stereo in the bargain.
Add in the exceptional fuel economy, and it would be hundreds and hundreds of miles before I had to even think about refueling.
If I wanted to get crazy, I could engage the different sport settings. In the GS 450h, I thought it was a bit silly that Lexus had different controls to engage the transmission and throttle sport modes. As these are all purely electronic controls, there was no reason why turning the dial to Sport would not also engage the transmission's sport program. Adding to the silliness is how the adaptive suspension uses the same program for Eco, standard drive, and Sport, but gets a slightly more rigid program in Sport Plus. Might as well have the basic Sport mode also engage the suspension's sport program. There's no need for the GS 450h's levels of granularity.
In the interest of thorough testing, and to have some fun, I took the GS 450h up to a twisty mountain road, twisted the dial twice to Sport Plus then pulled the shifter to Sport, and let her rip.
The ride quality, extremely comfortable in normal mode, did not change a whole lot in Sport Plus. It eliminated a minor bit of rubberiness I had noticed previously, and rougher parts of the road communicated a little harshness to the cabin, but it was far from a screwed down, seriously rigid sports car ride.
Likewise, the transmission didn't feel particularly aggressive in its Sport program. Powering up to a turn and getting on the brakes, the tach maybe held at 4,000rpm. The electric power steering turned the wheels with precision and the suspension kept the car from wallowing. In fact, I was impressed by the GS 450h's general handling competence. It had the feeling of a solid, rear-wheel-drive car, and even let me get the tires squealing without a problem.
However, I didn't feel one with the car and road. There was nothing emotional about the experience, beyond a bit of adrenaline. The GS 450h felt neither playful, nor like it was challenging me to be a better driver. It merely took the turn and settled back into its comfort zone on the straight.
The 2014 Lexus GS 450h features many techie goodies, but lacks the panache of its luxury competition. Electric cars get all the eco-love these days, but hybrid technology remains an excellent and practical means of saving fuel. Few cars of this comfort level can claim similar fuel economy as the GS 450h.
I found the GS 450h could handle the turns well, but there is really no need for all the different sport settings. One simple button could engage all the sport programs the car has to offer. And those programs did little to convince me that I was driving any kind of serious sports car.
The GS 450h really excels at comfort and practicality, with the cabin electronics reflecting that side of the experience. I was pleased with the Mark Levinson audio system and the availability of digital audio sources. Lexus should really step up with the navigation system, implementing something that feels a bit more refined. However, functionality is not a problem. The Enform suite serves as a nod to connected car technology, but Lexus has a long way to go integrating these online features more completely with the cabin electronics. And the lack of a built-in data connection is beginning to make the GS 450h look like a dinosaur among its competitors.
|Model||2014 Lexus GS 450h|
|Powertrain||Hybrid gasoline-electric with direct and port injection, 3.5-liter V-6 engine and 147-kilowatt electric motor; planetary gears-based continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||29 mpg city/34 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||31.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based radio, audio streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Mark Levinson 835-watt 17-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Head-up display, automated parking, lane departure prevention, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$70,648|