Close your eyes and think of a hybrid car. Odds are that you pictured some kind of hairdryer-powered egg-on-wheels in the shape of the Honda Insight or the Toyota Prius.
Conventional wisdom, which never lasts very long, says that hybrids undertake the noble crusade of pitting the forces of technology against the evils of harmful emissions, with the major casualty being performance. Well, things are changing. First, Honda pulled out the 2006 Accord Hybrid, which conjured up more power than its V-6 sibling, and now, here comes the swish new 2007 Lexus GS 450h, to tear up what's left of the rulebook.
There's no doubt that the GS 450h is a hybrid: even if you miss the Hybrid logo on the rear footplate, the cabin instruments leap out to remind you that this is no ordinary leather-and-red-walnut-trimmed Lexus interior. The push-button start is less of a giveaway nowadays, as high-end petrol-only cars such as the 2007 Jaguar XK and the 2006 BMW M5 are starting to get in on the push-button action. It is once you have pushed the button and, uh, fired up the GS 450h that you notice it's a hybrid. That's because the car doesn't "fire up" in the normal roaring, revving-engine sense. The only clues that you're ready to go are the illuminated instrument pane--including a voltmeter in place of the tachometer and an LCD schematic involving a wheel and a battery--and the fact that the button has turned from red to green.
Silently trundling out of the parking lot on electric power, we felt like we were in a large, upscale Prius. And then we hit the gas pedal, and everything became different. The Lexus GS 450h is equipped with a V-6 engine with continuously variable transmission and a high-output permanent-magnet electric motor, which combine forces to deliver a breathtaking 340 horsepower. Breathtaking not just because it is more powerful than the new Jaguar XK, which it beats to 60mph by seven-tenths of a second, but because the kick in the back when flooring the throttle is so unexpected.
Had we looked closely at the spec sheet for the GS 450h before we set out on our test-drive, we would have known to expect something out of the ordinary for a hybrid: rear-wheel drive, active variable suspension, and four-wheel ventilated brakes are not the kind of thing that you find on an everyday sedan. While it is fun to put the hammer down and scare the bejeezus out of Audi drivers with whirlwind overtaking maneuvers, the GS 450h is the kind of car that prefers to mask its power behind a refined veneer. It is a quick car, but it doesn't look or feel like one, until you open it up.
The cabin of the GS 450h is very Lexus. A 6-inch LCD sits in the center of a wood-trimmed dash, and clusters of buttons everywhere give the driver and the front passenger plenty of opportunity to customize the ride to their own comfort levels. The GS 450h comes with 10-way heated and ventilated power seats, Bluetooth hands-free calling, and Lexus's six-disc in-dash CD changer as standard. Our tester also came with the optional voice-activated navigation system, adaptive cruise control, and the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system.
Pairing our Sprint Fusic to the Lexus Bluetooth connection was not as straightforward as it should have been, thanks to the phone menu being accessed via the Information screen rather than the Menu button. Once paired, we found that voice dialing was straightforward and that the system was adept at recognizing our spoken phone numbers.
Not so, alas, for the navigation system. Sadly, one cannot just hop into a Lexus (or a high-end Toyota) and rattle off speculative commands as is the case with a Honda or an Acura. As we found in our time with the 2006 IS 350, an arcane list of commands must be learned and used in conjunction with the correct screen for the Lexus voice command system to be mastered. Undeterred by our past experiences, and with restored faith in voice-activated nav systems from our time with the 2006 Acura TSX, we tried a few speculative voice-command efforts, but to no avail. "Navigation" brought the response "current position," which is of limited value considering that the map already showed the car's current position. "Destination" was met with the information that "this command is only available in the scrolled-map screen," which is what we thought we were in, and efforts to activate the "air-conditioning" brought up airports and convention centers as points of interest on the map. The Turing prize is under no threat from Toyota anytime soon. In touch-screen mode, the navigation system was far more user-friendly: split-screen maps, accurate voice directions, and an impressive refresh/recalibration speed brought us home without incident.
On first impression, the Lexus GS 450h is an impressive car--full of useful tech in the engine and in the cabin. While the primary use of its hybrid powers may be for performance rather than reduced emissions, it is still classified as a Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV), which is also to its credit.