Hot Rod Hybrid: Branding Semantics and the Lexus GS450h

Sections: Chassis, Fuel Economy, Powertrain

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2013 Lexus GS450h Photo Shoot 011

(Lyndon Johnson photo)

When we got a Lexus GS450h for testing, I wondered why it was named “450” when the gasoline engine half of its powertrain was still 3.5 liters like the GS350. Then it hit me: It’s a matter of branding semantics.

The folks at Lexus would like you to think of the GS450h as a higher echelon of GS. Certainly its $58,950 base price is more than $10,000 higher than the base GS350 and about $6,500 more than the very fun — and very fast — GS F-SPORT we tested earlier this year. And in at least one respect, it is a higher echelon car: horsepower. The GS450h makes 338 total system horsepower from its 3.5-liter V6 and hybrid electric powertrain components, while all other GS variants make 306 horsepower.

That sensation of extra power is noticeable, for sure. While the GS450h lacked the sport-tuned suspension of the F-SPORT that helped that car have a sublime balance of handling ability and speed, the powertrain delivered a harder, more direct pull from a dead standstill.

2013 Lexus GS450h Photo Shoot 012

(Lyndon Johnson photo)

That pulling sensation was less conventional than it was in the GS F-SPORT because the GS450h has the same type of transmission that is mated to all Toyota and Lexus hybrids we’ve tested: Toyota’s E-CVT. When the Drive Mode Select knob was in “Eco” or “Normal” mode (for the record, we spent most of our time in “Eco,”) the E-CVT acted just as you might expect a CVT — albeit a very well-tuned one — to act. Plant the skinny pedal to the floorboard, and the transmission would allow the engine to quickly spool up to its peak horsepower-producing RPM and stay there until you relented. Though the GS450h got out of its own way plenty fast enough, the sensation of a CVT in a car with more than 300 horsepower was a new one for me.

Perhaps because of the CVT’s more efficient power delivery and the GS450h’s slight horsepower advantage, the hybrid actually gets to 60 MPH from a standstill slightly faster than the GS F-SPORT. Lexus quotes a 0-to-60 time of 5.7 seconds for the GS F-SPORT in rear-wheel drive trim, while the also rear-wheel drive GS450h shaves a tenth of a second off that time.

Of course, if I wanted the old-school, solid-shifting automatic transmission feel delivered in the GS F-SPORT, the GS450h had a solution for me the same as the ES300h: Twist the Drive Mode Select knob to the right once to select Sport S or twice to select Sport S+ mode, and the transmission would behave as a conventional automatic, with six fixed “ratios.” Also like the ES300h, switching to one of the Sport modes would change the power usage meter on the left side of the gauge cluster into a tachometer. It’s a neat party trick Lexus was able to pull off because the dashboard, while it looks conventional, is a digital display. I played with this feature for a couple of quick jaunts down my preferred “spirited” test road, and found it definitely puts a finer point on all the controls, making them more eager to satisfy driver inputs.

The last — and perhaps most important, for many shoppers — place the GS450h has a big advantage over other GS models is its fuel economy. The GS450h is rated at 29 MPG city, 34 MPG highway, 31 MPG combined compared to non-hybrid rear-wheel drive GS-models’ 19/28/23. More about fuel economy in a later dispatch.

With a best-of-both-worlds scenario — more power and more fuel economy — it’s clear the GS450h is indeed the highest echelon of the GS family. Whether that justifies its price is something only potential buyers can decide for themselves.

Disclosure: Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.

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