There's nothing that says a luxury car buyer can't be interested in both comfort and fuel efficiency. Recent trends actually encourage these dual concerns, with many luxury cars now sporting four-cylinder engines in their entry-level versions, and optional diesel or gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrains. The Lexus GS luxury sedan is a prime example.
Last year’s redesign of the premium luxury GS series featured a number of improvements. Most notably, the platform, suspension and body structure were completely redone. The result was a luxury sedan with a newfound ability to engage the driver in the process of driving. Steering responses were crisper and the car was more responsive. The price for this improvement was a slightly less forgiving ride, though the GS is still comfortable over all surfaces.
Two versions are offered. The GS 350 is a V-6-powered luxury sedan available with either rear- or all-wheel drive. The GS450h hybrid version my wife Paul and I had for review is rear-wheel drive only. It also uses a V-6 engine but in place of an eight-speed automatic transmission the hybrid uses a CVT, or continuously variable transmission. While both versions use a 3.5-liter V-6, the hybrid’s engine is retuned to become an Atkinson-cycle motor.
The hybrid features electric drive, and it can use just the electric motor or just the gasoline engine to drive the car. It can also use both for maximum performance. Combined, the gasoline and electric motors put out 338 horsepower, compared to the GS 350’s 306. Lexus goes so far as to suggest that the hybrid is actually the performance champion, with the ability to sprint to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds, vs. 5.7 seconds for the non-hybrid.
Our GS 450h made it 60 miles per hour in 6.2 seconds, starting the run on electric power alone until the gasoline engine joined in. While not quite up to the factory claims, the GS 450h still felt downright fast, with its mid-range acceleration, vital for merging and passing, feeling stronger than the zero-to-60 time suggests.
The ride is generally velvety smooth and exceedingly quiet. Big bumps are felt but any semblance of harshness is filtered out.
The front seats are roomy and supportive. The rear seat is more inviting for adults with the 2013 redesign, but it continues to fall short of limousine standards. A shorter adult riding in the back seat complained about a lack of foot room. The hybrid version also puts a slight crimp on cargo, with trunk space slipping from 14.3 cubic feet to 13.2.
Moving up to the gasoline-electric GS 450h from the GS 350 is not a decision to be made lightly. There is a $12,730 price premium for the hybrid. The good news is that careful driving will produce some spectacular – for a luxury car – mileage totals. In our extremely cold week of use, our review GS 450h went 27 miles per gallon. However, when the temperatures warmed a bit and our travel plans included some easy highway cruising, the average climbed to more than 35 miles per gallon, which is above the EPA highway rating. There are subcompacts that don’t do as well.
Obviously, saving money on fuel is not going to be the prime motivator for a buyer to jump from the 350 to the 450h. At current gasoline prices ($3.60 a gallon) it would take just over 314,000 miles to achieve payback, based on EPA estimates.
Rather, the appeal of the hybrid is found on the open road, at those times when the gasoline engine shuts off and the electric motor keeps the car moving ever so smoothly. There are some pleasures on which it is hard to place a monetary value.
Engines: 3.5-liter V-6 Hybrid
HP: 306 338 combined gas and electric
Torque (lb-ft): 277 N/A
EPA: 19/29 (19/26 AWD) 29/34
Starts at: $47,700; hybrid starts at $60,430
The 2014 Lexus GS 450h is definitely luxurious. But it’s not as luxurious as its price might suggest. I guessed that our review car listed for about $55,000. In fact, it started at a little over $60,000 and ended up at just over $70,000 with the options my husband Jim and I had.
For that price, you enjoy a world-class interior. The leather is sumptuous; the wood trim has a rich look and feel. The electrically heated seats and steering wheel are quick to respond and the ride is steady and comfortable.
Engine performance is brisk and the GS 450h gobbles up the miles on the highway with an ease that has to be experienced to be appreciated.
The instruments are easy to read and the head-up display on our review car included a bar-graph tachometer. The hybrid version replaces the dash-mounted tachometer with an engine-efficiency gauge. You can also fuel economy on a digital readout.
The seat, adjusted for this shorter driver, placed me close to the rearview mirror and little closer to the steering wheel than usual, though I was still able to maintain the prescribed 10-inch distance to the air bag in the hub. The climate controls are a little low and my view of them was blocked by my right arm when I grasped the steering wheel normally. The joystick control for the additional navigation, communication, audio and app functions could be very distracting, though it is certainly intuitive in operation. Still, it’s best when operated by a passenger.
The navigation system has a 12.3-inch screen that delivers a bright, easy-to-see image. The standard backup camera, which uses that screen, helps overcome what would otherwise be a limited view to the rear when backing.
The Lexus GS 450h is impressive. But it should be, considering its price.