I’ve commented elsewhere on the fact that Japanese cars, even the finest of them, have always suffered from a certain blandness, not to say lack of character, so that you could be driving your Acura, Infiniti, or Lexus along a thoroughfare teeming with car lovers (an unlikely scenario, admittedly) and not a single head would turn, whereas the driver of, say, an aging Jaguar S-Type would draw the gaze of the most jaded. (I know whereof I speak, being that driver.) Face it: Jags have character and Toyotas don’t.
But things are changing. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that I was being noticed, at the wheel of my silver Lexus 450h test vehicle, and it wasn’t because of any painful discrepancy between the elegance of the vehicle and lack of same behind the wheel. No, the car itself was the object of scrutiny, not only of other Lexus drivers, but, most significantly, of that choice demographic, young car guys. Crossing a supermarket parking lot, I actually saw one young c. g. get out of his Mustang and give the GS the kind of long, lingering look a more normal guy would reserve for a beautiful woman. He then spoke urgently into his cell phone, as if making arrangements with his lawyer, or drug (or Lexus) dealer, jumped into his ‘Stang, and roared away.
So I had a good look at the car, while taking pictures. A Lexus as eye-candy? Well, yes. This is, indeed, a striking vehicle. It has sculpted character lines recalling designs from Stuttgart and Ingolstadt, whose products it resembles to an extent beyond mere coincidence. In my recent review of the Lexus RX, I commented on the deliberate homage to Audi apparent in the LED running lights that framed that car’s headlights; the same homage, and the same LEDs, are here, only the kinship, to my eyes, is even more pronounced. The stance of the GS, muscular and low-slung, calls to mind the Audi A6. It bespeaks speed and power, an impression only heightened by my tester’s silver hue, traditional color of German racers. The “spindle” grill gives the front a somewhat predatory look, and the clustered xenon headlights evoke a family resemblance to the LFA supercar. The gorgeous 18-in. wheels have multitudinous fine spokes that make the car seem to be in motion even when it’s sitting still. In short, the GS is anything but boring to look at.
Happily, I found the car’s performance to be in keeping with its sporty appearance. It’s a hybrid, of course, as the “h” designation indicates, and powered by an all-new mill, or combination of mills: a 3.5-liter V6 putting out 286 hp linked to a pair of electric motors, the trio producing 338 combined ponies. This is good for a 0-60 time of 5.7 sec., according to my Swiss Army chronometer. That’s fast, and despite the CVT with which the car is equipped—some would say burdened, although this is one of the least intrusive that I’ve yet encountered, with paddle shifters if needed (not really)—the sporting essence of the GS is unadulterated, even or especially in hybrid form. Surprisingly, I also found the hefty car (4132 lbs.) to be highly maneuverable, even on the winding back roads of the Texas Hill Country. This is largely thanks to the car’s so-called Adaptive Variable Suspension, which is optional on the non-hybrid GS 350 but standard on the 450h. I felt that I was driving a true sports sedan. The steering is good, too, crisp, and precise, and the brakes have none of the initial squishiness I’ve found in some hybrids. Road noise is muted to a distant thrum on uneven surfaces, and is nonexistent on smooth blacktop. The noise and bustle of the outside world just fade away, which is why people buy Lexi.
And that brings me to the interior, a real pleasure to inhabit. The 18-way power front leather seats boast two switches for four-way lumbar support, making it impossible not to find a comfortable position. Bamboo inserts are everywhere, conferring a bright, modern look. The driving position is ideal: low and snug. A knob on the adjacent armrest console controls Drive Mode settings; along with Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport +, there are Snow and EV buttons, the former being of no use whatever to us Texans except for maybe about two hours a year, the latter proving to be good for electric coasting up to 40 mph. By the way, switching from Eco and Normal to Sport or Sport+ automatically converts the hybrid-energy gauge to an old-fashioned tachometer, with clean, Mercedes-like numbers: a neat feature and a permanent temptation, to one of my childish disposition, to fiddle. (I resisted.) In the middle of the dash is a huge (12.3-in.) screen, with a mushroom “mouse” on the central console controlling the usual distracting slew of tech-geek delights: navigation system, Bluetooth phonebook downloading capability, voice controls, real-time traffic info, text-to-speech text messaging, the Safety Connect emergency communications service and a 12-speaker surround-sound audio system with a six-CD changer, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface. (God, cars used to be so much simpler.) (And so much worse.)
Safety, of course, hasn’t been neglected. The GS 450h has antilock brakes, traction and stability control, a rearview camera, a night-vision system, blind-spot monitoring, a lane-departure warning system and front and rear-side, side-curtain, and front-knee airbags. And the Lexus Safety Connect system that comes standard includes automatic collision notification, an emergency assist button, and a stolen-vehicle finder. Upshot of all this: A top “Good” rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
Price? I’m tempted to say “Don’t ask,” because I still haven’t entirely wrapped my mind around the seemingly paradoxical concept of ultra-expensive luxury cars intended to economize on gas. A new 450h costs about $11,500 more than the similarly new 350, but its EPA fuel estimates are 29 mpg city/34 highway as opposed to the 350’s 19/28. According to the MPG readout, I averaged 31.4 mpg in mixed city/country driving. Admittedly, this is no less than astounding for a car of this size and power. On the other hand, according to the EPA, it would take 19 years to pay off the hybrid price premium on the basis of fuel savings alone. So: caveat emptor! But if you can afford the $60K or thereabouts for the price of admission, and you like the idea of your sleek, charismatic Japanese autobahn cruiser cruising past all those filling stations, this may be the car for you.