The Laguna Seca Raceway is not a road circuit for the faint of heart with its famed corkscrew, the elevation changes, the wicked hairpin leading to the long straightaway in front of the pits.
That explains why Lexus – Toyota’s luxury brand – has it for the day. The Fifth Estate is here to bear witness to the performance bona fides of the thoroughly reinvented GS 450h hybrid “performance sedan.” The Lexus clan wants to bang into our heads that the GS hybrid is a race-ready road warrior the likes of BMW’s M5 and Mercedes’ E63 AG.
Sandy Di Felice of Lexus public relations in fact points out that the “GS 450h entered and won – twice – at Targa Newfoundland. And the GS was the very first vehicle to cross that finish line in EV Mode.” She is correct. The GS hybrid has been a winner at Targa Newfoundland, which in human terms is akin to winning the Whistler Triathlon.
But just because the GS hybrid can ferry its driver and passenger through, what, 10 days of living hell at the end of Canada does not mean this car can go toe-to-toe with a the 518-horsepower monster that is the E63 ($99,500), nor is it close to being a match for the frighteningly capable M5 (560 hp, $101,500).
The 2013 GS 450h is its own work of engineering genius, however, and at $64,500 it is vastly more affordable than either German powerhouse. It is also kinder to the planet, more fuel-efficient (6.4 litres/100 km in the city, 6.2 on the highway), staggeringly more comfortable to drive day-to-day and wonderfully reliable.
What we should not do is get all carried away with this high-performance obsession. Sure, we’re up to our eyeballs in fun on one of North America’s most intimidating race tracks. I love this place. But you can find more suitable sedans to hot-lap the Laguna. That said, I certainly enjoyed stretching the hybrid’s legs here.
Or should I say the two sets of legs designed to work together or separately in the GS Hybrid. That’s what a parallel hybrid is: a gas power train and an electric one integrated by some shockingly intelligent computer controls. With a combined output of 338 hp from its 3.5-litre V-6 engine, two electric motors (80 hp and 200 hp) and a 288-volt battery pack, this GS has the jam to get out of its own way, though this sedan is a porky 1,901 kg. It should. The GS 450h boasts the world’s most proven hybrid system, the Lexus Hybrid Drive which of course is just like the Toyota Hybrid Drive in the Prius, only more so.
Without a doubt, there is power enough to climb the long, uphill straight on the front side of this track. The new chassis, including a more aggressively tuned suspension (struts up front with aluminum controls arms and a multi-link setup at the rear), nicely manages the corners here, too – including the nasty drop into the famed hairpin.
The standard Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) helps to smooth the bumps and manage body roll. Naturally, electronic stability control is standard, too – here it’s called the Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system or VDIM. Truth is, the Lexus hybrid is sure and even entertaining to a point, but there is no getting around the fact that an astonishing array of systems are busily at work and when you push too hard you can almost feel the GS hybrid thinking – thinking quickly, mind you – about what do and how to do it.
Off the track and in the pits, I am thinking about the GS design, which is all-new and nice. It’s a clean look, round and well-proportioned and decorated with what Lexus calls a “spindle grille,” an assortment of lines, alloy wheels and LED daytime running lights. Lexus has widely gone for something understated and elegant and I like it.
The interior is an improvement, as well. Most will applaud the all-white ambient LED lighting and leather instrument panel, and everyone should welcome enough cabin room for four adults, five if you must. The trunk is adequate, though not overly large. The latest version of Lexus’s Remote Touch controller is more user-friendly than any of the German controller systems, too.
And on and on and on. Of course this Lexus is loaded, though you can spend much more if you start ticking the options boxes. Take the Technology Package, which for $12,500 gets you a heated wood steering wheel, heated rear seats, a heads-up display, a back-up camera, LED headlamps, radar cruise control, a blind spot monitor, the Nightview system for seeing in the dark and more. This package, along with freight and dealer prep, turns a $64,500 car into an $80,000 one in a blink.
Lexus argues back that the base price is a “remarkable $12,000 less” than the base price of the old GS hybrid and there’s a point there. The most important point of all, though, is this: The GS Hybrid is the world’s best buy in a premium hybrid sedan.
It may not be the pure performance car Lexus would have you believe, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
2013 Lexus GS 450h
Type: Luxury/performance sedan
Base Price: $64,650 (freight $1,995)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 286 hp/254 lb-ft
Hybrid/electric drive: 288-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack and two electric motors, one rated at 180 hp, the other 200 hp
Combined hybrid output: 338 hp
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.4 city/6.2 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW M5, Mercedes E63 AG, Chrysler 300C SRT-8