BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Lexus, the luxury arm of Toyota, has never been afraid to go its own way. While most of the prestige marques decided that the cleanest and most economical approach to powering big cars was through diesel, Lexus thought otherwise. They decided instead to shun the diesel option and stick with a big petrol V6 but added a secret ingredient - an electric motor aiding the petrol unit. The result was the GS450h. Today there are hybrids aplenty and it's a challenge to think back just a few years to a time when this technology was still the province of relatively small cars. Lexus showed how it could be done, blending proven but still advanced technology with classic V6 petrol power. The result is model that delivers all the merits of luxurious executive saloon motoring and highly respectable performance, along with admirable fuel economy and emissions. The Lexus reputation for excellent build quality has only been underscored by the hybrid's track record.
Models Covered: (4dr saloon 3.5 litre V6 electric hybrid [base, SE, SE-L])
The launch of hybrid technology in this GS back in May 2006 was not a gamble or a marketing ploy. The technology adopted on the GS450h had been tried and tested on the Toyota Prius so beloved by California celebs. While the Prius is seen as the ecologically sound way to motor, the result of adapting the technology for the much bigger Lexus is a car powered by a 335bhp 3.5 litre V6 petrol engine (there's no diesel) that is not only relatively frugal and green (emitting no exhaust fumes at all slow speeds) but which is stunningly fleet of foot as the electric motor gives the car immense acceleration. A top speed of 155mph may be limited but 0-62mph in just 5.9s will outdrag a Porsche Boxster while also delivering only 180g/km of CO2 and fuel figures nudging 40mpg. It's quite an accomplishment. This car enjoyed a mild cosmetic facelift in 2008 with the introduction of revised door mirrors featuring integrated indicators, and blue hybrid logo badges. In 2010 Lexus announced a recall affecting the GS450h after concerns were raised about the engine valve operating system in some models and fears that degraded springs could break, causing engine misfires and rough engine performance.
What You Get
The GS is distinctive as the rear windscreen is steeply raked with just a hint of hatchback about it and there is a purposeful, grounded, low attitude on the road. Inside, this Lexus comes loaded with equipment. There are pre-crash seatbelt and brake assist functions with pre-crash brake technology, front, side, curtain and knee airbags and ABS. Front seats get active headrests to restrict whiplash injury in a rear-end shunt. The "smart" key is standard to automatically unlock the car as you approach. Standard too are electrically adjustable front seats and a steering column which retracts as you remove the ignition key and returns to pre-set position when you start up. The clever climate control is another standard fit item and "sniffs" outside air to measure its quality and automatically switches to recirculating mode if traffic fumes get too bad. Entry level cars get automatic climate control, a six disc CD player, wood trim and electric folding door mirrors, while the SE models add leather upholstery, rear parking camera and sat nav. Find a used SE-L and you will also get adaptive cruise control which brakes automatically when the radar-based system detects you are getting too close to the car in front. Your garage will need to be on the large side if it is to cope with a car that is more than 4.8metres long, 1.8 metres wide and 1.43 metres tall. One thing you don't get with the car is a big boot. Other Lexus models like the GS300 and GS430 offer 420-litres of room in the boot but the space-stealing battery in the hybrid leaves a boot of only 280-litres, nor can you fold down the rear seats should you need more space. This affects rear passenger comfort. The GS hybrid is a genuine four-seater but the sloping roof, space-stealing battery and large transmission tunnel, all mean legroom and to a lesser extent headroom are not quite as generous as they should be. Given the car's performance, fuel economy is very good. The GS450h returns combined fuel figures of 35.8mpg and a carbon dioxide emissions figure of 180g/km. The car falls into the Group 17 or 18 insurance bracket with service intervals every 12months or 10,000 miles.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Given the car's superlative reputation for build quality and its ability to eat up the miles, lower priced older '06 or '07 models would seem to be the best bet provided they have a full service history, preferably with a book full of Lexus franchised dealer stamps. Although the 3.5-litre V6 is not an overly complicated engine for this level of car, the hybrid technology that accompanies it makes for a challenging package for non-specialist technicians to work on. The Lexus Approved Used Programme could be a good starting point but double-check that the car you're looking at came in for the valve springs recall. Make sure that the MOT mileages in cars over three years old match with servicing records, and that the car is as described. Major faults can prove costly and even something like faulty air conditioning can set you back hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. The hybrid technology appears so far to have a faultless record and batteries are good for at least 100,000 miles, need no maintenance over this period, and the hybrid components come with a five year warranty.
(approx. based on 2007 GS450h SE) A full service kit is around £175. Front brake discs and pads are £240, a pair of rear brake discs £115 and a pair of rear brake pads £65. An air filter is around £25, a set of six spark plugs £40, and a pair of front stabiliser links £30.
On the Road
The key to the car is not so much the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine but the high-torque electric motor, a performance aid as much as a help towards lower emissions and improved fuel economy. The motor propels initially at start-up and at low speeds in traffic for emission-free motoring, then kicks to help the petrol engine during acceleration. Not just that but when you're slowing or slowing down, the petrol engine cuts out and the regenerative braking system recovers energy that would normally be lost as heat from the brakes. This is then stored in the high performance battery. Because that battery is constantly maintained by the engine-driven generator, the system never needs to be recharged, unlike an out-and-out electric car. The GS's aerodynamic design and acoustically-tuned engineering makes for whisper-quiet motoring, helped by weight-saving aluminium suspension components of double wishbones (front) and multi-link (rear). The extra weight of the electric motor and the battery, while adding weight to the hybrid version of the GS range, also gives the car a better ride thanks to the suspension having been beefed up to cope with the additional bulk. Hybrid Synergy Drive constantly monitors the hybrid system to ensure maximum performance and the best possible fuel economy, whilst also ensuring emissions are kept at an absolute minimum. A dash readout allows you to keep tabs on which power source - V6 or electric - is being used.
The only puzzle regarding the Lexus GS450h is why it doesn't do much, much better in a market dominated by the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Jaguar XF and Mercedes E-Class. The car has sharp styling, is luxuriously appointed and the potent blend of 3.5-litre V6 and electric motor gives startling performance as well as admirable fuel economy figures and comparatively low emissions. As a used car, prices are highly competitive when set against its rival models of similar age, mileage and specification. And of course, as ever, used customers know that previous owners will have taken the biggest hits on depreciation. Yet new or used, the Lexus reputation for quality, finish, engineering and durability is on a par with any and better than most. The luxury arm of Toyota has placed great trust in the big petrol hybrid as an alternative vision for large, diesel-engined executive cars. It's a trust used car buyers would do well to explore.