|Written by Gary and Genie Anderson -|
|Wednesday, 02 January 2013|
We’ve noticed that automakers are becoming extremely flexible when it comes to use of the term “Sport” as part of a model name.
It is still used in the traditional sense of high-powered engine, manual transmission, taut suspension and strong brakes. But sometimes – as with the new Lexus GS 450 Hybrid Sport – it just means “different from,” as in different from the basic quiet, comfortable, soft Lexus luxury automobile. It’s also different from the economy-focused hybrids in the remainder of the Toyota stable.
We’re not implying that’s a bad thing. As the automobile industry breaks new ground in meeting personal transportation needs while satisfying growing demands for environmental sensitivity and reduced use of hydrocarbon fuels, new terms and definitions will be required.
In the case of the 2013 GS 450 Hybrid Sport, what we know for certain is that the price of the car we tested – $68,914 – puts it squarely in the luxury category, up against the Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-Series and Audi A5. That creates one well-defined set of criteria.
Nevertheless, combined fuel efficiency above 30 mpg elevates this vehicle to a new category, where fuel efficiency and luxury no longer must be traded off against one other.
On the other hand, sporting performance and luxury comfort in the past have definitely been necessary trade-offs. The buyer could choose a car in which to be wafted across the miles, disconnected from the actual fact of having to drive oneself, oblivious to pavement imperfections and cornering forces. But if the owner wished actually to engage in the experience – in tune with the road surface and thrilled by the feedback as suspension and tires fought against cornering forces – it came at the cost of smoothness.
Similarly, high-performance driving traditionally required a manual transmission and clutch. Only recently have some enthusiasts been satisfied with new dual-clutch or multi-clutch automatic transmissions that could produce satisfying gear changes without driver intervention.
And those new dual-cone continuously variable transmissions that have been part and parcel of the hybrid powertrain, requiring that one give up both involvement and responsiveness? That was simply the price one would expect to pay for fuel economy.
Ride vs. fuel economy
Now Toyota, in this new addition to the Lexus luxury lineup, is trying to convince drivers that they can have a smooth, satisfying luxury drive while still getting most of the fuel economy and driving performance that once came only by sacrificing driving comfort and convenience. Has Toyota succeeded?
The answer is yes, sort of. That is, if you’re willing to be a little flexible with your definition of “Sport.” On the positive side, the GS 450h is by no means a sluggard in the metering-light acceleration tests on the on-ramps. Any car that weighs more than 2 tons and can still reach highway cruising speed in less than six seconds meets that traditional criterion for a performance car.
In the apparently necessary cut-and-thrust of urban freeway driving, the car is also satisfyingly responsive, as the electric power from the electric motor connected to the differential gives the car a satisfying boost at passing speeds. That electric motor, incidentally, is one of two on the car. It adds power directly to the driveshaft power while capturing electrical power and assisting in braking as the car slows down.
The rear motor is also capable of powering the car by itself up to 15 mph. That will get you out of the garage without leaving a trail of exhaust fumes, but it won’t take you past the end of your driveway. Select the EV mode and you can drive a short distance in full electric mode. But make no mistake: this is an electrically assisted gas-powered car – not an electrically driven hybrid like the full hybrid or the rechargeable or self-charging hybrids beginning to appear on the streets.
The other motor, the more powerful of the two, is mounted in the engine compartment and starts when the car is parked or at stop signs (stop-start is an important source of emissions control and fuel economy), while also providing primary charge to the batteries that power the accessories.
The combination of these motors with the engine means the GS 450h is more fuel efficient than the traditional gas-engine models. But with fuel efficiency of 31 mpg combined, this hybrid won’t earn anyone full environmental marks.
The “Sport” adjective, according to the manufacturer, is also justified by the adjustable hydraulic suspension, controllable with the Drive Mode selector on the console. In addition to the EV, Eco and Normal modes, there is a Sport mode that changes throttle and transmission response, and a Sport-plus mode that also changes the suspension settings to reduce lean and increase steering response on corners. Nevertheless, with the major compromise of that CVT powertrain, no one is ever going to compare this car to one of those German ultimate driving machines.
Interestingly, selecting either of the sport modes also changes the nature of the gauges simulated on the flat-screen display in front of the driver. Instead of the power and battery-charge read-out displayed when the economy indicator is selected, the display shows a traditional tachometer and digital speed read-out.
A luxurious ride
But what about the luxury side of the equation? Be reassured. There aren’t any compromises in the isolated seclusion that has been the hallmark of the Lexus cabin since the brand’s inception.
Similarly, all the sweet amenities of the luxury sedan are present, even though they are priced separately on the window sticker. It’s puzzling why Lexus would even imply that someone might not buy these.
An audiophile-level Mark Levenson 17-speaker surround system is an obvious choice in place of the basic audio system. Other must-haves: the heated, power-adjustable seats and steering wheel; leather upholstery with bamboo wood trim; and 18-inch alloy wheels.
As a bonus, the luxury package includes a navigation/backup system controlled by a geek’s-delight 12.3-inch center video screen. So even though the options added up to $10,000 on our test car, the total of less than $70,000 is still in the range shared by other medium-priced cars from the luxury brands.
We should, of course, discuss ride and handling, though these are criteria that don’t often come up in conversations with Lexus owners. Nevertheless, with the ease of acceleration, smoothness of ride, and overall feeling of sitting in the cabin, there’s no question that this is a very satisfying luxury automobile to drive.
But has it earned the “Sport” term, or are we simply seeing the first move to redefine what this term means? Is the Lexus GS 450h Sport likely to draw converts from those German makers that claim “sport sedan” in their model line-up as if it were a birthright? We doubt it.
However, overall, we do think this model will be a choice that will keep loyal customers coming back to their favorite dealer when they need to trade in their previous Lexus or feel they’re ready to trade up from a Toyota, confident that the new model will give them more than they were getting in their old sedan. And that’s not such a bad thing.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.
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