Kermit the Frog said it's not easy being green, but it can be with certain brands. While parent company Toyota flogs its hybrids as eco-friendly machines, luxury arm Lexus takes a different tack - responsible performance. The recently-updated Lexus GS has had some interior tweaks and the GS 450h follows the program of giving the hybrid models an extra brushstroke or two from the styling department.
The 450h has exterior differentiation - a unique front grille design, "hybrid blue" rear lamps and 18in wheels - to distinguish it as "the high performance flagship of the GS range," according to Lexus.
The GS range has been upgraded in the iotainment department, with new satnav software. The $126,714 GS 450h wasn't lacking in the audio department and retains the 14-speaker Mark Levinson 5.1 surround sound system to shake the mirrors, now with USB and audio jack plug connections. There is the delete option sunroof which would give a little more headroom but most below the old six foot mark won’t be bothered by the headroom intrusion.
The hybrid GS is packed with technology - the 650-volt hybrid system uses a nickel metal hydride battery to store power generated by the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine. There’s also energy generated by reversing its continuously-variable transmission to become a generator and employing brake energy recovery systems to further charge the battery. Lexus says the system teams up to provide 254kW of power (a definitive torque figure is a little harder to quantify) but the company claims V8-like outputs without the thirst.
For example, despite being 200kg heavier than the $10,000 more expensive GS 460 (which has similar levels of performance) but uses an extra 3.1l/100km to achieve the same ends. The active cruise control system isn’t new and neither is the fact that Lexus still can’t get it to hold a set speed downhill without another car in front – the system is child’s play in a Beemer and a Merc but Lexus doesn’t seem interested in getting it right.
The GS model doesn't push the boundaries for car design, although Lexus likes to invoke a European feel by calling its design language ``L finesse'' - the front view is better than the rump, with the rakish bonnet and lights forming a not unattractive snout, but the rear - perhaps due to the abbreviated bootlid and bulgy rear quarter panels - is not the prettiest of the prestige market segment.
The cabin has undergone only minor changes, leaving the functional and user-friendly touchscreen and centrestack intact - unfortunately the 1980s clock and outside temperature display remains as well.
The safety features for the updated 2010 GS range now includes the new Advanced Pre-Collision Safety System which uses the active cruise control's radar system to monitor the road; the system prepares the vehicle's safety systems for an imminent collision and will now also apply the vehicles brakes if the driver fails to act.
There's the now-obligatory traction and stability control and the airbag list is extensive - driver and front passenger front, side and knee airbags, rear seat side and full length side curtain airbags.
Eerie quiet is a hallmark of Lexus and the GS hybrid does nothing to change that perception, as only the tyre noise is obvious - due to the lack of any other rumbling. Starting often has no noise associated with it, unless the petrol engine is required for air conditioning or other energy sapping systems, but creeping around a carpark on battery-only easily demonstrates how pedestrians can be blissfully ignorant of your presence. It will also cruise at metropolitan speeds on battery alone and that goes a long way toward the 10.1 figure we returned.
Mundane commuting duties are what these hybrid systems are best at and it shows – heading out into the country hills drive doesn’t provide the stop-start driving that regularly allows for charging and minimal petrol engine use. That said, slipping the transmission into sport mode does generate some energy downhill on throttle over-run, but it’s soon used on the uphill runs.
Putting aside the green aspects, the drivetrain itself provides a remarkable experience – a full-throttle departure is rapid, linear ... and did I mention rapid? The instant torque of the electric motor and the CVT’s seamless application of the outputs offers an extraordinary take-off. The adjustable suspension leans towards a firmer ride, even in the normal mode, but it’s not uncomfortable for its occupants, who will need to all need to be of average height to allow decent legroom for all.
Flick the suspension button into Sport mode and things tighten up noticeably, allowing the GS to be aimed into corners with a reasonable degree of confidence. It sits flat enough and – despite low rolling resistance tyres – does a good job, although steering feedback is absent, which puts it out of contention for the prestige sports sedan who puts a chassis ahead of outright grunt, or green credentials. Even on eco-friendly front there are latest-generation turbodiesel with particle filters and other emissions control systems that might not be as quiet but will give good fuel economy as well as grunt.
Techno-philes and greenie-execs will like the trickery under the bonnet and it’s value for money when weighed up against it’s siblings as well as the largely-German opposition, but the design is lacking in flair and the cabin space lets it down.
Price: from $126,714
Engine: 3.5-litre DOHC 24-valve direct-injection V6 & a battery-driven electric motor
Transmission: CVT, rear-wheel drive
Power: petrol - 218kW; electric - 147kW; combined total 254kW
Torque: petrol - 368Nm; electric - 275Nm
Performance: 0-100km/h 5.9 seconds
Top speed: 250km/h (governed)
Fuel consumption: 7.9 litres/100km, on test 10.1, tank 65 litres
Suspension (front): independent, double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers with variable damper control, anti-roll bar
Suspension (rear): independent multi-link, coil springs, gas dampers with variable damper control, mounted anti-roll bar
Brakes: four-wheel ventilated discs, with anti-lock and stability control systems
Dimensions: length 4850mm, width 1820mm, height 1430mm
Wheelbase: 2850mm, track fr/rr 1540/1545mm
Cargo volume: 320 litres
Wheels: 18in alloys.