It doesn't matter how much money you have, when the price of gas blows by $3 a gallon, it grabs your attention. Even in the most elite circles, interest in high-mileage alternatives is growing. So Lexus, which scored a PR coup, as well as a sales success, when it launched the world's first luxury hybrid-electric vehicle, the RX400h, last year, is back with a second HEV. It's a very different animal from that first gasoline-electric people mover, however. While the RX crossover emphasizes mileage, the GS450h sedan is being billed as the world's first performance hybrid.
Hybrid is, of course, what the little "h" stands for. And the basic technology starts out the same on both vehicles: each captures energy that is typically wasted during braking or coasting and stores it in a battery pack. When you need extra power, that energy drives a pair of electric motors. In the GS, they're capable of punching out 197 horsepower and incredible amounts of on-demand torque. Add that to the 270 horsepower delivered by the sedan's 3.5-liter V-6, and you're talking serious performance.
During some aggressive driving around the Big Island of Hawaii, we were promptly impressed by the GS450h's "electric supercharger." With 0-to-60 times estimated at 5.2 seconds, the car gets off the line as quickly as a Porsche 911 with the Tiptronic transmission. Since electric motors deliver instant torque, acceleration is quick and smooth at just about any speed.
Heading down to Kona, we had a chance to check out the other side of the hybrid system's programming. Creeping through traffic, we ran for several miles on purely electric power—though it was a challenge to tell for sure when the gasoline engine kicked back in. The GS450h has little of the "rubber-banding effect" you feel in a Prius or RX as the engine revs, seemingly independent of actual road speed. It's even better with the transmission in manual mode, where it does a reasonable job of emulating a six-speed manual.
What about fuel economy? The definitive answer is that it depends. Drive hard and you'll see your mileage plunge on the GS450h's slick video display. Drive gingerly in stop-and-go traffic and you'll do a lot better. Based on the way other hybrids perform in real-world conditions, we doubt you'll get the rated mileages of 25 mpg city/28 mpg highway. On the other hand, you'll likely do better than comparably powered turbo and supercharged V-8 sedans.
You'll also get that uniquely quiet ride that is a Lexus hallmark, along with near bulletproof quality. The GS sedan is arguably the most handsome sedan Lexus has yet brought to market. It's roomy and comfortable, with a distinctly sporty flavor. And the 450h is the most lavishly equipped model in the GS series. So even if you're skeptical of Lexus's save-the-earth claims, the GS450h is certainly worth checking out.