Lexus GS450h Ego Trip 2.0
By Bill Moore
I love a good mystery, especially those polished, stylish murder mysteries the English are so famous for; and P.D. James stories are some of the best of the genre. There are always plenty of likely suspects who could have done the foul deed, set against the lush, richly detailed backdrop of the English countryside or grime of the metropolitan city. And in the case of "Death in Holy Orders," the list includes an aging seminarian, a ruthless businessman, a burnt-out cop, and a seductive female journalist who sleeps with her half brother.
It also takes hours to listen to the typical P.D. James novel on cassette tape, which is how we passed the four hours between Omaha and Iowa City, as we cruised east on Interstate 80 in the 2007 Lexus GS 450h the company had loaned me for a week. It was somewhere just east of Grinnell, Iowa that we finally learned how and why the young novitiate died and fifty miles further on who murdered the arch deacon and the elderly housekeeper.
What we didn't learn in the more than 10 hours of travel listening to the last few chapters of "Holy Orders" in the GS450h was all the car's capabilities. The owner's manual is nearly as thick as a P.D. James novel and my first recommendation to Lexus, apart from finding a way to make the "boot" bigger is to put the manual on CD and let owners listen to it as they drive.
Gratefully, there is a sort of laminated "Quick intro to the GS450h" pamphlet that highlights some of the more important features, and truth be told, we figured out enough of the basic systems like climate control, fuel consumption display, navigation and how to play our books on tape to have an enjoyable trip to our daughter's thesis defense.
It was about 1 PM on July 4th when we merged on to the Interstate and drove east towards Council Bluffs on the Iowa side of the Missouri River. Traffic was heavy, but it was a national holiday, after all, and that was to be expected. One thing you don't want to do in a new car, especially one that costs more than most homes I've owned in my life, is try to figure out what all the buttons and multiple screens are for on the optional navigation/vehicle information/entertainment/climate control display system while negotiating heavy, multi-lane traffic on the Fourth of July. So, I waited until we turned northeast on I-80 where it diverges from I-29 to play with the XM Satellite radio and set the cruise control. I quickly mastered the latter. I never did completely figure out the former. I did get various channels to play, but I they weren‘t ones I was interested in. Nor did I confidently master the voice navigation system.
No mind, we just slipped in a cassette tape and rolled across the undulating Iowa countryside at a rock steady 66 mph, while drivers in more of a hurry swept around us. I had decided to see what the car would do at 65 to compare it to the Ford Escape Hybrid which I had driven over the same segment last year. While the Lexus turned in a not unrespectable 28 mpg (AC on, wind quartering from northwest, speed unknown), we managed to get the Escape above 31 mpg (AC off with a strong tailwind).
Still, I was pleased with its fuel economy on the east-bound leg of the trip. That was slightly better than what my 4-cylinder Honda Accord (1995 vintage) managed on the same trip a few weeks earlier. On the return leg west, I planned to set the cruise to 75 mph, a more realistic pace for Interstate travel today. I'd be driving into a prevailing westerly wind with a slight gain in elevation, so I expected fuel economy to seriously suffer, but like a good murder mystery, I was in for a surprise.
It should go without saying, but I am sure Lexus would appreciate it anyway, that the car's interior is comfortable, quiet, tasteful, and well-appointed. The driver and front seat passengers have separate climate controls that can be set independently, including heated and air conditioned seats. There is a large, ample armrest/storage unit between the front seats, which I found just a bit too ample. I would have liked to have had a bit more hip room. When I drive on cruise control, I like to bring my knees up against the seat during long, open stretches of road where I am confident I won't need to jump on the brakes.
Of course, part of the reason it seems a bit more cramped in the front is because, unlike my Honda, which is front-wheel drive, the GS450h sports the world's first rear-wheel drive, hybrid-electric transmission, which is buried in the tunnel between the driver and his passenger.
The manual that Toyota gave me at the Hybrid Seminar in Laguna Beach says the following about the GS450h's transmission:
The transmission utilizes an advanced two-stage motor torque multiplication device for the Electronic Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) motor, delivering responsive and seamless acceleration with no power loss.
And I can attest to the veracity of that statement. Accelerating this car is incredibly smooth and exhilarating. There is absolutely no power slump, as you might expect with a conventional automatic transmission. The car just keeps going faster and faster as the 288-volt NiMH battery smoothly adds power to the engine. You really have to experience it to appreciate it.
One of the more interesting deviations from the standard performance car is the replacement of the tachometer in the driver's instrument cluster -- called ECD or electro chromatic display -- with an analog amp meter that displays both discharge and recharge of the battery pack. Press the accelerator and watch the amps flow out measured in 50 watt units. Press the brake and the needle drops into the blue zone of the gauge. It's a nice analog display in an increasingly digital world.
A set of buttons integrated into the steering wheel control a separate, multi-function fuel economy/battery state-of-charge display that appears just below the analog speedometer. There are also buttons for the audio system and Blue Tooth-based cellular telephone system, which was disabled on the demonstrator. Toogling through the fuel economy/battery display told me when the car was in electric-only, hybrid or engine-only operation. A tap of the button showed available driving range based on the amount of fuel in the tank and how efficiently I was driving. However, because I like the steering column low when I drive for added comfort, it was impossible to see the speedometer, which was blocked by the top of the lacquered wood and leather steering wheel. Here, I'd love to see something similar to the EV1, where the speed is displayed just below the windshield.
Speaking of the steering column, it is motor driven and remembers your last setting. Turn off the car and it retracts up and back towards the dash. Start the car and the column powers itself back to your last setting. The front power seats also can be customized for three different passengers. The seats are, of course, all fine leather. There are the now obligatory power doors and windows. A separate button on the dash activates a drop-down control panel for unlocking the trunk, the gas cap door, and adjusting the outside mirrors, among other things. There is a built in digital compass in the rear view mirror, plus all kinds of passenger lighting options, both interior and exterior.
Our demonstrator had a power moon roof that we enjoyed some of the time, but found the sun a bit too intense to enjoy while driving, and the wind noise made it difficult to listen to the novel-on-tape. Having thoroughly enjoyed the trip driving out -- and having finished "Death in Holy Orders" -- I was determined to continue the experience, so using a Barnes & Noble gift card I had been given last winter, I bought another P.D. James "Commander Adam Dalgliesh" novel, this one entitled "The Lighthouse," set on the Cornish coast. As we rolled into Omaha late Thursday afternoon, no one had yet been murdered, but we had an inkling of who the deserving victim might be.
The trip home would also include a stop at the Amana Colonies (see photo above) where I planned to take more photos of the car, and experiment with driving in electric-only mode.
If you've ever been to the Amana Colonies, you can appreciate their rustic charm…for a tourist attraction. The main village is a collection of clapboard and brick homes and businesses that feature home-made wines, jams, cheeses, meats, quilts and antiques. The main street is maybe a half a mile long or less, and it was easy to keep the car in EV-mode staying under 35 mph. I stopped to take photos in a couple places, leaving the air conditioner running, I think. After driving maybe a mile or less, I noticed the battery had dropped significantly. It would quickly recover once we got on the road and headed back towards the Interstate some ten miles to the south, but I learned very quickly that you don't drive far in EV-mode in this car.
A second incident on the weekend also underscored that the car won't run the AC system on electric power-only for more than a couple minutes. My wife went into a local Scooters for buy us a couple iced coffees, while I waited in the car. She wasn't inside more than five minutes, but before she returned, the gasoline engine had turned on to help keep the AC running and the battery from depleting too deeply.
I am not sure how good a candidate the GS450h is as a plug-in conversion, but its current EV-only mode is best reserved for backing out of the driveway and short drives in the shopping center parking lot.
Otherwise, how did the car do at 75 mph on the westward leg? A surprising 27 mpg, which I find truly amazing given that anytime you drive more than 55-60 mph, your fuel economy really starts to degrade in any vehicles.
The GS450h -- and its RX400h stable mate -- present a bit of an ethical dilemma for anyone interested in reducing their personal environmental/energy consumption footprint. Yes, it does get much better fuel economy than its non-hybrid counterparts and it is rated just as clean, in terms of emissions, as a Prius. Still, one wonders about the justification of spending this much money on an automobile.
I guess I am revealing my pedestrian roots, but I keep trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who could afford to buy or lease this car -- or any high-priced luxury automobile -- and I wonder what rationale they use to justify it. Yes, it's a wonderful piece of technology with an owner's manual several inches thick and more gadgets than James Bond's Aston Martin -- well, sans the missiles, machine guns and lasers, mind you.
Do these cars hold their value better than say, an Accord or Camry, relatively speaking? Maybe. Is the ride really that much better? Perhaps. I know I wasn't nearly as tired when I got home from Iowa City as I normally am when we take either the Insight -- especially the Insight -- or our Honda Accord.
Certainly, it isn't anywhere near as efficient as my Insight or a Prius. So, what's the attraction? Quality, clearly. Everything about it drips of refinement and taste, though even this is a rather subjective measure.
After having cruised the streets of Papillion and raced across Iowa, I think the answer really is "ego" as I state in part one of my review, and I don't necessarily mean than in a negative sense. Like wearing an expensive, tailor-made Armani suit compared to one you've bought off the rack at Penney's, you just sense that you're wearing -- or driving -- something special, something a cut above the norm, something that you hope reflects positively to others who you perceive yourself to be.
I admit that I relished being seen in the GS450h and secretly hoped people would notice two things about it: the Lexus logo and the door panel wording "HYBRID". They probably had no idea that the car does turn in a modest, but respectable 28 highway, 25 city as declared on the EPA window sticker, or that it is rated SULEV in California, which makes it extraordinarily clean by current car standards. But they had to admire its graceful, sweeping lines. And the few cars I left swirling in my wake at the stoplight north of the Coralville Mall, had to appreciate its awesome power.
If clothes define the man, then I can see why a successful doctor, lawyer, or businessman -- with a sense of environmental conscience -- would be interested in plunking down sixty Gs to have this machine hanging in his closet…er… garage.
But would I buy one if I could?
John Rockhold, from Mother Earth News sort of asked me that question in an email last week and I had to reply that if I did buy one, it would probably sit, like my Honda Insight, in the garage while I used my M750 electric bicycle to run errands.
However, if I could afford to spend that much money on a car, I think I would use it instead to first convert something like an S10 or Ranger pickup to electric drive for about a third the price. That would be my commuter car for trips around town beyond the range of the ebike and out of inclement weather. For cross country trips, I'd probably opt for the Accord Hybrid at $33K if I wanted comparable power, almost as nice a ride, and a bit better fuel economy. Or I could go with the new Camry Hybrid for around $25K.
Let's see, $20K for the conversion, $25K for the Camry -- total: $45,000. Heck that leaves $15,000, which is more than enough to put a good photovoltaic system on my roof so I can recharge the EV conversion with sunshine.
Still if you absolutely have to have the Armani of automobiles and want it to be greener than the competition, then mister, the GS450h will be a great fit.
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