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Lexus GS450h (2013) long-term test review
the CAR road-test team
Long Term Tests
19 June 2014 12:00
Month 10 running a Lexus GS450h - the end of year conclusion
Maserati should be more Lexus. I wrote a few issues ago that I was leaving my Lexus GS450h at the airport and flying to Italy to drive the new Ghibli. The comparison was interesting. Both cars will be successful if they can chip just a few per cent of buyers away from the 5-series, E-class, A6 and their various spin-offs: every year, BMW makes 350,000 5-series alone. This frees you to build a polarising car: in fact, it probably forces you to. If you don’t need to chase big volumes you can build a car that many won’t like, but enough will love sufficiently to choose over one of the usual suspects. If you’re Maserati or Lexus, you build a car that is distinctively Italian or Japanese to make it stand out from the ubiquitous Germans. Other than the styling, I didn’t think the Ghibli had enough brio, but the GS450h could only be from Japan.
So it seems churlish to criticise the Lexus for doing exactly what it should, but after a year I have to admit I’m not in the love-it camp. And there is a lot to love. The seats are perfect, infinitely adjustable and the result of obsessive research, and the driveline refinement is exceptional. Together they mean I actively look forward to a long day in the Lexus, especially if it’s spent in the city, where the silent electric running is yet more soothing and the lazy Eco-mode throttle response is actually a positive. Although the material quality isn’t as unctuous as I remember from the GS I ran for a year in 2006, the car is flawlessly made and feels immensely solid after driving anything else. Nothing has gone wrong, and on the one occasion I had cause to visit the dealer (only to have winter tyres fitted) the standard of service exceeded the high levels which even Lexus promises, and with which it also hopes to distinguish itself from the Germans.
So why am I not sold? The styling leaves me cold, though this is entirely subjective and plenty of designers at rival car makers rate Lexus’s current look. Nor am I sold on the performance-to-economy balance: this is a fast car, but its demeanour doesn’t encourage you to use the poke. The final fuel economy figure of 32.0mpg is better than the 26.8mpg my first-gen GS450h got, but worse than you’d see in a torquey, just-as-fast diesel or diesel-hybrid. If you like wafty electric running in town and a quick petrol engine beyond, great; but buy it for the feel, not the finances.
The boot loses space to the batteries and on a couple of occasions made me take my estate car on airport runs when a saloon ought to have coped. Those lower sales volumes (I’ve only seen two others on the road) mean that although the standard kit list is impressive, Lexus can’t afford to develop the insane range of options you’ll find on rivals. You can’t dress your GS up the way you can with a 5-series, and that’s part of the appeal of buying premium. There’s no wheel choice on this grade, for instance; no head-up display or panoramic roof, and active cruise control can only be had with the eye-wateringly expensive £3350 pre-crash safety package.
And then there’s the huge 12-inch central display (very good) with its ugly graphics and infuriating ‘mouse’ controller (very, very bad). You might get on fine with it, but before you commit, have a very long test drive to be sure you do.
The GS450h is an unquestionably good car in some respects and controversial in others, which is just how it ought to be. If you side with the Lexus in those areas, it might make a fine alternative to a 5-series. It just doesn’t for me.
By Ben Oliver
Month nine running a Lexus GS450h - Ben Pulman's view
With its tenure with us nearly over, and having been less than effusive about it over the past year, Ben Oliver’s asked that the CAR office offer its perspective on his GS450h. So, I like the thin-rimmed steering wheel and LFA-aping gearshift paddles, the overall refinement, and the surprising silence of the 3.5-litre V6 after becoming used to every rival 5-series, XF, A6 and E-class being powered by a diesel engine.
But as much as I was keen on the GS when I first drove it two years ago, that was a sporty F Sport model with the optional rear-wheel steering. Minus that car’s bodykit, and in such a drab colour, Ben’s GS looks a decade old, and with only the front wheels turning you can feel the weight of the hybrid system. I don’t think it rides particularly smoothly either, and it’s always 10-15mpg off the claimed consumption figures.
You also sit far too high, a paternity test wouldn’t find a link between the wood trim and real trees, and the dot-matrix display for the air-con system is horribly outdated. Plus the mouse-like controller for the infotainment is woeful, and although there’s a huge, high-res LCD screen, the sat-nav maps are as bare as Columbus’s first charts – it’s like having a 3D TV and watching black and white films.
By Ben Pulman
Month eight running a Lexus GS450h - how does petrol compare to diesel?
In this green-obsessed age it feels odd to be apologising for not driving enough, especially when your car is a whooshy hybrid. But despite being nine months old now, my Lexus GS450h still hasn’t broken 5000 miles, the result of a few long overseas assignments that have seen it left forlornly in airport car parks, and the arrival of a son, which means I don’t travel as much when I am in the UK.
So it isn’t piling on the miles at the rate you’d expect of a big exec saloon, but it has still accumulated enough to make its fuel figures representative. And with a hybrid, that’s what everyone wants to know about. The claims are always impressive – 46.3mpg for the GS – but the official testing cycle always seems to favour hybrids, which then fall further short of those claims than their conventional rivals in real use. Having young Tom on board ought to help here: I drive everywhere like a policeman now, though the Lexus’s general demeanour encourages this. I’m so far from the limits of adhesion that we were well into summer before I swapped off the excellent Yokohama winters and back onto the original Bridgestones.
Anyway – those numbers. Over 11 full tanks the Lexus has recorded a best of 32.7mpg and a worst of 28.3mpg, for an average of 31.2mpg. It means this car is returning almost exactly two-thirds of its claimed efficiency, which isn’t bad for a hybrid. Looking back at the figures for my first-gen GS hybrid in 2006, I got 26.8mpg against a claimed 35.8, so worse in absolute terms, but actually closer (three-quarters) to the claimed figure. I lived in central London at the time: I wonder if stop/start city traffic that allows the hybrid system to function is actually better for hybrid economy than moderate but constant motion?
So the economy isn’t stellar, but if I was dead-set on having a performance petrol saloon, I’d be happy with those figures. I don’t find the Lexus a financial burden to fuel, and I think the range, which often exceeds 400 miles, is fine. For some, this combination of performance and costs will be perfect. But if I was choosing a direct replacement for the Lexus tomorrow, I think I’d still be looking for a diesel.
By Ben Oliver
Month seven running a Lexus GS450h - is the Lexus any fun to drive?
A couple of fast drives to Goodwood, avoiding the Festival of Speed traffic (it is possible) reminded me that for all its hybrid tech and luxo interior, the Lexus GS450h is also a 341bhp, rear-drive performance saloon. One trip was made in convoy with a mate’s new 444bhp Audi RS4 wagon and another trailing a Ford GT40, but the GS never felt outgunned: it’s capable of 62mph in 5.9sec but feels faster.
I seldom use the Sports-plus setting but it gives remarkably tight, effective damping without losing much steady-state ride comfort, and a crisp throttle response that brings the hybrid system’s impressive combined torque in instantly, but also highlights how spongy the right pedal is when you switch back to Eco mode. It also makes the instrument panel glow red (grrrr!) and brings up a rev counter.
I switched the traction control off for the first time, but it doesn’t seem appropriate in the Lexus. Even so, the GS performed impressive drifts as we left the Goodwood car park. Don’t tell Lord March.
By Ben Oliver
Month six running a Lexus GS450h - driving a Tesla Model S makes our GS feel old-tech
Your new car is probably left alone to go out about its business of getting you around, free of interference from its rivals. If you have another car or two, they’re probably quite different and you’re unlikely to make comparisons. Our cars don’t have that luxury. Not being based at CAR HQ, I don’t swap cars with the frequency of some of the other Bens here, but my Lexus is still exposed to that most revealing of tests – being driven immediately after a direct rival – on a fairly frequent basis. It’s why magazine group tests are so valuable. Stepping from one car to another – perhaps with a plane ride in between – makes each car’s successes and failures leap out at you.
The Lexus didn’t fare well at first by comparison with my elegant, economical, fine-riding and special-feeling Mercedes-Benz CLS. Then it was pretty unlucky to be my airport transport to for a trip to Germany to drive the Tesla Model S which, regardless of your views on its price and range, is the only vaguely comparable car that makes the hybrid Lexus feel unrefined and old-tech. It’s not, of course, but its drivetrain refinement is now only second-to-one. The Tesla’s vast, iPad-like touchscreen is also easily the best interface in the car world; the Lexus’s is arguably the worst (see last month's report).
But the vast ranks of cream-coloured E-class and 5-series taxis at Munich airport reminded me of where Lexus will always win: exclusivity. There’s great appeal in simply not being another German exec saloon.
Next, I’m off to Italy to drive the new Maserati Ghibli. A Maserati rivaling a big Toyota? Who’d have guessed? But by simply being an anti-BMW, they attract the more individualistic buyer, are forgiven many failings and need only chip a few per cent from Funfer and E-class sales to be a hit.
What shining qualities or rough edges will the Ghibli reveal in my Lexus when I’m back? If I was to engage in automotive national stereotypes I could probably guess, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.
By Ben Oliver
Month five running a Lexus GS450h - readers agree the cabin controls are below-par
Some fascinating feedback from you on the Lexus GS450h. One reader, though loyal enough to Lexus to be on his third GS hybrid, and having forked out at least £44,995 for his new one, remains impartial enough to describe the mouse-operated main screen as ‘a dog of a control’. He shares my frustration with the wiper controls too, though sagely points out that by not needing to be within reach, the screen can be very deeply recessed and thus always visible in sunlight. He also got 41.5mpg out of a tank, so I ought to be trying harder.
I am, however, warming to the Lexus, not least for its ability to render an unpleasant journey enjoyable with its extraordinary seat comfort, the isolation provided by its fine ride and exceptional drivetrain refinement, and its excellent audio. The cabin quality means it displaces the family C-class wagon on long hauls unless we can’t fit our two-month old’s gear into the curtailed boot.
As I write this I’m about to leave the Lexus at Heathrow while I’m in North Korea (really). I hope I’ll be back, but if you spot a dusty blue GS in the T5 car park, please call the Foreign Office.
By Ben Oliver
Month 4 running a Lexus GS450h - the Lexus GS as a young family's car
For the first month of his life my new son Tom was one of the very few people so loyal to Lexus that he’d never ridden in anything else. I hadn’t planned to give the GS450h the honour of providing his first four-wheeled experience. Fine car though it is, Tom’s half-German and his first ride should have been in the family Benz, but for dull logistical reasons he was chauffeured home in the Lexus. And I was too tired to shift his ISOFIX seatbase into another car for a month thereafter.
I can’t imagine many GS buyers have newborn children, but it makes a decent baby-carrier. Odd how your perspective on a car alters: the rear mesh blinds suddenly assume huge importance, the advanced, nano-particle moisturising and deodorising air-con seems a good idea in city traffic, the generous rear space is great for getting the childseat in and out and for mum when she’s entertaining back there, as are the seat comfort, air-con and audio controls. And I thought about safety for the very first time: there’s no Euro NCAP rating, but there are rear side and curtain airbags and the car’s size and solidity of build are reassuring. The only problem is the battery-bearing boot: 82 litres down on a non-hybrid GS, its lack of depth means it struggles with Tom’s own four-wheeled conveyances.
By Ben Oliver
Month 3 running a Lexus GS450h - gripes with the over-complicated infotainment
I worry that I'm getting stupider, or that I’m just not bright enough to own a Lexus GS450h in the first place. For me, sitting in the driver’s seat with the manual open, the ignition on and a free hour is one of the joys of getting a new car, and I don’t expect to be able to get the most out of something so complex without some study time. That said, many new cars have human/machine interfaces of such Apple-like simplicity that you’ll have most of it figured out on the drive home from the dealership…
Not so with the Lexus. I spent the full hour with the manual and, nearly 2000 miles later, I still find the controls confusing and often infuriating. It’s partly the fault of the ‘mouse’ controller: as I’ve noted before, it’s awkward for the right-handed and the patch of screen you’re aiming for is often small, requiring you to spend more time looking at the screen than feels safe. But it’s also the way the functions are organised; rather than model itself on an iPhone, the Lexus takes a mid-’80s JVC video camera as its HMI benchmark, and the literary style of the 948-page manual only deepens the confusion.
Example? Muting the sat-nav voice requires you to exit the nav and go into the main set-up menu, then back to nav: six key-presses in total, plus time spent carefully positioning the cursor with the mouse between each. In my Mercedes, it’s done with one push of a button on the wheel. There are other tasks I would expect to achieve safely while driving that I’ve found too distracting and have had to pull over to complete.
Just me? I’m aware that this is a very subjective subject, and I’d be glad to hear the views of Lexus owners. Plainly you read CAR and are therefore smarter than the average driver, but are you smart enough for this Lexus?
By Ben Oliver
Month 2 running a Lexus GS450h - our first brush with Lexus dealer service
These long-term tests are meant to replicate what it’s like to own a car, and your relationship with your dealer is a big part of that. Trouble is, we only run these cars for six months or a year and many just don’t need the dealer in that time. But the dealership experience is a big deal for Lexus: it aims to beat its premium rivals here, so it was good to put it to an early test by booking the GS450h in for a swap to winter tyres.
And the service was mighty impressive: the same ‘Lexus host’ (hello, Louise) who answered the phone sorted the entire operation in one call: no waiting for the service department to come back from their tea-break. The tyres were ready in a few days despite it being shortage season and the cost was a very reasonable £760 fitted. The summers were bagged for me to store at home: definitely my choice of winter-tyre scheme as it saves you buying a second set of rims, as some makers require you to do, and I have the space to store them alongside a Kwik-Fit’s worth of other half-used rubber. If you live in a flat you might feel differently. Only downside was a 90-minute drive to the nearest dealership in Tunbridge Wells, low-volume Lexus not having the coverage of a brand like Mercedes. But the tea was very nice.
By Ben Oliver
Month 1 running a Lexus GS450h - the Lexus arrives
So my much-loved Mercedes-Benz CLS250 CDI has gone, to be replaced by this, a Meteor Blue Lexus GS450h in top-spec Premier trim (and anything that ranks above ‘Luxury’ had better be good, right?). Two reasons for running one. First, I had the original hybrid GS for a year in ’06 and liked it a great deal: not least for the congestion-charge exemption that my new one no longer enjoys, but also for the obsessive-compulsive build quality, which marked it out from its premium rivals. I remember most clearly how the cabin felt, more than how the car looked or sounded: the silken leather, the tight panel fit, and the even damping and resistance of every handle and knob. It was perfectly made; this car has much to live up to.#
It’s also a direct rival for the car it replaces. The Lexus lists at £50,995, £425 more than a CLS250 Sport. Pretty much all you could want comes as standard on the impressively specified GS, though any colour other than solid black is a cheeky £610. LED lamps, a sunroof and a three-grand coolbox (!) are the only other options. Mine has only the paint, but at the time of writing it’s due to have winter tyres fitted by the dealer at a reasonable £760.
And both GS and CLS represent a different take on modern luxury motoring, assuaging your environmental guilt with a novelty drivetrain. The downsized 2.1-litre diesel in my Merc offered just 201bhp but claimed 54.3mpg. This Lexus makes 286bhp and knocks 1.6sec off the Merc’s 60mph time, but its fuel claim is still impressive for a big car at 46.3mpg.
But aren’t hybrids’ fuel claims always hopelessly optimistic? My old GS claimed 35.8mpg but averaged 26.8 over a year and 12,000 miles; what this new one will do in real use will be instructive. (We drive these luxury vehicles for your benefit, dear reader; what kind, selfless people we are.)
It’s too early to dish up any definitive judgments on the GS – including fuel claims, which can wait until I’ve done a more representative mileage – but here are some early impressions. The first is that I’m unexcited by the styling: it doesn’t seem to have the presence or appeal you’d hope for from a 50-grand car. This will suit many Lexus buyers very well; they choose one because they don’t want one of the usual premium suspects. And you can have a Sport-trimmed GS with one-inch-bigger 19in rims and more aggressive styling. But even with the ‘bold’ new Lexus trapezoidal grille, this car is a little too under-the-radar for me.
More serious, potentially, is the huge 12.3in display (good), operated by a mouse and your left hand (very bad, on first acquaintance, especially if you’re right-handed). I can’t understand how this is preferable to the touch-screen the old model had and almost every other rival offers. You have to look down to find the mouse, then search the screen for the cursor, then jerkily guide it to the often frustratingly small patch of screen you have to hit. I’ve dutifully read the manual and lived with it for nearly 800 miles, but I’m still struggling. And still, truth be told, missing the Merc.
By Ben Oliver