The Lexus GS300h is a lot of car for the money. Its starting price of £32k makes it cheaper than the BMW 5-series, Audi A6 and the Mercedes E-class, but it will have the same mechanical set-up as our higher-specced £37k test car: a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain with impressive efficiency claims of 60.1mpg and 109g/km.
Where does this Lexus GS300h sit in the range?
This is the £37k GS300h Luxury, one of four variants (SE, Luxury, F-Sport and Premier). Truth be told, the Luxury’s 18in alloys bump up its mpg to 57.6mpg and its CO2 to 113g/km, but it’s still impressive.
On the outside, this Lexus is huge, imposing yet understated. The spindle grille isn’t quite as massive as some of the latest concepts, including the stunning RC F coupe shown at Detroit, but its sharp nose with LEDs and North American market-looking rear lights are connected by flat, slabby sides – the complete opposite of the overdesigned Mercedes flanks. It’s not a work of art, but it’s understated and polished – details such as the finish on the wheels give it a touch of class.
Lexus have pretty good interiors. What’s this one like?
Inside, it’s spacious and super comfortable. The doors close with a reassuring thud, and the leather seat automatically slides into position after being set back for easier entry. It’s also loaded with kit: there’s sat-nav, a crisp full-colour reversing camera, climate control, Bi-Xenon headlamps with LED daytime running lights, and Blind Spot Monitor. For another £5k, upgrade to the Premier spec for Mark Levinson audio and head-up display.
You’re perched on soft electrically adjustable leather chairs that are well padded. They’re not as firm as a Mercedes seat, but they’re supportive and offer a good driving position, as the steering has proper rake and reach adjustment. Hit the start button, and the display lights up: it’s clean and crisp, with simple dials and, to your left, the world’s largest centre screen (12.3in), which, frankly, is easy to read but the size doesn’t really make it any better than its rivals’. The fit and finish is sturdy, but it’s not as well executed as Audi’s cabins, for instance: the green hue of the digital temp display looks like it’s from a 1992 cash register, while the surfaces are good, but feel layered on. It’s comfy, but not sumptuous.
How does it drive?
One word comes to mind; majestic. The GS is smooth as silk, with brilliant refinement and manners. Under the long bonnet is a 178bhp 2.5-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol engine, with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and a 141bhp electric motor. Lexus claims 220bhp in total.
There’s a nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the boot, fed by regenerative braking, with an ‘EV mode’ button on the centre console for petrol-free driving. It works only below 25mph and even modest throttle results in a switch to petrol accompanied by an ‘excessive throttle’ chime. Yet the change between the two systems is near seamless: most of the time, you’ll never notice.
Is it quick – and can it handle a B-road?
It’s the throttle behavior that’s most disappointing. In the three drive modes – the default Normal, softer Eco or harder Sport settings, the GS plays vastly different games. In Normal, it’s the best. The CVT still hangs on for a while, making the six stepped ‘gear changes’ take longer than expected, but provides a slow yet tolerable response. In Eco, it’s even more rubbery, but hit Sport – which lights up the dash in red – and it’s far too toey for small inputs.
This makes Sport too rough for the otherwise smooth motorway journey, yet it’s still not fast – even full throttle from a standing start feel like hard work. The pedal itself has a soggy start, then a second life where it feels like it physically changes angle. It’s like a waning sword rather than a bow-and-arrow.
Part of that is the fact that the GS weighs 1830kg. The 9.2sec 0-62mph claim is utterly believable. Yet this car is not as slow as it sounds: it’s flexible enough as a motorway monster. It belies its size when it comes to handling, with great body control and reasonable roadholding. Change of direction is executed well, with little violence as the chassis co-operates. It’s not the bowl of custard you might expect from a car this large and from the same people that make the Auris, Avensis…
Traction levels, because of the lack of power, are high, too, making this a competent, strong performer. The brakes are a little hit and miss: they’re reasonable, but they don’t give a consistent feel to your foot, which lowers your confidence in them.
So is it a game-changer?
Picking off its rivals, the GS300h puts the more expensive £44k Audi A6 Hybrid in the shade, while BMW’s ActiveHybrid5 isn’t a genuine competitor thanks to its six-cylinder set-up: it’s more of a tech showcase than an MPG hero. The £40k E300 Hybrid can topple the GS’s mpg, with 68.9 claimed, but the GS can be had – in lower SE trim – from £32k. This is the same price as its biggest threat, the BMW 518d.
The entry-level automatic 5-series has worse C02 (119g/km) but nudges ahead with 62.8mpg, although it doesn’t have the power of the Lexus. That makes the GS300h a tempting company car that’s low on running costs, high on reliability and brilliant on motorways. It’s a genuine alternative to the BMW, if not as sharp to drive.