New Lexus hy­brid en­ters the lux­ury fray

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Lexus, Toy­ota’s lux­ury mar­que, started life in 1989 as a cheap al­ter­na­tive to Mercedes for the US mar­ket, tick­ing all the boxes for re­li­ably bland, an­o­dyne and dull. The fourth gen­er­a­tion of the GS sa­loon was launched here last year with an un­com­pet­i­tive petrol V6 en­gine and as a high-pow­ered hy­brid that was more road-burner than eco war­rior.

This new hy­brid – likely to be Europe’s best­selling GS – is cat­a­pulted into the corpse-strewn bat­tle­field for fleet sales; the 2.0-litre diesel mar­ket, which ac­counts for more than 85 per cent of all BMW 5-se­ries Bri­tish sales and a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion of Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-classes.

It has been pre­pared for that bat­tle with a scaled-up Toy­ota Prius petrol/ elec­tric driv­e­line spun through 90 de­grees to drive the back wheels.

At last month’s Tokyo mo­tor show, I got the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that the com­pany is a lit­tle hap­pier in its skin. “When the op­po­si­tion zigs, we’re gonna zag,” Mark Tem­plin, its ex­ec­u­tive vi­cepres­i­dent, told me while con­firm­ing a new per­for­mance strat­egy start­ing with next year’s RC coupé.

The cars should be bet­ter to drive, thanks partly to Akio Toy­oda, the pres­i­dent of Toy­ota and the man de­ter­mined to drag his fam­ily’s car maker kick­ing and scream­ing into dy­namic con­tention with Europe’s best. Hideki Watanabe, Lexus GS chief engi­neer, winces when he re­calls his morn­ing calls from the boss.

The GS300h’s petrol en­gine is a new 2.5-litre, four-cylin­der run­ning the long-power-stroke Atkin­son­type cy­cle, with vari­able timed camshafts to squeeze out the last puff of econ­omy. There’s the fa­mil­iar two-mo­tor hy­brid sys­tem, us­ing a con­tin­u­ously vari­able epicyclic gear train to drive and/or charge the nickel metal hy­dride bat­tery. Toy­ota has been con­ser­va­tive on in­tro­duc­ing lithi­u­mion bat­ter­ies, pre­fer­ring the re­li­a­bil­ity, ro­bust­ness and safety of NMh.

Watanabe tac­itly ac­knowl­edges a plug-in sys­tem us­ing lithium-ion is on its way, a year af­ter Toy­ota’s. He says Lexus cus­tomers de­mand greater re­li­a­bil­ity and re­fine­ment and that takes more re­search. He also im­plied that a tar­mac-rip­ping V8 model is due.

The GS is a hand­some, well pro­por­tioned sa­loon, al­though the £41,745 F-Sport model gets a shape­lier nose, more ag­gres­sive grille and low­ered and stiff­ened sus­pen­sion.

Of the four trim specs, the £31,495 SE on 17in al­loys is likely to be the best­seller as it sneaks into the 109g/km Band B VED class with its Ben­e­fit in Kind tax ad­van­tages. There’s a five-year/60,000-mile war­ranty and Lexus claims run­ning costs and over­all own­er­ship costs lower than equiv­a­lent Ger­man hy­brids and diesels.

An EU Com­bined fuel econ­omy of 60.1mpg for the SE is not bad for a 1.8-ton sa­loon, but that’s de­pen­dent on hy­brid­friendly stop-start, lowspeed use. Driv­ing it more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, we dragged the thirst down to 30.7mpg, but a more re­al­is­tic cross-coun­try jour­ney yielded 49.6mpg.

In­side, this lat­est GS is a vast im­prove­ment on the third gen­er­a­tion. There’s more room, a re­designed air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem, the cen­tre touch-screen dis­play has good graph­ics and the dig­i­tal in­stru­ment dis­plays are so re­al­is­tic you’ll swear there were real nee­dles spin­ning in there. slows as though some­one thrust a pikestaff through its wheel spokes.

The GS’s steer­ing feels sharp and pos­i­tive, but turn in fast to a bend and you’ll be ask­ing ques­tions it can’t re­ally an­swer. Body roll is well con­trolled, how­ever, and it is (par­tially) ad­justable on the throt­tle.

The lat­est GS might be not quite what Akio Toy­oda wanted, but it’s not bad and at least on a par with its oc­ca­sion­ally quite rau­cous 2.0-litre diesel Ger­man ri­vals. And the ride qual­ity is re­ally good – soft, but never float­ing, with a Sport + set­ting firm­ing the damp­ing and (point­lessly and weirdly) the on-cen­tre steer­ing weight. The more tautly sus­pended F-Sport model might be a lit­tle too much for Lexus’s tra­di­tional cus­tomers, but it’s quite fun.

A GS you want to drive? Ac­tu­ally yes, and well priced, too. Fuel econ­omy just got a bit more en­ter­tain­ing.

Fun and eco­nom­i­cal: yes, the GS300h fi­nally moves Lexus into con­tention with Ger­man ri­vals – and ac­cord­ing to Akio Toy­oda, it’s just the be­gin­ning

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