New Lexus hybrid enters the luxury fray
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