- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Toyota is nothing if not relentless.

The Japanese company is poised to overtake America’s General Motors as the world’s No. 1 vehicle manufacturer. Yet its executives profess not to care. Toyota, they say, will continue to do its own thing regardless of the outcome.

But what Toyota has been unleashing a barrage of innovative products, both traditional and pioneering. On the traditional front are the all-new family Camry, the country’s best-selling car, along with the similarly-based luxury Lexus ES350, the Yaris economy subcompact, the revamped RAV4 compact SUV, and the new full-size Avalon sedan.

On the cutting edge are the new FJ Cruiser, a challenger to Chrysler’s Jeep, and the subject here, the 2007 Lexus GS450h, a sport/luxury hybrid sedan aimed at overwhelming the likes of the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the Cadillac CTS, the Audi A6 and the Infiniti M models.

The company introduced the GS450h fender-to-fender with the 2007 ES350. The latter is a front-wheel drive sedan with a 272-horsepower V6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

It is the sixth generation of the Camry-size ES, which dates back to 1989 and has carved out a solid niche in the class of cars known collectively as near-luxury, though sales in 2005 were down to 65,577 from 75,916 the previous year.

It is biased toward silence, plush accommodations and a comfortable ride, with bumps heard more than felt. The handling, though not pinpoint like its sibling, the rear-drive GS, is more than competent, despite a hint of undulation at high speeds on uneven surfaces.

The GS450h is every bit as luxurious, but it offers driving excitement as well because of its unique and powerful hybrid drive train.

Without question, Toyota is the current leader in hybrid technology.

It started with the wildly successful Prius, and followed with the Lexus RX400h luxury SUV, the Toyota Highlander hybrid, the new Camry hybrid, and now the high-performance GS450h.

They all employ the same concept of electric motors boosted by gasoline engines, but each presented different design challenges. For the Prius and Camry, the power goes to the front wheels.

On the RX400h, it’s an all-wheel drive system, and on the Highlander it is either front drive or all-wheel drive.

The GS450h is the company’s first adaptation of the system to rear-wheel drive, which is superior to front-drive whenever there’s high power to handle. Power starts with two electric motor/generators, which also perform the functions of the starter motor and alternator.

They are teamed with a 3.5-liter V6 engine to deliver a total output of 339 horsepower, which gets to the drive wheels via a gear-operated, two-stage, continuously-variable transmission (CVT).

Because the electric motors provide the primary power, boosted by the gasoline engine, maximum torque, or twisting power, is available as soonas the driver depresses the accelerator pedal.

In practice, it means that the GS450h can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, according to Lexus test results. With only one transmission shift that is so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible, there’s no feeling of hesitation or kick-down when you floor the pedal.

You simply get pinned back in the seat. Yet with all this rapid transit, which is quicker than any car in the class, the GS450h delivers fuel economy of 27 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, as measured by the EPA. Of course, it will be way lower for owners who insist on jackrabbit starts and hard charging in traffic.

Buyers of the GS450h pay a premium price for all this economy, along with low-pollution performance.

The base price is $55,595, and a full load of options can carry the sticker well north of $65,000. But that’s not out of line with the competition.

Standard equipment covers all the expected luxury and performance accouterments, including the Lexus VDIM stability and traction control system, a backup camera, rear sunshade, a full set of front, side and knee air bags, and push-button starting.

Options include radar cruise control that maintains the pre-set distance to the car ahead, a premium sound system, XM satellite radio and a navigation system.

With the VDIM and a sport-tuned suspension system, the GS450h handles beautifully, if a bit blandly.

It compensates so well for driver error that the excitement quotient is low, though confidence is high.

There are a few shortcomings that likely could not have been avoided.

The hybrid battery pack reduces the trunk size to a mere eight cubic feet — about half of what you expect in a car this size. And the driveshaft tunnel inside the car, along with the seat design, virtually rules out any space or comfort for a fifth passenger in the middle of the rear seat.

Despite that-and the relatively high price-the GS450h comes with an air of exclusivity. Lexus plans to sell only about 2,000 a year.

That, however, could change if the demand is there. And Lexus has not ruled out an all-wheel drive version.

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