- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Beginning in May, Lexus will offer a limited edition of its midsize sports/luxury sedan that can blast from a stop to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and return between 25 and 28 miles per gallon of premium fuel.

If that sounds impossible, well, there is a bit of a catch. There’s no way it can do both at the same time.

Officially designated as the GS 450h, the 2-ton torpedo follows the RX 400h sport-utility vehicle as the second gasoline-electric hybrid to be offered by the premium brand of Japanese manufacturer Toyota. Although it will be positioned as the flagship of the GS lineup, Lexus expects to sell only about 2,000 a year at the base price of $54,900.

But that’s OK with Lexus because the car’s primary mission is to teach consumers that hybrid technology is not only about fuel efficiency and saving the environment. It can also be adapted to produce power equal to high-performance V-8 engines, but with fewer negative consequences

While the basic technology is similar to that in the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius, the execution was a lot more difficult. During a preview of the car for automotive journalists, Bob Carter, Lexus Group vice president and general manager, called it “the most technologically advanced production vehicle in the world.”

To back up his claim, he made three points: “first truly high-performance hybrid,” “first rear-drive hybrid sedan” and “among the quickest Lexus vehicles ever built.”

The newest GS sedan features a 3.5-liter, 292-horsepower V-6 engine; two powerful electric motors and a battery pack. One motor, rated at 197 horsepower, drives the rear wheels by itself or in tandem with the gasoline engine. It also helps to recharge the vehicle’s battery pack. The second, rated at 180 horsepower, functions as a starter for the gasoline engine and generates electricity for the batteries. Together, engine and motors deliver power equal to that of a 339-horsepower V-8.

One of the biggest challenges was to devise a transmission that could handle the high-torque demands of hybrid power and fit it into approximately the same space taken by the traditional six-speed automatic shifter that routes power to the rear wheels in the V-8- and V-6 powered GS sedans.

Charles Hubbard, a Lexus product specialist, was on hand to explain how it works. But the message was pretty much lost on those of us unfamiliar with such terms as “compound planetary gear set” and “two-speed torque reduction system.”

However it works, the result is a continuously variable transmission that can mate engine power to an almost infinite set of gear ratios instead of the six that are available in the other GS transmissions.

Additional innovations in the GS 450h include electric power steering and an air-conditioning compressor that eliminates the need for belts; an advanced stability control system that goes to work when it anticipates driver loss of control instead of after detecting it; electronically controlled brakes; and an optional suspension system that adjusts the front and rear sway bars to eliminate excessive body roll in turns. To sample how this technology works, we were given the opportunity to put the GS 400H through its paces along winding two-lane macadam roads. One driver with an itchy trigger foot proved beyond doubt that the dual-power Lexus is ready to do battle with any of its V-8 competitors. It also showed that there are some laws of physics that can’t be broken. The hard workout created a thirst that caused the Lexus to drink a full gallon of gasoline every 12 miles.

Driven with a bit more restraint — 80 mph cruising with occasional short bursts into triple digits — the Lexus was able to travel 22 miles on each gallon of fuel. None of the exuberant test drivers could say for sure, but it appeared that a motorist who paid close attention to the legal speed limits could at least approach the EPA estimates.

The 60-mile drive revealed a few other satisfying truths about the hybrid Lexus. Its capable independent suspension can meet the demands of the aggressive driver and produce a comfortable ride that makes 80 mph feel more like 50; the electric power steering, numb in some cars, is precise and reasonably responsive; and the solid build quality makes even high-speed travel quiet and comfortable inside the cabin. Fortunately, nothing came up that required a test of the powerful antilock disc brakes.

Not quite as satisfying was the music coming from the engine compartment under full throttle. Because there are no conventional gears, the V-6 engine reaches maximum speed quickly and holds it as the car builds momentum. The throaty rumble of a big-block V-8 is replaced with a sound that is somewhat reminiscent of a propeller plane under full throttle during take-off.

Another oddity for a performance car is the lack of a tachometer. In Toyota-designed hybrid cars it is replaced by a meter that measures electrical output.

Nevertheless, the only serious shortcoming in this Lexus is cargo capacity. The intrusion of the battery pack reduces trunk space to 8 cubic feet. There’s room for two golf bags, but not nearly enough for that family trip to Disney World.

For comparative purposes, Lexus claims the hybrid will save 200 gallons of fuel a year compared with a similarly powered V-8 sedan and — probably most important to many — it will release 17 tons less carbon dioxide over a 150,000-mile life expectancy than its V-8 competition.

With its new hot rod, Lexus seems to have made its point about hybrid power. And that should be enough to persuade 2,000 or more well-heeled buyers to give it a try.

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