Goodbye Mondeo man, hello Lexus lad

Wed, Jun 27, 2012, 01:00

With the Germans on top in the luxury saloon car market, Lexus may have a new hybrid that challenges its rivals

OUR BENEFACTORS from the Troika must be bemused by the popularity of the BMW 520d. Here we are in the midst of the worst recession in living memory, and a luxury saloon car from a premium German brand is one of the most common cars to carry a 2012 registration plate.

The Germans have reaped the rewards of focusing on lowering carbon emissions. With the advent of the emissions-based tax regime in July 2008, many BMWs actually dropped in price, with 5-Series owners now paying as little as €160 a year in motor tax. A model that was once the preserve of the boardroom has become a middle manager’s fleet car. The 5-Series is now BMW’s best-selling model, outselling the likes of the Opel Insignia, Renault Clio and even the Ford Mondeo. In recessionary Ireland, “Mondeo man” has been usurped by “520d driver”.

So what does all this mean for Lexus? Well, there’s a volume race on amongst the premium German brands, and that undoubtedly impacts on the premium prestige of the brands. At the executive level, image is vitally important. The boardroom bosses don’t particularly like to see their staff driving the same cars as them.

Lexus embraced hybrid to an even greater extent than its mainstream parent, Toyota. In the US, where it excels, the brand has achieved remarkably strong sales, particularly given that US motorists are still wary about diesels. In Europe, however, diesel is king in the executive market and so Lexus has suffered. Yet in a way it has given Lexus a niche premium status.

The new GS450h is something of a star in this regard. It can’t really compete with the volume premium variants on price, but what it offers is the high-end performance of a V8 with the relatively impressive fuel economy of a much smaller engine – and all at a mid-range executive price.

In terms of looks, the new car builds on the sleek lines of the previous generation but adds more aggressive lines. When Lexus first revealed photos of the new-look GS, we baulked at the big grille, but in the metal the car looks far sleeker and the grille less austere. It’s smart, sleek and executive.

The cabin has been improved as well, and while there is not much to talk about in the rear, up front the new crystal-sharp video screen and controls are intuitive, even the point-and-click mouse-like control – what Lexus calls its remote touch interface – on the central console. Opt for the range-topping premium pack and you get a massive 12.3-inch LED screen. In the context of a car cabin it’s like having a 40-inch flatscreen TV. The Premium grade also boosts the sound system from the standard 12-speaker layout to a 17-speaker Mark Levinson system. It’s the drive-in movie theatre – only you don’t leave your car park.

In its larger cars Lexus has always tipped more towards luxury than its rivals, and the new GS continues this trend with a fit and finish that would not look out of place in a top-end luxury model. There’s room enough for three adults in the back, and the big boon of this generation’s hybrid GS is that the car finally has a boot. The last generation suffered under the space requirements of the battery pack, which took up an inordinate amount of bootspace. Thankfully the battery is now stored vertically behind the rear seat and the car now boasts a 465-litre boot – not a class leader by any means but 55 per cent bigger than before. Golfing GS buyers can rest easy.

For all the little luxury bells and whistles, it’s the performance of the car that really stands out. Instead of hitching an electric motor and battery pack to a petrol engine solely for the sake of fuel economy, the GS once more proves that you can use the hybrid format for fun. Here we have a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine that of itself kicks out 290bhp. To it is added an electric motor capable of 200bhp. The end result is a car that manages a 0-100km/h time of just 5.9 seconds and 350bhp. All that power comes with a fuel economy rating of 6 l/100km (47.1mpg) and emissions of 139g/km if you opt for the 17-inch wheels. That means an annual motor tax bill of €225. Opt for the Sport or Premium versions and it slips into Band C, with tax of €330, but it’s still better than most V8 petrol-engined rivals, or indeed other cars that boast this sort of performance.

The driver gets to choose from various modes of driving, from Eco to Sport S. In eco mode the throttle response is dampened and the electric motor is limited to 500 volts. It’s fitting for a hybrid car but really denies the real pleasure of the GS. Sport mode slightly hardens the suspension but gives a noticeably better response from throttle and steering. In the two higher-end models an additional Sport S setting creates a more aggressive character and far sharper steering. Opt for the F Sport version of the GS and you also get a more advanced version of Lexus’s Dynamic Handling system, that kicks in on the Sport S+ setting.

The accuracy of the steering under the top sport mode is remarkable, but even with all these advances it never feels quite as intuitive as its Bavarian rival. It might be lairier than before and more reactive, but it seems to move from luxury to aggression without the driver feeling fully engaged in the mood change.

The beauty of the GS is in its mix of refinement and performance. Starting at €59,950 for the executive version, it’s not going to topple the 520d, but it will cut a niche for itself amongst the executive buyers who want something a little more exclusive, while at the same time still within reach of the larger executive wallets. The hybrid credentials also give owners something to crow about at dinner parties.

The most abiding memory of the new GS, however, is the smooth ride and luxury touches. In the race to mass volume, you sometimes get a sense that the Germans have cut corners. That’s what will give Lexus its edge. There’s a sense of luxury and refinement about this car that’s sometimes missing in its rivals.

FACTFILE

ENGINE3,456cc V6 petrol engine with 292bhp @ 6,000rpm and 352Nm of torque combined with 200bhp electric motor putting out 275Nm and a 650-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack. CVT transmission. Rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds (top speed 250km/h)

ECONOMY6.0 L/100km (47.1mpg).

FEATURESIncluded as standard on executive grade: 10 airbags; ABS with stability control; Hill-start Assist Control (HAC); Tyre Pressure Warning System; bi-xenon headlights; LED daytime running lights; rain sensing wipers; 17 alloy wheels, Parking assist sensors, front and rear; 8 central display screen operated by Remote Touch Executive (€59,950); F Sport (€72,950); GS 450h Premium (€76,250)

OUR RATING7/10 Prestige and performance – at a price

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