Lexus GS450h review

4 out of 5
£50,995 (Lexus GS450h F Sport - black car) £44,995 (Lexus GS450h Luxury - silver car)

For

Hybrid drivetrain, 12.3-inch multimedia screen and sound system, great performance and refinement

Against

Design is indistinct, lacking in web-connectivity functions, not as involving or fun to drive as a BMW

It might come as a surprise to learn that this new Lexus GS is actually the fourth generation of the model line.

And if you’re lucky enough to have climbed to near the top of the company car tree, this car is rather good news. It not only means there’s another alternative to the default German option in this class, but it’s also hybrid powered and therefore low CO2.

But, despite the epic levels of build quality and the hybrid tech, the previous version of the Lexus GS offered little objective reason to dump the default German option. Does the new GS - aimed at tech-savvy, early adopters (surely that’s us?) - do anything to change that? We went to the new car’s international launch in Austria to find out.

Design

The last GS was not an ugly car. In fact, in side profile it was a bit of a style leader because when the Jag XF appeared in 2007, many said it bore a striking resemblance to the big Lexus.

But the new GS represents an attempt by Lexus to woo a different kind of customer. Lexus has, with the greatest respect, never been a particularly cool brand - Alan Partridge is still doing it damage in some quarters - and its buyer demographic errs more towards people who frequent golf clubs than nightclubs. But where the previous generation car vied with Jaguar for buyers, the new one appears to have its sights set firmly on that younger, thrusting BMW driver.

Yes, the large, full-depth "spindle" grille might be reminiscent of an Audi's, but from the grille back, the proportions of this car ape a 5-Series. Which is not a bad thing. But while it’s handsome and well proportioned, it’s got a rather generic quality to it. Only the (overly) aggressive front end and unusual, kinking rear door shutline really stand out.

To ensure greater appeal to Mr BMW, Lexus has introduced its sporting, more aggressive-looking "F Sport" trim level to the GS range. So if the 19-inch rimmed, gangster look’s your thing, try an F-Sport GS in black or grey like the black car in our pictures. Discreet and genteel more your style? Then you’ll need the Luxury trim level of the silver car.

A technological marvel and let down in one

Get in and your eyes will be instantly drawn to the vast centre screen, set deep under its own cowl on top of the dashboard. Press the starter button and it comes to life to reveal a 12.3inch LCD screen – the biggest ever seen in a production car.

That cowl means it doesn’t catch reflections, and, as you might expect from a new and fairly top-end model, the screen resolution is first class. You control it via Lexus’s Remote Touch Interface - a mouse-style controller that sits on the centre tunnel.

The last time we tried this system in the smaller CT it was infuriating, but in the GS it’s much better. Force feedback has been added to the mouse controller, along with self-centring and a "magnetising" function – as you move around the screen, it locks on to buttons.

All of which improves it immeasurably and means we no longer consider it a system that borders on dangerous to use while on the move. More’s the pity then that the mouse controller and wrist rest on the centre console look like they’ve been glued on as an afterthought, and that they feel as if they’re covered in much more poor quality material than other key touch points in the cabin.

Sadly, the 12.3-inch screen is an option (an 8-inch is standard) but it’s a box you must tick because it’s only £1000, and more importantly comes bundled with the Mark Levinson Premium Surround sound system.

We’d not be without it, having wafted across Germany and Austria with it shuffling through the contents of an iPod and revealing detail in songs we previously didn’t know was there. It’s a 17-speaker system, and we’d single out the quality of treble in particular - it’s exceptionally sharp and well detailed without resorting to the harsh over-amplification that many in-car systems do.

All-told, the tech in this car is a mixed bag. Elements of it - that screen and the hi-fi - truly stand out. But there are some notable omissions. For instance, we find it inconceivable that a new car at this level can’t be had with on-board Wi-Fi and the sort of connectivity and synchronous functions that BMW now offers you. Or that Lexus puts in a 12.3-inch screen and then adorns it with maps of a graphical quality no better than you’ll find in a Yaris. Which means it's rather shown up by Audi’s Streetview capability that comes from Google Maps.

Having your cake and eating it

Still, as you might expect, you won’t want for much else in the way of equipment. Yes there’s multiple zone climate control system (for back seat passengers too), 18-way adjustable, massaging, heated and cooled seats.

But the big news is a Volvo-like attempt to try to stop you crashing. It’s part of what Lexus calls Pre-Crash Safety – which uses sensors around the car to detect if a crash is imminent, buzz at you if it thinks the worst is about to happen, then help you brake, or if you’re half asleep, brake for you. Thanks to the Driver Monitor Camera which tracks your eye movement, it’s likely to have woken you up before a crash in the event you do nod off, too.

But the big appeal of this car for many people will be its hybrid drivetrain, which from the on-paper figures, suggests you can have your cake and eat it. Lexus went to great lengths to emphasise to us that it was the most power-efficient car on the planet. What that means is that, for the performance on offer, you won’t find a greener car. Incredibly, the quoted numbers are 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, together with an official rating of 46.3 mpg and 141 g/km of CO2.

If anything, it feels faster than those figures. But unlike every other hybrid we’ve tried, the V6 engine means it sounds nice too. And it’s deeply refined. At autobahn speeds, the only noise you really hear is wind rustle from the large rear view mirrors. At 230km/h it was still accelerating, the man in the Mercedes wasn’t losing us, and we were chatting without raising our voices.

On the flip side it’ll also creep around town silently on electric power alone, shut-off the petrol engine whenever it can and if you put it in "eco" mode and stop driving at autobahn speeds, then the computer suggested that - yes - 40+ mpg was very achievable.

Don’t underestimate how strongly we believe that this is the best hybrid car we’ve ever driven and that stepping back into a diesel car after the Lexus felt like a leap backwards in automotive time.

And now your luggage can come along too

Better still, Lexus has solved the single biggest problem with the previous generation car, which was its lack of boot space. By redesigning the battery pack – which in the old car ate up half the boot – the new car’s boot is 55 per cent bigger and capable of carrying four sets of golf clubs - if that’s your thing.

And behind the wheel? Well, the Lexus isn’t the sort of car you’ll hoon around mountains in - believe us, we tried it and there’s no great reward for doing so. But it is fast, quiet and refined. Our only concern is the ride, which on badly surfaced UK roads we suspect might be a bit harsh. On billiard-smooth foreign highways it was fine though, so we’ll reserve judgement until we can try it here.

Verdict

It feels like we use the line a lot, but if you’re bored of the German rivals who form the main competition for this car, then we heartily recommend the GS.

Does it match the driving dynamics of a BMW on the limit, the design quality of an Audi’s interior or the innate sophistication of a Merc? Nope. Yet what it does offer is something that in most respects is at least class-competitive and in one key area - its drivetrain - something very compelling. Yes, rivals have caught up and have either recently launched, or are about to launch their own hybrid competitors, but Lexus’s system delivers a better blend of performance and economy.

We still think it’s a shame that 12.3 inch screen lacks better graphics and the connectivity is below par, but if you can live with those two things you’ll find a car that’s discreet and under the radar in appearance, will be great as an ownership proposition and which, right now, has one of the best drivetrains on the planet.