Lexus GS 300h 2014 Review

words - Michael Taylor
It's coming to Australia but the GS 300h is designed to wean Europeans off German 2.0-litre TDIs. Is it up to that job and will Australians care?

Lexus GS 300h
First Drive

Madrid, Spain

The European business world’s middle management drives three cars: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series.

While the high-powered versions of these cars draw the headlines, it’s the 2.0-litre turbo-diesels that underwrite the volumes and keep the profits rolling. There are a few reasons for this, including the tax benefits from their lower capacity, their consumption rates, lower prices and tremendous fuel ranges.

Try as it might (and it has), Lexus just hasn’t been able to get so much as a polite response when it knocks on the doors of Fortress E-Segment in Europe with diesel power alone, so it has abruptly changed tack.

It’s now going to attack the premium German diesels with petrol-electric hybrids instead, and it will do it here as well as in Europe.

This strategy makes sense in Lexus Land because the GS 300h puts persuasive on-paper reasons to switch into the hands of fleet managers. For starters, at 121g/km, its CO2 emissions are low, but not that much lower than the diesels.

But then the numbers start stacking up in Lexus’ favour when you consider it burps out far fewer harmful particulates, far lower NOx emissions and the buyers get far bigger tax breaks.

It can also move under its own pure-electric steam if needed (though this is largely a nominal boast) and posts 5.2L/100km as a combined NEDC economy figure. And Lexus claims a 1000km-plus fuel range.

That consumption figure is half a litre thirstier than the frugal Eco Grade version that will be sold in Europe, but that’s because Australia will get the phatboy-spec GS 300h with proper tyres, wheels and air-conditioning, in Luxury ($79,000), F Sport ($87,000) and Sports Luxury ($102,000) grades.

Then there’s performance. Where the European turbo-diesel heavyweights are all torque and no top-end action, the 2.5-litre petrol four of the GS 300h theoretically delivers at the top end of the rev range while the 105kW electric motor takes the fight to the diesels at the low end.

Like all battle plans, it makes all manner of sense before the battle begins. Predictably, with the new GS bodyshell fitted with the same powertrain that arrived in the smaller and lighter IS 300h, it’s slower and thirstier.

Another small but significant hitch arrives with Lexus calling the GS 300h a dynamic challenger to the 5 Series, because it isn’t. Nor will Lexus produce the GS 300h as a wagon, which is what Europeans love.

All of which makes the GS 300h a combination of very good ideas, very painstaking development and a slightly unconvincing powertrain in a car this heavy.

The main issue is nothing to do with the GS 300h’s actual core hybrid bits. It’s the continuously variable transmission that is the biggest source of GS 300h discomfort.

From the 2.5-litre petrol engine comes 133kW of power and 221Nm of torque, while the electric motor brings 105kW and 300Nm. It’s enough of both to be competitive in this market, especially when the combination of the two delivers a total system output of 164kW of power.

The issue with driving it is that the CVT too often lets the petrol engine labour for too long in the least convincing part of its rev range. Like all CVTs, the revs flare higher when you prod the throttle, but you have to wait a little while before discernible acceleration complements the din.

And a din it is. Between 4000 and 5500rpm, the petrol four isn’t especially nice and the tremors and vibrations it sends into the cabin don’t rank up there amongst the usual premium highlights you’d expect out of Lexus.

The only upside to the CVT is that it lets the car shift through its (artificially set) eight gears with no break in performance or torque delivery. They’re just there to make the transmission sound and feel more conventional.

But there’s a matching downside, in that the car has gearshift paddles on the wheel (and manual shifting via the gearlever), but very little of the shifting action seems to coincide with the levers you select. It’s like a dubbed Bruce Lee film.

The acceleration, when it arrives, won’t blow you away either. Instead, it ekes its way out to 100km/h in 9.2 seconds (which, regardless of eco pretentions, isn’t what anybody expects for $100K) and top speed is a relatively leisurely 190km/h.

What the GS 300h’s powertrain does well is seamlessly integrate all of the very technical components so that they chime in and then phase out invisibly. No, the petrol engine isn’t a paragon of civility, but when the electric motor helps out you’ll feel only added urge, and they’ve even sorted the brake pedal to deliver strong regeneration without feeling weird underfoot.

Nobody does hybrid powertrains as silkily as Toyota/Lexus. It all just works cleanly and cleverly, which makes the CVT seem more and more of an odd choice. By throwing the engine revs up to the point of maximum torque and waiting for the gearing to catch up, the CVT (OK, Lexus calls it an E-CVT, but it makes no difference to the user) makes the car feel slower, louder and coarser than it inherently is.

It’s a much better device if you’re not asking it to crack on. In general highway driving or lighter city work, the transmission is more inclined to let the engine revs rise and fall in a more natural way. It’s just when you ask for the last 20 per cent of the throttle travel that it feels like it is somewhat less than premium.

The car has a Sport mode, too, to deliver more aggressive performance, shifting, steering and regeneration, but it doesn’t deliver sharper performance, except from the adaptive dampers.

These find the minutest of imperfections in the road surface and let you know about them incessantly, even as they do a solid job of minimising the medium to large hits and tying down the car as it’s flung between corners.

It jiggles more over the little stuff than a Volkswagen Polo and stands little comparison to the premium Germans. The ride quality improves as the roads deteriorate, oddly enough, and improves even further as the cornering speeds rise.

The more you ask of it, the better it rides, handles and steers. The steering works best when it’s pushed harder, too, because it can be a bit of a meanderer on the highway and is particularly vague just off centre.

The F Sport model is the pick of the handlers, mainly through a taut set-up and active rear steering to go with the family rear-drive. At its core, it is a very competent, balanced and reliable handler. In the right circumstances, it’s even a lot of fun (those circumstances being downhill, mainly).

That’s an engineering result backed up by an interior that is immediately comfortable and exudes a feeling of solidity that quickly leads you to believe everything in it is in it for the long haul.

There is plenty of leg, head and shoulder room for four (the unlucky fifth will find their legroom interfered with by a significant transmission tunnel) and the seats are a brilliant balance of mid-corner support and long-term luxury.

The Remote Touch controller, which is Lexus’ answer to iDrive, clearly takes more getting used to than the single day’s driving we had with the car. There’s a fat, flat-topped toggle to control all of the car’s eight-inch multi-media screen and electronic adjustment settings, and it’s hyper-sensitive to light touches. Still, even if the feel is not simple to get to grips with (though, we were later told, its sensitivity can be adjusted), the actual stuff it’s adjusting is intuitively placed and logically thought through.

It all works well, but it doesn’t have the flow or organic style of an Audi interior, with the central switchgear all looking too much like a Lego wall viewed from one end, but you can’t argue about how it all works and the level of equipment. There’s a 12-speaker sound system as standard in the base car, along with three-zone climate-control air-conditioning.

That it’s coming to Australia at all is a sign of the adventure Lexus is showing in its product planning, but the GS 300h is and will remain an anomaly. It might be a very different story if it attached all of this technology to an eight-speed automatic transmission. But it won’t.

What we likedNot so much
>> Petrol-electric sync is seamless>> Jittery low-amplitude ride
>> Metal for money>> Limited full-electric range
>> Rock-solid build >> Icky CVT

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Published : Tuesday, 17 December 2013
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