I've been test-driving cars for about 10 years now, including my share of hybrids: the infamous Toyota Prius; some of the first Ford Escapes; Honda Civics, Accords, and Fits. With hybrids, there have always been excuses to make and myths to bust in response to queries from curious drivers of traditional gas-guzzlers. And so I've compiled what I call the Hybrid Handbook to counter people who think that a) hybrids get 135 miles per gallon (they don't); b) hybrids need to be plugged in at night (they don't); or c) hybrids go only 35 miles per hour (they don't). Still, I confess, I've always believed that d) hybrids come only in small, boring, not-designed-for-hair-raising packages.
At least until my first day with the Lexus GS 450h, the first-ever rear-wheel-drive, front-engine hybrid sedan. Because with hybrids, it's usually all about compromise. Want to get 20 percent better fuel economy than the Lexus 450h's conventional cousin, the GS460? Be prepared to lose 20 percent in torque (that push-you-in-the-seat factor) or horsepower or both. Want to save 200 gallons of fuel per year? Be prepared to feel the extra weight of the battery packs that are tucked in the trunk, and expect to pay more. Want to have fun? Don't buy a hybrid.
Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.
I figured I would be trading improved fuel economy for a torque deficiency and added fuel savings for the annoying extra weight of battery packs. Well, consider me persuaded.
In a world where gas is being treated like dry land in Waterworld, the Lexus 450h is an island of its own. For $55,800—$2,780 more than the GS460—you will get a car that's just as quick as the 460, with more equipment, greater fuel savings, and, seriously, more fun than the regular Lexus. * And it does get 20 percent better fuel economy than the GS460 (22 mpg city/25 mpg highway in the hybrid versus 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway in the nonhybrid).
Savings aside, the fun quotient was the biggest X factor for me. My previous experience with gas pedals and hybrids was a lesson in disconnection. Step on the gas, and they don't go. They hesitate, whirl up like a hand-held electric mixer, then sort of go. This was the superfast, deluxe KitchenAid mixer of cars. Step hard with your right foot, and the kilowatt needle (a cool white display that shows the maximum output of electric power) jumps to life, the rear wheels spin, and you are up to speed faster than you can say, "Thank God for Thomas Edison's parents getting together."(Or about 5.55 seconds to 60 mph.)
Stop at a light, and the whole system does its hybrid trick and shuts down. Restart, and you awaken a re-engineered version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive—the system that made the Prius into the poster child for the green movement and turned every Hollywood actor into an expert on cars. How does it work? The system teams up with three main parts: one electric motor/generator that powers the rear wheels, a second electric motor/generator that acts as a primary generator and starter and controls engine speed, and a direct-injection, 292-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. At low speeds, the first electric motor moves the car. A battery pack recharges itself with energy recovered from braking. When all systems move as one, it is the equivalent of 340 horsepower. It is all mated to a gearless, continuously variable transmission. Get stuck in four-lane bumper-to-bumper traffic and you are suddenly driving, in terms of your carbon footprint, an ultraluxurious golf cart.
Drawbacks are minimal: The trunk is a shoe box compared with nonhybrid models. That's because you need room to shoehorn a battery pack, controllers, and other mechanical devices. It is about 8 cubic feet, or essentially two small golf bags. And the steering doesn't feel as direct as some German performance sedans that have the ability to combine an anti-roll system, tires that grip, and some good cornering. But we're being picky. The bottom line is that this is a car you can drive to the country club guilt-free. It's a luxury sedan with an environmental heart that tackles turns and breaks new ground.
Somewhere, Al Gore is smiling. But so might be Danica Patrick.
* Correction, June 26, 2008: The article originally stated that owners of a Lexus GS 450h living in California could get a Clean Air Vehicle decal that would allow them free metered parking. The car does qualify as a super-low-emission vehicle, but the state of California has given away all 85,000 stickers that it allotted, so they are no longer available. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)