BUSINESS 2.0:

Catch Us if You Can

Toyota extends its lead in hybrids with a Lexus sedan that's faster, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient than the competition.

By John Tayman, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- To get a sense of the terrifying wonderfulness of the newest Lexus hybrid, all you need to know is that General Motors (Charts), BMW (Charts), and DaimlerChrysler (Charts) are engaged in a $1 billion cahoot simply to try to best it.

Twenty months ago this unlikely trio formed a 500-engineer-strong, Detroit-based research alliance to, as press reports suggested, "leapfrog the market-leading technology now offered by Toyota." Left unsaid in said reports was the actual target of this Michigan Project, namely a vehicle that Toyota touts, variously and not a bit humbly, as "the world's first hybrid luxury performance sedan," "the most technologically advanced production vehicle in the world," and "the fastest Lexus ever."

Also missing in the coverage was any response from the quivering prey. So on behalf of the Japanese, let me say this to those hoping to build a better hybrid than the Lexus GS 450h: Good luck, fellas.

Now, I'm as patriotic as the next guy. Viva America. But try as they might, the domestics simply have not been able to build a hybrid that truly resonates with the public.

In the first seven months of this year, GM peddled only 1,500 hybrids. Ford (Charts), bless its heart, offloaded 10 times as many, a seemingly impressive number until you note that Toyota sold 105,816 hybrids, about 60,000 of them being that cute cube known as the Prius. (Hybrid Camrys, Highlanders, and Lexuses made up the rest.)

It's not that U.S. ecomobiles are bad cars - green Toyotas are simply better. And the best of their best is the new GS. Don't blame me. I'm merely the messenger.

I was hoping to reconcile this national failing via a test-spin in the Lexus, and as fate would have it, the company delivered unto me a pearly blue 2007 GS 450h for the long Fourth of July weekend. Propitious timing. A holiday road trip! Quintessential Americana! In went the dog and a duffel, and off we sped.

Much like its wee sibling the Prius, the GS uses a hybrid synergy system that mates a pair of electric motors to a gasoline engine, a ménage à trois that allows the car to blip along on gas, electricity, or both.

Basically, the 450h has three power sources: 1) a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, 2) an electric motor that starts the engine and manages energy flow, and 3) a bruiser of an electric motor-generator that drives the rear wheels and can operate solo when necessary and supplementally when duty calls, as a sort of electrocharged supercharger.

So what's all this mean? Well, like Mary Shelley's scientist, Lexus has harnessed lightning, and the creature lives. The GS 450h can top 130 miles per hour. Toe the pedal at 55 and it leaps like a spark to 90. The world's first torquey, rear-wheel hybrid, it'll make zero to 60 in a mere 5.2 seconds. Which is faster than the eight-cylinder Mercedes E550. While wringing as much as 10 more miles from every gallon. And releasing a third fewer global-warming emissions.

And costing $4K less. Before the tax break for hybrids.

Again, fellas: Good luck.

As anyone who has ever hitched a ride with a dentist knows, Lexus makes a nice car. The cabins are perfectly polished pods, comfy as a Herman Miller chair and tricked out like a booth at CES.

A fully loaded GS has 10-way seats that cool and heat your rump, a 14-speaker stereo that handles MP3 and WMA, an LCD navigation system that spins DVDs and video CDs (at least until you put the car in reverse, at which time it transforms into a monitor displaying the view from the backup camera). There are eight airbags. Steerable headlamps. A radar system that trims and tacks the cruise control. A medulla oblongata called VDIM, a.k.a. vehicle dynamics integrated management, which hoovers in all the data from an army of sensors and coordinates the steering, braking, stability, and traction control systems, lest you have to fret about them.

Actually, you need not fret about anything while piloting the car, except perhaps figuring out a way to preserve your license, since the 450h is so silent on the highway it's almost impossible to remain aware that, yep, you're speeding. At 80 mph the car emits only a soothing musical hum, akin to that of a very blissed-out monk.

This, then, is the evolution of the green car. Toyota has taken everything it has learned to date about hybrids, improved on that knowledge, and inserted it into the GS.

That slight shudder the Prius gave as it swapped battery for gas? Toyota created new software to smooth the transition. That unpleasant CVT transmission whir the RX 400h sometimes emitted? The company fitted the GS with the world's first longitudinal electronic continuously variable transmission, which is too complicated to explain, but trust me when I say that the whir is no more.

To get an inkling of just how serious the company is about hybrid technology, consider this: The premium version - in other words, the fastest, swankiest, sweetest version - of every Lexus model will soon be a hybrid. This is akin to Ferrari's execs telling its engineers to go ahead and build that Scaglietti, but make sure it runs on AAA batteries.

Of course, given the state of American hybrids, all this makes for a bit of nationalistic emasculation. Gliding along in holiday traffic, I had almost hoped to find a wee bit of fault with the Lexus, some excuse to give a shout-out to the good old U.S. of A. It was Independence Day, after all.

But alas. The GS 450h is simply too impressive. Even the dog loved it. At Coney Island, the first stop on our holiday jaunt, she wouldn't get out of the car. (Did I mention the air-cooled seats?)

I had wanted to catch a glimpse of the annual hot-dog-eating contest at Nathan's Famous, an event that Nathan's president refers to as the "ultimate international contest and the highlight of America's greatest patriotic holiday." But the dog wouldn't budge.

So I glided the Lexus back onto the open road and fiddled with the satellite radio until I managed to catch the results of the contest.

Some kid from Japan won.

John Tayman, a contributing writer for Business 2.0, is the author of "The Colony" (www.johntayman.com).

LEXUS GS 450h

CREATED FOR: Drivers who want the power of a Mercedes E550 or Audi S4 with the gas mileage of a Toyota Camry

WHAT IT'S GOT: A 3.5-liter V-6 married to an electric motor to manage energy flow and an electric motor-generator that can operate independently or supplement the combustion engine

WHAT IT GETS: 25 mpg city/28 mpg highway

COOLEST FEATURE: The smartest hybrid engine to date, delivering 340 hp without the hiccups of the previous generations

HOW MUCH? $55,595 Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.