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TESTED 2013 Lexus GS 450h

WHAT IS IT? Quite simply, the best ó or, at least, the most impressive ó hybrid that Toyota makes today.

HOW MUCH? $60,345 base; $74,414 as tested.

WHAT MAKES IT RUN? A combination of electric motors and a revamped 3.5-liter V-6, which features both port and direct fuel injection, producing a total of 338 horsepower.

HOW QUICK IS IT? Car and Driver magazine reported 0 to 60 m.p.h. acceleration in 5.7 seconds.

IS IT THIRSTY? The E.P.A. rating is 29 m.p.g. city, 34 highway.

ALTERNATIVES BMW ActiveHybrid 5; Infiniti M Hybrid; Mercedes-Benz E400 Hybrid.

The Lexus GS 450h, redesigned for the 2013 model year, demonstrates how far Toyota has come in the two decades it has spent trying to electrify the automobile.

The companyís goal, which seemed a bit of a stretch in the early 1990s, was to make electrified vehicles that were better than comparable vehicles powered by conventional internal-combustion engines. Otherwise, Toyotaís leaders believed, no one would have a reason to buy one.

This shapely GS 450h suggests that it has met that goal. The hybrid is more powerful than any other Lexus GS. It wafts over the road as effortlessly as, say, a Bentley. Its interior, especially with the optional bamboo trim and buttery leather, is as luxurious as any comparable luxury hybrid, and its fuel economy blows away the competition.

(Unfortunately, m.p.g. is generally well down the list of purchase considerations for luxury car buyers.)

But if the GS 450h falls short in any area, it is on price. At a $12,000 premium over the gasoline-only GS 350, and a base price some $3,600 above a Mercedes E400 Hybrid, itís hard to make a strong economic case for buying one.

Nonetheless, the carís technical prowess is worthy of note. In a recent test covering nearly 1,000 miles, I averaged about 37 m.p.g. ó well above the E.P.A.ís combined city-highway rating of 31. And I seldom used the ďecoĒ mode, which might have yielded even better fuel economy.

The GS 450h can even operate at low speeds, for a number of miles, on electric power alone.

Toyota says the GS 450h accelerates on par with a GS 350, but Car and Driver found it to be a hair slower (just 0.1 second) than the GS 350. The hybridís continuously variable transmission is the culprit.

A true sport sedan should provide the sensation of, if not actual shifting from one gear to another, at least the feel of a more direct connection between the engine and transmission. Stomping on the hybridís accelerator feels a bit like taking a deep breath thatís never quite exhaled.

Passing power is superior, however, thanks to the turbolike thrust that comes when its electric motor kicks in. The GSís hybrid system employs two electric motors; one is integrated into the transmission to help drive the rear wheels; the other is under the hood, dedicated mostly to charging.

The previous GS hybrid was positioned as producing power on par with a V-8 with the fuel economy of a V-6. But given that carís combined rating of 23 m.p.g., this wasnít much of a selling point.

Besides improvements in the hybrid powertrain, the new GS 450h features a chassis that has been lengthened about two inches, although the wheelbase is unchanged. A revised rear suspension and more compact battery pack leave adequate trunk space ó something the predecessor model lacked.

The standard adaptive variable suspension (an option on the regular GS 350) constantly adapts the suspension settings, steering effort, throttle response and stability-control intervention to the road and to driving conditions, optimizing the ride and handling. A driver-adjustable controller includes modes for Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus.

The old GS was dull inside and out. The new exterior is well-proportioned and elegant. And the new interior, which can be ordered in tasteful combinations of smart colors and plush materials, is nothing short of wonderful.

Thereís an exhaustive list of standard features, which Lexus points to in justifying its relatively stout price. But not included is the cool wide-screen navigation system ($1,735), which I canít imagine this car without.

Other big-ticket extras include a Mark Levinson audio package ($1,380), a collision intervention system with adaptive cruise control ($2,000) and lane-keeping assist ($500), a blind-spot monitor ($500) and active parking assist ($500).

The steep price, no doubt, will work against this outstanding vehicle getting the attention it merits. But even though it has been selling at a rate of only about 40 units a month since its introduction a few months back, it is still doing twice as well as the previous model. Thatís progress.
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