There’s hybrid. And there’s hybrid, the difference between the two being as startling as the difference between a crow and a canary. For every youngish, hip and green-tinted Prius driver, for every grey-tinged commuter driving a Civic Hybrid, there’s a guilt-laden, moneyed housewife cruising suburbia in a Lexus RX 400h. The Lexus saves gas and lowers emissions compared to what she would normally buy, which is a good thing – but not a great thing, like the savings you can get from the likes of the Prius and the Civic Hybrid.
It’s all about making the upper class feel good. Few things are as important as that, which makes the 2008 Lexus LS 600 hL, introduced at the 2006 New York International Auto Show, the most important car ever assembled.
Okay, hyperbole aside, it may well be one of the most fantastic cars ever built, an amazing machine that offers luxury buyers V12 performance with V8 fuel economy, a SULEV emissions rating and a slew of safety technology – including a driver-facing camera that monitors your facial ticks and orders you a latte – should you need a pick me up. It also detects when you’re not looking at the road ahead, and takes escalating steps to get your attention or save your life – whichever comes first.
Toyota and Lexus would disagree, but their recent hybrid models, including the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h utility wagons, the Lexus GS 450h sedan and now the Lexus LS 600h L, similarly seem to be trying to have it both ways.
In recent advertisements, including one in the “green issue” of Vanity Fair, Lexus uses one hand to present the 400-plus horsepower of the LS 600h L and the other to pat its own back for saving fuel and planet alike.
The ads and the cars have convinced many, including some credulous journalists, of Lexus’s pitch: that a hybrid car or S.U.V. can drive like a Porsche and sip fuel like a Prius. But a closer examination proves once again that there’s no free lunch, even at the drive-through.
For more than a year, Lexus has suggested that the LS 600h L — as tested, a $121,000 hybrid version of its LS 460 L flagship sedan — would set a new standard for four-door luxury automobiles. Its pitch was that the car would perform like a V-12 supersedan while whipping V-8 rivals on fuel economy. Instead, the hybrid may have set a new standard for automotive hyperbole.
Behind its green Teflon shield, the Lexus proved to be just another overstuffed sedan that can barely top 20 miles a gallon — less, if you actually tap into all that power. If that’s saving the planet, Jor-El had better prepare the escape pod before it’s too late.
Before the enviro-brigade readies the guillotine, I hasten to add that this isn’t about hating hybrids. Electric propulsion is looking more and more like a winning technology. Companies from Toyota to General Motors are working to develop affordable lithium-ion batteries, which could deliver clean, efficient, renewable power in plug-in hybrids or purely electric vehicles.
I can’t believe that adding a cupful of electric juice to a fat barrel of V-8 muscle is what environmentalists have in mind.
On the performance front, forget about the Lexus hanging with V-12 sedans like the Mercedes S600. Turns out that the Lexus can’t even outrun its own nonhybrid version, the LS 460 L. Nor is it appreciably quicker than V-8 competitors that cost $20,000 to $30,000 less, like the Mercedes S550, the Audi A8 and the BMW 7 Series, or the similarly priced Maserati Quattroporte.
It must be noted that such decadent sedans are about more than straight-line speed. Park those high-wattage rivals beside the Lexus, and the modestly styled LS virtually disappears; challenge them on a twisty road and they all disappear from the Lexus by virtue of their sportier handling.
Spurred from a stop to 60 miles an hour, the LS 600h L clocks a swift 5.5 seconds, according to Lexus’s own testing. Yet the gas-only LS 460 L, with a mere 380 horsepower from a smaller V-8, reaches 60 in 5.4 seconds, nosing out the more powerful hybrid.
How is that possible? Check the scales, where the Lexus hybrid weighs in like Jared before his Subway diet.
The hybrid does add all-wheel drive, not available on the LS 460 L. But together, the heavy batteries and all-wheel-drive system burden the hybrid with more than 700 additional pounds, for a total of 5,049. Forced to motivate the added weight, the hybrid’s larger 5-liter V-8 — another environmental oxymoron — and dual electric motors makes acceleration a wash. (One motor drives the four wheels. The other starts the gas engine and recharges the batteries.)
Excess weight takes its toll on mileage as well. The hybrid got 21 m.p.g. — amazingly, 1 m.p.g. less than the nonhybrid version that I tested on the same urban roads and highways in and around New York City. That perfectly wonderful LS 460 L is blessed with one of the most fuel-efficient V-8s I’ve driven, a 4.6-liter smoothie.
But the Lexus hybrid’s biggest jolt comes from sticker shock: the LS 600h L starts at $104,715, about $32,000 above the LS 460 L. Laden with options for $121,000, the hybrid costs about $30,000 more than the comparable gas-only version.
Driven gently, the Lexus will indeed beat the mileage of its apples-to-apples V-8 rivals, but only by 1 m.p.g. to 3 m.p.g. A Mercedes S550 isn’t an egregious guzzler at an E.P.A.-rated 16/24 m.p.g., and I managed 19 m.p.g. during a recent test. And when I drove the Lexus in mildly spirited fashion, its mileage dropped to 19 m.p.g. It’s hard to see why such minuscule mileage gains would dazzle the type of person who’s ready to drop $100,000 on a car.