Hybrids made sexy

For whatever reason, I’ve never driven a Toyota Prius hybrid and, strangely, I’m thankful for that. Thankful because the feedback from my peers was that, although it’s a groundbreaking vehicle, it’s rather drab and not for people who are passionate about cars.

There’s no doubt about the significance of the Prius and its achievements in the hybrid vehicle department, but what Toyota didn’t seem to factor in is that when most people go through the motions of buying a new vehicle, emotion triumphs over reason.

Lexus, however, understands perfectly that when a customer walks into a showroom, it doesn’t matter how much of a tree-hugger he/she might be, all the buyer is looking for is a car that inspires some sort of emotion.

Thanks to fluctuating oil prices, most of us are now forced to think about fuel efficiency figures over 0-100km/h sprint times. But deep down we wish we didn’t have to. Unless you’re a seriously committed greenie, you’re unlikely to want to drive a boring car, even if the upshot is saving money and the planet, and this is where the clever concept of a performance hybrid comes in.

With the launch of hybrid additions to its range of passenger vehicles, Lexus has taken the concept of eco-friendly cars to an emotional level and has made saving the planet (and your wallet) sexy. The Lexus RX400H is at the top end of the RX SUV range and the GS450H tops out the GS executive sedan range.

During the local launch the Lexus communications team emphasised many times that the cars were quiet and that if we were uncertain about whether the cars were on or not, we should check the dashboard for the word “ready”. I thought they were being paranoid, but it turns out they weren’t, because every time my co-driver and I started or switched off the hybrids we asked each other whether the cars were still on.

The eerie silence for which hybrids are known is now seen as something of a health hazard in some countries where pedestrians have complained about not being able to hear hybrid cars sneaking up behind them. Some hybrid manufacturers are even considering adding artificial engine noises to their vehicles.

When I got into the GS450H I decided that I was going to drive this car the way I would normally drive a car with a 3,5-litre V6-engine and a 0-100kph sprint time of 5,9s—which is to say that I wasn’t going to be distracted by the diagram on the dashboard showing me how good or bad my fuel consumption was and whether I was recharging the battery.

So I put foot. After about 100km we flicked a switch in the centre console, which put the GS450H into a sports mode of sorts and gave us access to all the power it had. And still our average consumption was in the region of 12-litres/100km.

After a fair amount of hard driving, I calmed down enough to start paying attention to the energy diagram on the display, which showed us which engine was in use—the regular internal combustion engine or the electric motor - and also when energy was being routed to the battery. Usually the battery was recharged when I was driving slowly or when I was braking as the regenerative braking system sent the saved energy to the battery.

The GS itself is not a new model, but the hybrid version is fairly new and as far as executive saloons go there are few cars as composed, comfortable and safe as the GS.

The RX400H has a slightly smaller engine (3,3-litre), but works in much the same way as the GS, except that it has two electric motors - one adding power to the front wheels while the other adds power to the back wheels when all-wheel drive is needed. Both vehicles are equipped with continuously variable transmissions - similar to an automatic - that seamlessly integrate the supplied power. The RX, much like the GS, is equipped with just about every extra you can think of from ABS and ESP to seven airbags (the GS has 10), satnav, electric seats, dual-zone climate control and more. Being an SUV, the RX obviously wouldn’t have the handling of the GS, but it is nonetheless a refined vehicle.

After driving both hybrids extensively for two days I felt that it was sheer indulgence. Saving the whales has never been as alluring as this. But like all things made sexy, there are drawbacks.

First, as with parent organisation Toyota, Lexus hybrids use nickel-hydride batteries which aren’t biodegradable. The mining of nickel is said to be so detrimental to the area being mined that the land will never recover or be arable. Now this might indeed be the case with the mining of most metals, but the whole point of an eco-friendly car with low emissions is that it’s not supposed to cause further harm to the planet.

Other electric vehicles, such as the Tesla roadster, use lithium-ion batteries, which are completely recyclable. Considering that there are a million Priuses on the planet and that Lexus will now add to this number, Toyota needs to make a serious effort to convert to lithium-ion or to pioneer batteries that aren’t as harmful as nickel-based batteries.

Second, the fuel consumption is impressive, but there are turbo-diesel cars that offer the same consumption and performance. I’m not sure if said turbo-diesels are as emissions-friendly as the Lexus hybrids though.

Third, because the electric motor is at the rear of the GS, its boot is considerably smaller than that of the regular GS, but the RX’s boot capacity isn’t comprised at all.

Ultimately, if one looks at the broader picture, cars are only accountable for about 18% of the world’s combustion-based emissions, but because of strict international emissions laws, vehicle manufacturers have been forced to plough hundreds of millions of dollars into alternative solutions.

Despite the snags, Lexus is offering a real-world solution to the global energy crisis and one that not only makes you feel as though you’re pitching in to the save that polar bear floating on a small piece of ice somewhere in the Antarctic, but one that also offers as much excitement and enjoyment as performance vehicles should. For getting this difficult mix right, Lexus is, in my humble opinion, deserving of significant kudos.

Fast facts:
Lexus GS450H, Price: R586 100
Top speed: 250km/h, 0-100km/h in 5,9s
Consumption: 7,9-litres/100km
Lexus RX400H, Price: R644 900
Top speed: 200km/h, 0-100km/h in 7,3s
Consumption: 8,1-litres/100km


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