2014 Lexus GS450h

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Elegant standing still and whisper-quiet underway even when the gas engine is running, the 2014 Lexus GS450h isn’t just great for a hybrid, it’s a brilliant car, period. Think 8-cylinder power with 4-cylinder frugality, plus comfort, performance, elegance and all the safety and telematics conveniences. Lexus

Lexus GS450h is mid-range, rear-wheel-drive, gas-electric sedan, even though it came with hybrid things I usually don’t like: a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the extra weight and complexity of electric motors (two!) and their batteries, regenerative brakes and engine stop-start. But it turned out to be a luxury car for today—as comfortable tied up in traffic, with the engine off to save gas and emissions, and its Web connections buzzing, as it would be flying across the great plains on I-80.

And I decided that if I were shopping for a deluxe cruiser, the GS450h would make my short list.

The 2014 version of the same car, set up the same way and priced just $425 more. But a lot can change in a year. People put on weight, lose jobs or get divorced; carmakers get greedy or try to fix things that weren’t broken. Fortunately, Lexus realized that its hybrid GS needed only a few light strokes to stay ahead of the pack.

The first few minutes in any new car go toward setting, adjusting and familiarizing. It’s bloody cold up here, so right away I discovered that the front seat heaters now can be set to regulate themselves, or to stay on Broil, Sauté or Simmer indefinitely. It’s part of what Lexus calls its Climate Concierge feature, and it also manages the seat cooling apparatus. Which we won’t need for another five months.

No, this won’t qualify for the Nobel Prize in imagineering, but it’s still a thoughtful and subtle upgrade to an already near-perfect system—even the spread of the heater wires throughout the seats is spot-on.

Speaking of seats: In addition to the usual lumbar and rake adjustments, the top and bottom of both front seatbacks adjust independently, and the seat bottoms can be extended. If these excellent features aren’t new, I must have missed them last year.

Note the clock in its machined-aluminum housing. The dual screen above it is accessed via the mouse controller alongside the shift lever, and the knob behind the shifter controls the Adaptive Variable Suspension. Set the transmission to ‘Sport’ and the Power dial becomes a tachometer. Lexus

When I finally drove off, I found another change: eight forward gears, up from six in ‘13. However, it’s still a CVT, so the “gears” are really just steps where the drive pulleys hold their position for a while. Normal automatic transmissions don’t have real toothed gears either, so we’re splitting hairs here. What matters is that the controlled variable transmission (as Lexus calls it) still functions beautifully.

The point of any transmission is to keep the engine in its best operating range, and this one contributes both to the GS450h’s 29/34 city/highway MPG ratings and its ability to whoosh to 60 MPH in 5.6 seconds. These are stellar numbers for a luxury sedan. With a total gas-electric output of 338 horsepower, the car calls up a big V-8 when you want one and runs on a miserly little Four when you don’t. The transition back and forth, managed by the accelerator pedal, is quick and seamless too.

BTW, the GS450h is certified as a SULEV, a Super-Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, and Lexus says it runs cleaner than the new generation of high-efficiency diesels.

Other changes for 2014 include some minor trim bits; the head-up display (that shows engine RPM, “gear” and speed in the windshield) is now in color; and Lexus has borrowed Siri, the voice from Apple, so the GS feels like an extension of your iPhone. The options list now offers a powered trunk lid, rear cross-traffic alert and power-fold wing mirrors. Everything else is the same. The GS450h remains a posh yet fuel-frugal automobile whose tremendous technological sophistication is extraordinarily easy to use.

At $70,252 ($59,600 plus $10,652 in add-ons) it is also a pricey car. However, in many ways it meets or beats other fancy four-doors that sell for a lot more. Consider this too: Kelley Blue Book just rated Lexus the luxury brand with the lowest projected cost of ownership during the first five years.

These days, when a Lexus arrives my passenger-in-chief invariably says, Oh, I like these! And when I agree, she’ll say, Didn’t you used to think Lexuses were too floaty? (Her word, not mine.) Instead of getting windy or defensive about it, I’ve learned to say “Hey, I’m getting smarter, not just older.”

—Silvio Calabi