Lexus GS450h: Ego Trip
By Bill Moore
In what was a very low key affair, the University of Iowa quietly awarded my daughter her PhD. Six years of research and countless hours in the laboratory culminated in a lucid, confident 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on the still little understood role of TRAF degradation in the CD 40 receptor on the B-cell of the human immune system.
Don't ask me what any of that means, my lowly BA degree is in theology, but it was enough to demonstrate to her thesis advisory board -- along with another 90 minutes of sharp questioning in private -- that she had earned her doctorate degree and was ready to move on to a post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she'll be working under on of the most respected scientists in B-cell research.
About now you're asking yourself, that's nice Bill and I'm really happy for you, but what the heck does any of this have to do with the Lexus GS450h? And no, her mother and I didn't buy her one. The best we could muster was a new Apple laptop, the new one with the Intel chip. It seems the lab in Birmingham is Mac-based, unlike the PC-centric lab at the U of Iowa Medical Center. And, no, we didn't buy one either, it's really well above our combined pay grades.
So, what is the connection? One word: ego.
Now I mean that in the best possible sense. It is, after all, not every day that your only surviving child (1), who has wanted to be a scientist since she was five, actually becomes one. And it's not everyday that her parents, whose budget is limited to a new car maybe every ten years, can drive her to her thesis defense in such grand style.
But permit me to back up just a bit in time and space for a moment to a restaurant overlooking the Pacific in Laguna Beach, California. It is April and Toyota has paid my way -- along with a couple dozen other journalists -- to attend their annual Hybrid Seminar, which combines test drives of their newest hybrid models with a comprehensive technical briefing on the unique features of each car, the GS450h being the newest gas-electric addition to the Lexus family line-up.
Seated at the dinner table are several fellow journalists and as many Toyota/Lexus employees; one of them being Linda Weinmann, whose Jewish-sounding surname and English Christian name just doesn't seem to fit with her soft Oriental features., but this is California.
It is Linda who asks if I've driven any of the Lexus hybrids yet. I reply that since I live in Omaha, I don't get many opportunities to test drive any Lexus or Toyota hybrids, for that matter. In fact, I have yet to drive the latest generation Prius more than a few minutes, I tell her. She seems surprised and maybe a bit nonplused, so I take the opportunity to ask what are the chances of getting the GS450h for an extended test drive, figuring I'd go for broke. Looking for a good story angle, I tell her that my daughter is going to be delivering her thesis defense sometime this summer and driving the car from Omaha to Iowa City and back would be a good 500 mile road trip to evaluate its merits and tell a nice human interest story, which is what you're reading.
She says she'll see what she can do and suggests that when I have a firm date for the Iowa City trip to let her know.
I am literally home only a few minutes from that trip when our daughter calls to say she has a date for her defense: July 5th. There is poignant irony in that particular date, my wife later reminds me. It is six years to the day that we moved her into her first apartment in Iowa City to begin what was originally to be a five year PhD program, assuming she passed her comprehensive examines at year two.
I let Linda know and she promised to see if she could get me a car from their fleet pool in Chicago.
The silver sedan arrived right on schedule Monday, July 3, 2006 as promised. Mike, the contract driver, gave me a quick orientation on how to start the car and some of the more important "bells and whistles" -- the owners manual has be over 4 inches thick.
Then he was off to catch a Southwest flight back to Chicago leaving me in possession of a car with a sticker price of $60,149.00US. That's nearly what we sold our previous home for in 1994 when our daughter was just entering the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She lived at home with us, while she worked her way through college as a full-time grocery store clerk and part-time student until her senior year. That year, she stopped working to study full-time and take a position as a research intern for a lab studying prostate cancer at the University of Nebraska Medical Center here in Omaha. It was that internship and the relationships she'd built there that helped her get accepted into the "full-ride" PhD program in immunology at the University of Iowa.
The three of us would come to know Interstate 80 intimately over the next six years. We'd go there for her birthday, she'd come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We always worried about her driving the 250 miles in her aging Civic and more than once we'd help her pay for repairs. This time, our turn to drive East would be in a style we could easily get accustomed to and would help cap off one of the most important events in our family's life.
The GS450h sat where Mike had parked it Monday afternoon. It was around noon Tuesday, July 4th when I began carrying luggage out to stow in the trunk (boot).
Two things are important about the "boot" on the GS450h, which seems a more fitting description than trunk: it locks itself and you can't put very much in it. The last time I saw a trunk this small was in a Honda Civic GX with a natural gas tank inside. You have three options when planning for a road trip in this car: you pack light, you don't go for very long and you don‘t take anyone but your significant other with you. We did all three.
Lexus specs the "cargo space" at 7.5 cubic feet. By contrast, the trunk in the GS430 and 300 measures 12.7 cubic feet. The difference is, of course, the 288-volt NiMH battery pack, which like the Honda Accord Hybrid, is housed between the trunk and the rear passenger seat. I suspect Lexus engineers chose this option because there wasn't room under the rear passenger seat, which is where the hybrid battery pack is located on the Prius and Highlander Hybrid. Instead of the battery pack, the drive line to the rear axle passes under the rear seat. The GS450h is Lexus' -- and Toyota's -- first rear wheel-drive hybrid and it shows in both performance and handling.
Lexus took pains at the Hybrid Seminar to explain that the GS450h has nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution, a seldom-achieved goal in any rear-wheel drive car, made possible by the hybrid-electric drive system, which adds 391 pounds to the curb weight of the car over the conventional GS430 model (4134 lbs vs. 3745 lbs). Where the 430 sports a 4.3 liter V8 rated at 300hp @ 5600 rpm, the 450h uses a 3.5 liter V6 rated at 292 hp. Coupled to twin electric motor generators rated at 180hp and 197 hp respectively, the total system horsepower is 339 or 253kWs of smooth, cat-like power.
In fact, the GS450h reminds of a leopard I once sketched at our local zoo as it slowly paced back and forth, back and forth, every muscle rippling, its gaze fixed intently on me. This car will cruise effortlessly -- silently at times on its electric drive only -- and then at the push of the throttle explode with tire-squealing acceleration doing 0-to-60 in 5.2 seconds, five-tenths of a second faster than the V-8 430. Despite its seat-slamming power, it's rated as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) in California, Tier 2/Bin 3 everywhere else in America. Its GS300 and 430 stable mates are both rate ULEV, clean, but nowhere close to the hybrid model.
One of the first things I noticed when Mike, the contract driver, briefed me was the unremarkable fuel economy numbers he had racked up on the drive from St. Louis, where another journalist had been driving it. His average fuel economy was less than 24 mpg. Driving the car around Laguna Beach had demonstrated even lower numbers, so I wasn't expecting to see the kind of numbers you'd expect from a Prius or even my trusty ‘95 Accord, which had just done the run to Iowa City and back averaging 27.9 mpg with the AC running and the cruise control set a 75 mph.
Mike had filled the tank up for us and asked that I leave it at least a quarter full when he picked it up so he could get to a gas station to refuel. The computer calculated that based on the previous trip, I could drive the car on a full tank, which is 17.2 gallons, some 359 miles.
With our single, small suitcase stowed in the boot, along with my computer bag and windbreaker, we buckled in and pushed the start button -- this Lexus comes with the keyless entry and start system, plus a built-in security system that immobilizes the engine, good thing for a car this expensive. Having the "key fob" in your pocket or purse unlocks the car and allows you to start it.
With my foot on the brake, I pushed the start button and the car's instrument panel lit-up like a Christmas tree as systems came to life, ran self-diagnostic checks, and promptly pronounced the car ready for lift-off. I slipped the car into reverse and the navigation/information center screen switched to display a wide-angle view from the back of the car. This is too cool!
Following the voice navigation system's somewhat erroneous instructions -- it wanted me go take an out-of-the-way route to I-80 -- we merged onto the Interstate at 72nd Street and headed east.
(1) Our oldest child, Ari died of cancer at age 19. It was his untimely death that inspired her to go into immunology. She dedicated her thesis to him.
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