What makes 19.6 mpg the best in its class

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Perhaps it was the grandeur of the view from atop cracked and flooded-in-spots Sierra Road, but I had a moment of clarity while recently driving the Lexus GS 450h.

With the Santa Clara Valley below me, and dark clouds sitting heavy on the distant Santa Cruz Mountains, I paused after a few moments of exhilarating uphill driving and realized that the hybrid game is over.

Sure, Honda has a neat gas-electric Civic available, and sells two others. Yes, Ford has two small hybrid SUVs that have attracted a few buyers. And the hybrid cars.

The Web site says we’ll have hybrid choices from Chevrolet, Nissan, Hyundai, Dodge, Porsche, Saturn, Mazda and Cadillac in the next two to three years.

But Toyota and its upscale Lexus division have won the day.

The words “hybrid” and “Prius” have become synonymous. The automaker offers two other hybrids right now – the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h sport-utilities. Combined, they represented 71 percent of U.S. hybrid sales in 2005.

Two more hybrids from Toyota arrive in a matter of weeks – a hybrid version of the bestselling Camry sedan and the GS 450h, a sport sedan and the subject of this week’s test drive.

Expect more to follow in rapid succession. While others dither about the merits of hybrids, or how large the market might become, or their long-term viability, Toyota has systematically gained dominance.

The 2007 Camry Hybrid marks the closest that hybrid technology has come to the center of the auto market. The Honda Accord aimed for it, too, but missed the mark. With its V-6 powertrain and high price, the Accord hybrid resides in a place where near-luxury models sell. Indeed, at $31,540, it’s nearly as expensive as a TL, and more expensive than a TSX, both from Acura, Honda’s upscale brand.

The Camry, which blends a 2.4-liter gasoline engine with electric motors and a battery pack, will arrive with a $25,900 price tag when it goes on sale in May. It promises window-sticker fuel economy of 40 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

The 2007 Lexus GS 450h, in contrast, is not a mainstream hybrid, nor is it what I could have conceived as being a hybrid just a half decade ago. Back then, we had the tiny Honda Insight and the less-than-beautiful first-generation Prius to choose from.

In comparison – in price, style and performance – the GS 450h is a world apart.

Any discussion of hybrid technology should start with the gas pedal. When I’m piloting a Prius, I drive diligently, conservatively, even annoyingly, to get good gas mileage.

I tried to do the same with the GS 450h. I feather-footed the gas pedal, coasted when I could, worked the brake pedal with relish to recapture braking energy.

Still, I failed.

In several hundred miles of driving a black GS 450h, I averaged 19.6 mpg. The car’s EPA sticker says it should get 25 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.

What to think of that gas mileage? Poor certainly when compared with the Prius or Civic, which promise 60 and 50 mpg in city driving, and achieve 44 and 36 mpg in combined real-world driving, according to Consumer Reports.

Still, I’m guessing that 19.6 mpg is close to what I would have gotten in a gas-only V-6 GS 300. It gets 22/30, the EPA says. And it’s obviously much better than I could have gotten in the V-8 GS 430, which gets 18/25, the EPA says.

But there’s a reason my foot outvoted my brain: The Lexus GS 450h gets a combined 339 horsepower from its hybrid parts. That results in a zero to 60 mph time of 5.2 seconds. The V-6 GS 300 takes 6.8 seconds to reach that speed, while the V-8 GS 430 takes 5.7 seconds.

For me, it was hard to resist the desire to push that pedal and feel this car glide. With the Lexus GS hybrid, acceleration is a smooth and powerful thing. It’s otherworldly, even, considering you’re using two types of propulsion, plus a gear-less continuously variable transmission.

Strange, then, that the burst of speed didn’t feel strange at all.

Here’s one way to look at it: With the GS 450h, you get fuel economy that’s about the same as the gas-only V-6 GS and performance that’s superior to the gas-only V-8 GS 430.

The price? That’s another story.

The GS 300 starts at $43,845. The GS 430 begins at $52,070. The GS 450h is $55,595. With options, the one I drove cost more than $62,000.

Just as with its RX 400h SUV, Lexus demands a stiff tariff for this hybrid sedan. You get more – better fuel economy and better acceleration plus standard features such as a moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, headlight washers, cooled front seats, a rear backup camera, a parking system that beeps when you’re too close to the car in front or behind and more – for the higher price, too.

In the end, buyers will get the best GS ever. It’s just so supple and quick. It’s very quiet, thanks to extra sound-deadening material and the hybrid powertrain that shuts off the gas engine when it’s not needed.

The continuously variable transmission is satisfying here and a good match for the hybrid system.

My only complaint is about the steering, which felt a bit too light. In fact, when I drove the GS 450h hard, I found I missed the feeling of balanced weight that I get when I throw a nice BMW 5-Series around tight curves.

But that’s a minor nit. Ultimately, the GS 450h is a comfortable sedan for four adults and a joy for its driver.

It comes with the full roster of safety items – eight air bags, stability and traction control and such – and all manner of goodies, from heated and cooled seats, to a back-up camera to a rear sunshade. Our car came with two options – the wonderful Mark Levinson audio system and the DVD-based navigation system, and an active stabilizer system that included run-flat tires.

It took the car’s sticker price to $60,000-plus, or the financial equivalent of that Sierra Road precipice. Still, if you can afford the view, it’s worth enjoying.

(c) 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

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