What share of consumers really think about the "global consequences" of their purchases? Do consumers want to feel a "warm glow" about doing the right thing regardless of the true impacts caused by the product they choose?
The New York Times offers a review of the new Lexus. Ulrich does not seem to be convinced that this is a "green car". He points out that this hybrid Lexus has a worse fuel economy rating than many conventional Mercedes. Will consumers notice? What is the "hybrid" label worth?
July 15, 2007
Behind the Wheel | 2008 Lexus LS 600h L
Conspicuous Consumption With Green Illusions
By LAWRENCE ULRICH
IN “North Dallas Forty,” the shaggy 1979 gridiron film starring Nick Nolte, a lineman played by John Matuszak ranted memorably to a coach about the hypocrisy of pro football: “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”
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.
The E.P.A. rates the hybrid’s mileage at 20 m.p.g. in town and 22 on the highway. The nonhybrid is rated 16/24 under the same revised formula, which takes effect for 2008 and is intended to present lower, more realistic mileage estimates for most cars.
In its defense, the hybrid should save you a few bucks if you do a lot of city driving. But on the highway, the gas-only model was decidedly more efficient, and thus ended up doing 1 m.p.g. better over all. And in bumper-to-bumper traffic, where you expect a hybrid to excel, the LS 600h L mustered only 14 m.p.g., certainly nothing to marvel at.
The uneasy comparisons don’t end there. The gas-only version handled better and drove more smoothly.
The nonhybrid benefits from the world’s first eight-speed automatic transmission, which lifts mileage and operates with hushed aplomb. The hybrid’s continuously variable transmission, in contrast, has to busily calculate and divvy power from the gas and electric sources. It’s among the most seamless of its kind, but not as smooth or transparent as the Lexus eight-speed. And its manual-shift function is nearly useless. In trying to mimic the feel of sporty downshifts, it ladles on ever-higher levels of regenerative hybrid braking. To the driver, the sludgy effect feels like throwing anchors of various sizes out the window.
Lexus’s hybrid double-talk extends to emissions arguments. When the company says the Lexus hybrid is cleaner than average cars, people will assume that has something to do with global warming. But in this instance, that is not the case.
To its credit, the car’s super-ultra-low emissions vehicle rating (SULEV, if you will) is indeed cleaner than other V-8 models, but only if you are measuring the pollutants that form smog. (Even on the smog index, many gasoline models also achieve SULEV ratings or better).
But the critical earth issue today is conserving fuel and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Those greenhouse gas levels are almost entirely a function of fuel economy: if you use more gas, you spew more carbon dioxide. So on that score, the 21 m.p.g. hybrid actually emits far more carbon dioxide than, say, a Mercedes-Benz diesel E-Class that can attain 30 m.p.g.
The LS 600h L also emits more greenhouse gases than the average new car that currently achieves 27.5 m.p.g. So a common Toyota Camry, among dozens of models, leaves a smaller carbon footprint than this hybrid land yacht.
One final ignominy: given the hybrid batteries and a separate air-conditioner for the back seat, the hybrid’s trunk measures a meager 11.7 cubic feet, smaller than that of a Kia Rio or other compact sedan. (Skip the rear air-conditioning in a Lexus LS 460 L, and you’ll enjoy a 50 percent larger trunk, at 18 cubic feet).
Jim Farley, general manager of Lexus, defended the car’s performance and green credentials. “If Lexus had to have a flagship, this is how it should be,” he said. “It’s the progressive person’s alternative. Hybrids are a huge platform for us at Lexus, and they’re only going to get bigger.”
Certainly, this hybrid Lexus is one of the quietest, most comfortable, best-built sedans around. It has every imaginable safety system and creature comfort. The navigation system is first-rate. The Mark Levinson audio system is amazing. And the optional ($12,675) Executive Package is the hands-down — or feet-up? — coolest feature. It includes rear seats that recline, heat and cool, along with a right-hand chair with a steeper recline, massage functions and a powered ottoman for the full mini-Maybach effect.
Yet every compliment you can lavish on this impressive ride, minus the all-wheel drive, applies equally to the nonhybrid version.
So why would anyone spend an extra $30,000 for this car? Certainly, the performance gains of 12-cylinder sedans aren’t always justified by their enormous premiums. Many people buy them for that V-12 badge on the fender, the exclusive message it sends. Ditto for the Lexus, but the roughly 2,000 people who’ll line up for the hybrid won’t be broadcasting their superior power, but their superior morals, however illusory.
If that’s not you, stick with the Lexus LS 460 L. Enjoy a back-seat massage and relax. You’ll know that you’ve got the better car — one that’s equally fast and frugal, but also weighs less and handles better.
You can actually park that terrific gas-only Lexus in the garage and have $30,000 to buy a Prius hybrid, with cash left over. Save the LS for special occasions and run errands in the Toyota at more than double the mileage. While Lexus plays the hybrid game, it’s the Prius that takes care of business.