Tracking the Field: Three High-end Runners Prove Their Worth
Every time I observe somebody calculating a hybrid’s “payback miles” — that is, its price premium (if you can figure that out) amortized by its mileage improvement — I cringe. For those who need simple answers, I guess it’s hard to resist, but the trade-offs embodied by these cars are more complex than simpleminded division. Let me flip the conversation: How many people figure out the payback cost effec-tiveness of a concert-hall-quality sound system? A bigger engine? Carbon-ceramic brakes? Nobody. But for some reason, the word “hybrid” brings the calculators out.
If the value proposition of mainstream hybrids is prickly business, grappling with expensive, high-performance, ueber-luxury ones is a cactus hug. And the three most recent examples of this predicament are perfect examples: the new Infiniti M35h, Lexus GS 450h, and Porsche Panamera Hybrid we’ve gathered here.
To untie the complicated knots these vehicles represent, we decided to tug at the strings from three separate directions. We looked at how they rate as luxury cars, how they compare as performance cars, and, of course, whether they’re any good at being hybrids in the first place. This idea of subdividing the problem into a trio of attributes inspired the photos on these pages, which are meant to suggest a triathlon. Hey, play along.
Now, I can already hear the eruption of angry keyboard clatter when you note that one of our three triathletes showed up wearing gold-embroidered running shoes. While the base prices of the M35h and GS 450h are $54,595 and $64,650, respectively, the Panamera Hybrid thudded upon our doorstep at 30 to 40 grand more — $95,975. To suppress the outrage of any of you 2 Percenters confronted with a 1 Percent car, let’s agree now that, if the Infiniti and Lexus fit your wallet, but a 95-grand Porsche just gets you mad, whenever you see the word “Porsche,” just skip right over the offending paragraphs. Pretend they aren’t there. Deal? Deal.
So let’s start with the “luxury” part. Although all three can readily produce long lists of the requisite lap-of-luxury features — a funny one being the Infiniti’s lane-departure chime, which repeatedly sounded around the Cypress College track during our photo shoot (it was detecting the running lanes!) — luxury is really something you know when you see it. And feel it. Although each of these cars appears to date from a different automotive era, you can see and feel luxury in all three.
The M35h’s interior has a delightful touch of lurid boudoir going on. Its undulating dash and door sculpting is shaped like a dozing anaconda cast in high-gloss wood and puffed leather upholstery. This would be the car in which to take your future mother-in-law to lunch and watch in the rearview mirror as she caresses its backseat surfaces. “My, what a fancy carrr…” There’s loads of rear legroom for crossing her legs, and big door openings for getting in and (more important) out. Plenty of shoulder room for her twin giant poodles, too, and surprisingly little trunk space for her luggage, despite this hybrid M’s smaller, higher energy-density lithium ion battery pack.
The GS seems contemporary almost to a fault — a perfect example of Toyota‘s skill at predicting what will be fashionable for precisely the next hour and 15 minutes. In our GS hybrid’s case, the tread-lightly bamboo inlays on the dash and steering wheel made everybody smile. “Love the reclaimed bowling-lane wood on the dash and the doors,” quipped Mike Febbo, though his acute eye also noted that the GS’ engineers must have business degrees, too, as the car’s best quality materials are noticeably confined to your fingertip touch points. Me? I’m convinced its 12.3-inch, high-resolution, multifunction, and dividable screen (you can choose to have navigation on the left, audio on the right) is a preview of big-screen things to come in dashboards. Its haptic hand controller may be an acquired taste, but it, and its companion easy-read screen graphics, are at least soldiers on your side in the battle to understand the car’s dizzying functions.
I’m not so convinced about the Panamera’s alliance. Every time I see one of these four-door Porsches, it reminds me of a rolling submarine, and trying to navigate its controls must be akin to what U.S. sailors felt when they first climbed into captured U-boats. There were moments when I just sat back and muttered, “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.” On the other hand, the interior’s design, materials, and craftsmanship are so magnificent that Mr. Febbo and Benson Kong and I emphatically agreed that it’s of a quality simply “worth any amount of money.” Ninety-five thousand dollars? If you can, sign the check. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful interior design. And, its missing center rear seat aside, it’s remarkably functional. Rear room isn’t bad at all, and the seats fold down to make way for objects that can’t come close to fitting in the back of the Infiniti or Lexus.
To wrap my tender mind around how each of the hybrids works, I set about to graphically render their basic drivetrain components (see below). Understand that these are simplified to an extent akin to that famous New York subway map that conveys only what’s absolutely relevant. (The actual parts look nothing like this.) In the case of the Infiniti and Porsche, perhaps 90 percent of their drivetrain components are just where a car mechanic would expect them. The exceptions are dry clutches between their engines and transmissions to decouple their V-6s while stopped, when accelerating moderately (now, via their electric motors), and when lifting off the throttle (when the engines are freewheeling — or “sailing,” as those famous German yachtsman like to say). Behind their transmissions, the Infiniti adds another clutch, this one wet (making it a 1M2Cl or one-motor, two-clutch design), while the Porsche opts for a torque converter between its motor and eight-speed transmission. These designs don’t sound earthshaking, but they open all sorts of clever opportunities. For instance, when the batteries need charging, the engines can raise their output (lessening throttle losses) and send the excess to the motor (acting as a generator) without the car’s motion being changed at all. While stopping, the Lexus strives to send as much braking force as possible to the rear wheels, which, in this layout, are its regen wheels.
However, in the case of the Infiniti, the envisioned cleverness often seemed beyond the software’s sophistication. Its interplay between engine and motor were frequently drivetrain jolts, such as when the motor while propelling the car is asked to simultaneously start the engine. That’s a tricky software task, and this whole drivetrain reinforces my belief that the future of cars really belongs to their software authors.
While Infiniti and Porsche have performed targeted engineering interventions to net many of a hybrid’s practical benefits with as little pain as possible, Lexus has spent the yen and brain-wattage in creating a fascinatingly original and integrated solution. The GS’ seamless driving behavior reflects it, and its graphical representation (a still complicated one, I’ll confess) at least lets you see there’s something very unusual here. Basically, it’s an upsized rear-drive Prius-style arrangement (its electric motor acts as a CVT-ratio controller, starter, generator, and even motor when need be) entirely rearranged into a longitudinal configuration. But that’s not the biggest difference. Where, schematically, the Prius locates its second, single-ratio primary drive motor, the GS 450h integrates an additional planetary gearset allowing for two speeds, making the GS more efficient and responsive at higher speeds. While the M35h and Panamera Hybrid periodically drive with the shuttering gait of gas/electric Frankensteins composed of imperfectly integrated parts, the GS is — right down at a genetic level — a new and better species.
Our test drive, from Orange County south to the roads around Mount Palomar and back, underlined all this. On the freeway drives, the Lexus led the mileage pack at 33.5 mpg, followed by the Infiniti (31.5) and Porsche (30.3). But in the stop-and-go miles approaching the mountain, the GS not only magnified its advantage (35.0 versus 30.2 and 29.5, respectively), but began to flaunt its almost Rolls-Royce-ian drivetrain velvety-ness. That was in stark relief (double meaning intended) to the M 35h’s jolty acceleration and puzzling episodes of seeming lost in its gear changes.
But it was while looping the Palomar grade that the Porsche did something magical: It transformed from being a Stuttgart-built four-seat sedan with a hybridized V-6 engine and a battery into a 380-hp multi-passenger 911 with 0.99 g of lateral grip and 5.2 seconds standing between it and 60 mph. Wow. Without ever touching its brakes, it could stay almost comically ahead of the tire-growling, brake-keening, body-rolling Japanese pair. The contrast was pure ridiculousness. Once again, that 95 grand reappeared as a defensible investment rather than a crazy high price.
But at least as unexpected was the GS’ handling while trailing in the Porsche’s wake. Though much slower, its tail actually drifted, its throttle modulations adeptly fine-tuned its understeer, and its turn-in was sweet. When I figure-eight-tested the car, I actually yelled out, “I can’t believe this is a hybrid!” as it oversteered out of the corners (and with more delicacy than the Panamera, which tended to abruptly snap back into line — ouch, the neck). A head nod to its Dynamic Rear Steering (active rear wheel steering), which countersteers up to 1.5 degrees below 50 mph for agility and parallel steers above that for enhanced stability. It’s not nearly as fast as the Porsche, of course, but — hold on here — is it actually out-scoring the Porsche in our three triathlon qualities? The following weekend would give me a chance to live with this marvel in the real world.
After I drove the Panamera up to L.A. to see the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (neat documentary if you’re into raw fish), my wife offered to drive back, and, being bone tired, I settled into the passenger seat. No farther than the first right turn, I shouted, “Curb!” — because, from my side-window vantage, we were on a collision trajectory to scrape a wheel worth more than my first car. “You drive, then,” she said and immediately pulled over. It took exactly one turn for the Panamera’s lengthy wheelbase and porthole-view outward vision to cause an argument. A car shouldn’t cause arguments this quickly, and there are many more examples like this that I can cite of the Porsche’s unease at coexisting with humans. The Panamera is like having a 200-pound panther as a pet. It’s happy racing through the neighborhood jungle, but around the house it tends to knock the coffee table over, wine glasses flying everywhere.
After our comparison drive, editor at large Angus MacKenzie asked me which of these cars I’d really prefer to drive. I responded, “Around a racetrack” — suspecting that’s what he was getting at — “no question, the Porsche. But to the racetrack, the Lexus.”
And most of our lives are spent, metaphorically speaking, driving to the racetrack.
And the M 35h? To neither, I’m afraid.
Third Place: Infiniti M35h
A luxurious and fast-accelerating sedan powered by a clever, minimalist drivetrain. However, it’s in desperate need of better software to tame its rough operation.
Second Place: Porsche Panamera S Hybrid
Who would have believed that Porsche could create a four-door, four-seat, front-engined hybrid that handles like a big 911? Now, we do.
First Place: Lexus GS 450h
The best fuel economy here, and substantially superior in terms of driveability. And it handles better than you’d expect too.
|2012 Infiniti M35h||2013 Lexus GS 450h||2012 Porsche Panamera S Hybrid|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, RWD||Front engine, RWD||Front engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads, plus AC electric motor||Atkinson cycle 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads, plus AC electric motors||Supercharged 90-deg V-6, alum block/heads, plus AC electric motor|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||213.5 cu in/3498 cc||210.9 cu in/3456 cc||182.9 cu in/2997 cc|
|BATTERY TYPE||Lithium-ion||Nickel-metal hydride||Nickel-metal hydride|
|POWER (SAE NET)||302 (gas)/67 (elec)/360 (comb) hp||286 (gas)/200 (elec)/338 (comb) hp||333 (gas)/47 (elec)/380 (comb) hp|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||258 (gas)/199 (elec) lb-ft||254 (gas)||325 (gas)/221 (elec)/428 (comb) lb-ft|
|REDLINE||7000 rpm||6000 rpm||6700 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||11.6 lb/hp||12.2 lb/hp||11.9 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed automatic||Cont. variable auto||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multi-link, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 12.1-in vented disc, ABS||13.1-in vented disc; 12.2-in vented disc, ABS||14.2-in vented, slotted disc; 13.0-in vented, slotted disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum||9.5 x 20-in; 11.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/50R18 99V Michelin Primacy MXM4||235/45R18 94Y Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050||255/40R20 101Y; 295/35R20 105Y Michelin Pilot Sport PS2|
|WHEELBASE||114.2 in||112.2 in||114.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.0/61.8 in||62.0/62.6 in||65.3/65.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||194.7 x 72.6 x 59.1 in||190.7 x 72.4 x 57.3 in||195.7 x 83.2 x 55.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||36.7 ft||34.8 ft||39.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4159 lb||4132 lb||4539 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||51/49 %||51/49 %||50/50 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.1/37.7 in||38.0/37.8 in||38.0/38.2 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||44.4/36.2 in||42.3/36.3 in||41.9/33.3 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||58.4/56.7 in||57.3/55.7 in||51.9/51.7 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||11.3 cu ft||13.2 cu ft||11.8 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.0 sec||2.4 sec||1.8 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.4||2.8||2.6|
|QUARTER MILE||13.8 sec @ 100.7 mph||14.4 sec @ 101.8 mph||13.8 sec @ 101.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||116 ft||104 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)||0.89 g (avg)||0.99 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.3 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)||26.3 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)||24.7 sec @ 0.78 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1500 rpm||1050 rpm||1550 rpm|
|BASE PRICE||$54,595||$61,000 (est)||$95,975|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$65,395||$71,000 (est)||$110,680|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||6 yrs/70,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||17.8 gal||17.4 gal||21.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||27/32 mpg||29/34 mpg||22/30 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||125/105 kW-hrs/100 miles||116/99 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.67 lb/mile||0.62 lb/mile||0.78 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|