On The Road Review: Lexus GS350



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After Toyota’s Lexus Luxury Division vanquished its German rivals and stole much of their premium market share during the ’90s, product planners set out to target sport/luxury car buyers.

This profitable niche has always been dominated by the Germans — and rightly so. BMW 3-series and 5-series sedans have always been well-balanced cars, competing with suitable rival offerings from Audi and Mercedes. Running flat out on the Autobahn or sashaying through the Alps for decades has created a sub-culture of engineers that know a few things about chassis design, compliance and peak engine performance.

{gallery}gs350{/gallery} Never shy about confronting a challenge, the Lexus team thought it could jump into this automotive segment with the same immediate success as it had with entry-level and upscale premium cars. The first such offerings, the Lexus GS300 and GS400 rear-drive sport sedans, did not achieve either the critical acclaim or the market success envisioned.

For 2013, Lexus gives us two significantly revised GS-models (the fourth generation of these cars). The GS 350 (starting at $47,250 with rear drive), plus the GS450h hybrid sport sedan, $59,450 also with rear-wheel drive, both use a 3.5-liter V-6 engine for power. The GS450h adds Toyota’s Synergy Drive hybrid system to boost both power and fuel economy — up to 34mpg EPA. Lexus will no longer offer a V-8-powered GS model; however a third version will include a sportier F-sport version with sharper driving dynamics and a more aggressive looking exterior.

This raises two important changes in the philosophy of the GS. Akio Toyoda is the head of Toyota/Lexus now, a direct descendent of the founding family. Akio brings a more sporting intent to the whole corporation, with a greater emphasis on driving superiority, handling and overall performance. He has expanded Toyota’s participation in NASCAR and Formula One Racing, while urging product planners to get more passionate about the company’s cars and how they perform. The current GS represents his goals dynamically, as well as in the less-reserved, more powerful stance of the current sedan’s visual presence.

Just because you want to be like BMW and Audi doesn’t necessarily mean that you can swiftly accomplish those initiatives. Ask Infiniti how hitting the moving target of superior handling German cars has worked out; each time it hits the mark with a new G-series or M-series sedan, BMW (and Audi) have moved another step forward.

And as improved as this latest GS350 sedan is, with optional AWD here, the handsome Lexus is still a notch below the Germans in its ability to appropriately maximize all of the conditions rendered by a landscape that is unyielding to half-hearted efforts. The Lexus is very good in the context of comparisons to sibling offerings — the GS shares some of its foundation with the like-sized ES350, which is based on the same platform that produces the Toyota Camry, Avalon and RX350 — plus the GS matches up nicely with the Infiniti M-sedans. However, the driving dynamics are not quite comparable with the vaunted BMW 5-series.

Not to be damned by this faint praise, the Lexus is an exhilarating sedan with robust acceleration (306 hp moves this two-ton four-door quite well) and quick handling as well as responsive agility. The low-speed turning radius is small, the steering feel is balanced if not as supple as others, while the Lexus’s overall handling is markedly more sporting than the similarly sized, but front-drive ES350. The one bad mark is how the adjustable suspension — Eco, Normal and Sport modes — reacts to rough, uneven pavement. Tuned for smoother tarmac, the Lexus’s stiffened chassis “(in sport mode) can often bounce occupants around in an atmosphere not unlike the rigid ride of a truck or SUV. Given the state of our local tundra, it was better to leave the Lexus in the softer settings of Eco or Normal mode, lest the GS felt like a real Tundra.

Backing up the GS’s behavior is a crisp-shifting six-speed automatic with steering wheel paddle shifters. Engage manual interaction, and the GS will automatically blip the throttle for downshifts, keeping the engine in the sweet spot for rapid acceleration as you unwind the curve ahead. With the all-wheel-drive chassis pushing and pulling, the GS350 is stable and extremely sure-footed in loose gravel, snow, and on winter-ravaged roads.

Lexus has always given buyers well-appointed interiors and that does not change in the GS. Glide into the leather-clad seat — which automatically powers itself into position upon entry and exit, joined by the power tilt/telescoping steering wheel moving itself out of your way too — and you are immediately impressed by the upscale textures and surface materials. The dash spreads out across a flat, simple line from door to door while housing a large infotainment screen in the center. Lexus uses a console mounted mouse-like controller to operate its centralized information/navigation/audio systems — this works better than Ford’s Sync touch-screen and is almost as polished as BMW’s refined I-drive. There are some redundant conventional knobs and buttons for climate changes and the audio system, which will be appreciated by those drivers not mesmerized by the latest in distraction devices.

And this is where the GS further separates itself from the ES sedan. While the front-wheel-drive ES is a perfectly fine everyday car — one of our 10 favorites from 2012 — the GS features more standard equipment, more gadgets, and the aforementioned AWD chassis that is much more sporting. Standard equipment on the GS includes Bi-Xenon headlamps with washers, Smart Access push-button ignition, Lexus Safety Connect (think OnStar), auto-leveling headlamps with LED running lights, 10-way power seats with memory, sunroof, Premium audio system, plus back-up monitor and parking sensors.

Options range from heated steering wheel and heated rear seats in a cold weather package, Lexus’s Enform 12.3-inch info/navigation screen and system, Intuitive automatic parking assist, power rear sunshade, 7.1-Surround Sound system, adaptable variable suspension, 18-way power front seats with leg extensions, steering linked headlamps, heads-up display, driver fatigue alert system, dynamic cruise control, night forward-vision camera, plus the F-sport package with 19-inch wheels.

Some oddities in the Lexus: there is a noticeable bump protruding from the side of the center tunnel that is either a perfect resting place for the driver’s right leg, or, depending on your physique, an unusual obstacle to comfort. Plus the Lexus was not the silent highway companion that most sibling Lexus vehicles are. The GS was also not as ‘relaxed’ at highway speeds as one would think, the steering just a bit more reactive to tiny input than a driver might expect. This tendency could be reflective of both the tarmac below as well as one or more worn tires.

At first, the clipped front grille of the current Lexus design philosophy was not endearing. It is clear that the pictures don’t flatter the car’s stance as much as extended viewing in real life.

For luxury car buyers who want more sport, Lexus has certainly entered the conversation with the latest GS350. Knowing the brand’s legendary customer service emphasis, high resale values and above-average dependability factors into the equation and gives the GS an edge over rivals without such a pedigree.

The GS is 190.7 inches long on a 112.2-inch wheelbase and weighs 3,980 pounds. Low-speed turning radius is only 34 feet, even with AWD.

The direct injection 3.5-liter V-6 makes 306 hp and 277 pound/feet of peak torque. EPA mileage estimates are 19/28 for rear drive, 19/26 for AWD. We averaged 23 mpg during the GS’s visit. Premium fuel is recommended.

As shown, our test car stickered for $55,407. The GS is built in Japan.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.