Generally speaking, I'm not partial to cars that remind me of death. But I respect Lexus for selling a model lineup that keeps faith with their "luxury car as mobile mausoleum" brand heritage. That said, the Japanese automaker's sensory deprivation shtick has taken a couple of major hits since the debut of the LS400, in the form of leathered-up, badge-engineered Toyotas. But the "new" GS300 is a far more worrying development: a bespoke model that turns its back on everything that made The Big L successful in the first place.
Visually, that's a good thing. The new GS300 represents a bold and beautiful break from Lexus' amorphous aesthetic. The four-door's front end seems a bit of an 8-Series crib, and the rear is as confused as an absinthe drinker, but the GS300's hunkered stance and nose-heavy proportions project a genuine sense of aggression. The rear pillars are especially wikkid, and the swageless sides add a statement of streamlined modernity. If ever a car promised to give the BMW 530i a decent run for the money– and quite a lot of money it is too– the GS300 is it.
Entering the GS is a disconcerting experience. Although sumptuous leather stimulates your smug satisfaction gland, little details jar. The gray matte plastic surrounding the touch screen and dials is an obvious and unwelcome refugee from the Toyota side of the tracks. While the GS' central display and flanking buttonology are a clear and present arranger, the graphic display is pure Prius. The default screen's real-time reminder of fuel consumption invites ridicule on every level. The instrument cluster is more garish– and garishly lit– than the Moulin Rouge, and about as elegant as its crocodile wrestler. Overall, the interior's stuck on Pampercon 5.
Fire-up the GS' 3.0-liter six, squeeze the go-pedal and it's immediately clear that Munich's flame-surfaced sedan can continue niche carving without fear of L-badged aggravation. For one thing, our test GS shunted like a badly bumped bumper car. For another, never in the course of automotive events has so much horsepower done so little for so few. Although the GS300's powerplant stables 245 horses, there's nowhere near enough torque to canter uphill, gallop past lesser-priced motors or join a long-distance sprint with comparatively-priced thoroughbreds. If Honda can make its Odyssey-class six run silent, run deep, why must the GS' engine be both slow AND noisy?
A luxury car without a smooth, powerful, quiet, slick-shifting engine is like a bodybuilder without a syringe. By failing to provide a magic carpet ride, the GS300 is a drug-free bodybuilder with a hernia. Despite double-wishbones at the front and a trick multi-link set-up at the back, the GS crashes over major and minor surface imperfections with all the grace of a Toyota Avalon; maybe less. The GS300 makes a mockery of Lexus' well-earned rep for imperious wafting– to the point where you wonder if the model was designed as a secret torture device for America's nouveaux riche.
The harsh ride probably reflects a focus group's assertion that the sporty-looking GS should possess sporty handling dynamics. That it does. The original Lexus LS400 was such a wallowy luxobarge owners were heard to shout "Hard 'a port!" through rotaries. The GS300's handling is the exact opposite; Lexus' revised sedan is so tied down that chauffeuring a professional dancer is the only way you'll ever get body lean. The GS300's flat stance and tenacious grip are capable of inspiring comments more along the lines of "See? I TOLD you we wouldn't hit that tree." I say 'capable' because it's hard to imagine a pistonhead who could be bothered to thrash a car with zero-G steering, numb (but effective) brakes and a thoroughly recalcitrant powerplant.
Strangely enough, it's the GS300's Mark Levinson stereo that really rankles. As a Pinto survivor, I can attest to the fact that killer tunes can cover a multitude of mechanical sins. Even if you overlook the fact that the GS300's head unit is not MP3able, the ICE's sound quality is a deep disappointment. The mid-range tones are more grating than an blind waiter shaving a block of parmesan over your spaghetti. On the positive side, the reverse cam's color image is startlingly clear. In both cases, play value is limited.
The GS300 is proof positive that ugly– I mean, "beauty challenged" chick's moms were right: it's what's inside that counts. (Some commentators might say "what's under the hood", but that would be sexist, gratuitous and infantile.) I'm reasonably sure that the GS430's 100 extra foot pounds of torque would transform the model from whiney wanna-be road rocket to something altogether more capable and, perhaps, luxurious. Even so, the devil's in the details. It's time for Lexus to re-hire the obsessive compulsives who gave the brand its fame.