When it rains, it pours. Both Alex Dykes and I were lucky enough to get a slot in the West Coast media introduction for the 2013 Lexus GS350, GS350 F-Sport, and GS450h. Rather than do a “Take One” and “Take Two”, we decided to handle it the way OutKast would. Alex, like OutKast’s BigBoi, will be delivering a robust, well-rounded album, er, review, chock-full of on-road impressions and wide-angle interior photography. I will play the Andre3000 role (of course) and share with you The Love Below: performance-related impressions from driving four different GS variants, along with the Mercedes E350 and BMW 535i, through Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s short road course.
Put the needle on the record and the pedal to the metal: it’s time to meet the new Lexus.
The GS has been the lonesome loser in the Lexus lineup since it was introduced. Quick history lesson: Once upon a time, Giugiaro’s ItalDesign firm created an unsolicited design for a future Jaguar, calling it the Jaguar Kensington Concept. Here it is:
Jaguar wasn’t buying, but Toyota was, and they used the basic design for a home-market Crown Aristo in 1991. That car ended up being available with all sorts of bad-assed machinery including a turbocharged straight-six and all-wheel-drive, but the North American market received it in 1993 as the rather sedate, normally-aspirated, RWD Lexus GS300. The next generation was styled in-house with quasi-Benz four-eyed headlights; the (current) one after that was a generic “L-Finesse” blandwagon. They’ve never sold worth a damn, perhaps because they’ve never offered much of a value alternative to the German competition. Go price out an S550 and an LS460, then repeat the comparison with the E350 and GS350. Whoa, right?
Lexus can’t change what they’re charging for the car. The content, the yen, the blah blah blah. So instead they’ve decided that the new GS will compete on traditionally German attributes. It will be styled more aggressively, contain more wacky features, and be better to drive than the BMW, Benz, and Audi. Any mention of Infiniti is carefully avoided. They’re second tier, dontcha know.
Alex will discuss the styling; my opinion is that it’s yet another Japanese take on the long shadow of Chris Bangle’s flame-surface ideas, with a pleasing homage to the 1984 Celica Coupe’s taillights. Let’s get to the comparison with the E350 and 535i, shall we?
Start with the interior: it’s noticeably more
cramped cozy than the Germans. Bangle’s with us here, too, in the horizonal wood-and-polished-metal layout, but Lexus has married that idea with a traditional center console, complete with J-pattern shifter. It’s tougher to get in and out of than the Benz or Bimmer.
Around LVMS’s short course, the base GS immediately impresses. Rather than split the difference between the E350 and 535i’s control efforts, Lexus has chosen to go hardcore. Through the initial slalom, the Lexus carries more speed than the others. Unfortunately, the engine does split the difference, and it’s closer to the poky Benz than the torquey BMW. Thanks to a dopey “engine sound generator” attached to the intake, you get plenty of aren’t-we-sporty growl, but the E350 delivers similar thrust in a more dignified fashion. The BMW? Well ahead. If the GS were a “ghost car” on our test course, like in Gran Turismo, we would see the BMW beat it to the final gate handily on power, while the Mercedes requires a minor lift before that last gate that the others simply don’t.
Reaching the long, sweeping back corner, the BMW is ahead, but the Lexus claws a lot of the gap back! How? Simple: it has more front-end grip. The Benz, meanwhile, proves to be a trustworthy companion, accurately conveying the traction situation despite light steering. Light doesn’t mean bad, you know. All three cars are surprisingly neutral given their weight and size.
They also all have adequate braking for this short, low-speed (well under 90mph tops) course, even as the journo-hacks tirelessly corner-brake again and again over the course of hours. The second half of our test track consists of two fast corners and another evasion gate. Again, the BMW shows the beauty of its engine, while the GS displays its ability to choose and maintain a line throughout the turn. It’s funny, really. A Lexus, delivering a more neutral balance than a BMW. What we could really use here is a combination of everyone’s best assets. A turbo GS, or a big-motor GS.
What we get instead is a hybrid. On the LVMS course, the GS450h is useless. It handles just fine, but the nature of the event doesn’t let the battery charge. The result: instead of being a GS with more power (338hp combined, while the standard GS has 306) it’s a GS with more weight. Make no mistake, though, this is no Prius. It’s probably just as fast around the course as the E350, even with a depleted battery.
The star of the event was the GS350 F-Sport, which adds 19-inch wheels and optional rear-steer to the mix. Rear-steer? Oh, yes. The Japanese love rear steer the way they love “success cats”, and Toyota has engineered a nice, compact electronic system. The F-Sport could be driven flat-out from the starting line to the exit of the slalom/gate system down the first straight. In my hands, the F-Sport was very, very quick in direction changes, as you’d expect. It’s as simple as turning the console suspension knob to “S+”, (any relation to BMW’s “Sport+ setting is strictly intentional) giving the F-Sport slow, precise steering motions, and letting the back wheels simply complete the motion around the pointer cones. More agility with less steering input. I love it.
Riding right-seat with another journo, I saw the system work very differently. This fellow would saw at the wheel, causing the rear-steer to respond with very big motions at the back. After a moment or so of lurid sliding, the stability control would intervene and calm everything down. My colleague hated the rear-steer. The lesson: it’s a finesse tool. Use it appropriately. Alex Dykes, by the way, was quite rapid around the course in the F-Sport and easily outpaced many of the people who claimed to be “fast”. The key? He has slow, controlled steering motions. If Lexus really wanted my business, they would let me use the wacky mouse controller on the armrest to dial-in my preferred degree of rear-steer on the fly. Top speed freeway run? Turn it off. Local autocross? Set phasers to kill.
Speaking of autocrossing… Lexus set up a 35-second cone layout for us to all try the GS350 AWD model, which was not available on the road course. No competitive vehicle was available. I set fast time of the day (at least until I left to catch my flight) but couldn’t bring myself to love that car at all. It was the slowest, piggiest, and least pleasant GS. Save the driven front axle for your grandmother or the hopelessly inept. Give me the F-Sport.
Actually, don’t give me the F-Sport. While it was the car of choice at LVMS, on the open road I found the GS450h really came into its own, particularly with its
dirt-cheap, Chinese-grown-and-harvested environmentally-responsible bamboo trim package. Here’s the problem. The F-Sport whipped the (Lexus-provided) BMW and Benz on the road course, no sweat. Unfortunately for Lexus, the sales race is decided in showrooms, not on coned-up racetracks, and once you get to the showroom, you’re likely to find that it’s actually cheaper to lease a neighbor-impressing German mid-sizer. Why pick the GS over cars which have more street cred and do everything else just as well? Only the hybrid has the answer. With an expected 30mpg combined mileage (confirmed for me by the 30.8 the “h” reported during my street drives), a uniquely-themed interior, and all the anti-conspicuous-consumption emotional baggage you can possibly pack into a $60,000 car, it’s simply the most satisfying model available, and it’s the only Lexus GS that says anything to anyone — other than “I just saved $2000 on my luxury car.”
In a segment virtually defined by forty-something social climbers trying to eke out the most bling possible from a limited budget, Lexus is playing a losing hand. If I had to keep any of these cars for 200,000 miles, of course I would pick the GS. Does anybody really do that? Proabably not. If you do, however, feel free to purchase the Lexus, with my blessings… and I never, ever, ever thought I would write it, but consider the hybrid, okay?