Sometimes I have troubles viewing Lexus with an objective eye. The first car that ever excited me was the 1993 Lexus LS400 my best friend’s dad bought. It wasn’t the driving experience that delivered the “wow” factor; it was the fact that everything inside seemed deliberately perfect from the leather seams, to the wood that wasn’t bubbling and peeling like a 2 year old Jag. In truth, the LS400, like most Lexus models, was a bit boring, but as this LS example has survived almost 20 years and 300,000 miles with an owner that doesn’t believe in regular maintenance, excitement is not the biggest selling point, but perhaps it should factor in there somewhere. We’ve heard it from Lexus before: wait! We have an exciting car this time! This year’s example: the 2013 GS. You’ve heard my comrade Jack’s take in part one, lets dive into part two.
The previous generation GS was unremarkable looking, so much so that when I was car shopping in late 2006, the dealer had a single all-new (at the time) GS model on the floor getting zero foot traffic while shoppers gravitated towards LS and IS models.
So how about the new mid-size sedan? The new GS may raise some eyebrows with its swoopy profile and hourglass-shaped “spindle” grill, but the design is far from adjectives like: dramatic, exciting, or polarizing. (Admittedly, the E-Class is not very stirring either.) The overall look is sporty, sensible and thoroughly Lexus. Sort of like a sensible sneaker rather than a snazzy pump. Under the hood of the GS beats only one engine choice: the same 306HP 3.5L V6 and 6-speed automatic as in the lighter, more nimble IS350 in regular or hybrid flavors. (Gone is the V8 from previous models due to sagging sales.)
Lexus told us at the press event that less than 5 percent of mid-size luxury vehicles (including BMW, Mercedes and Audi) were purchased with a V8 last year, I’m thinking that number is a stretch based on the number of E550s I see on the road. True to form however, Lexus indicated that those who desire V8 power will be satisfied with the 338HP hybrid GS450h.
This year’s 450h gets a tweaked 3.5L Lexus V6 with a revised RWD Hybrid Synergy Drive transmission. While 335HP sounds fun, the competition delivers 400+ turbo-charged in their V8 models, I’m not sure the hybrid provides true competition. What it does however is deliver 30+ combined MPGs with its refined CVT and more green-cred than anything in the segment except perhaps the M35h. Lexus tells us that while the GS350’s transmission is mostly caryover, there is a reason: Lexus’ track testers found an 8-speed transmission hunted more than they would like. Haven’t we been saying that all along?
Inside the GS we see more sweeping changes. Gone is the dominating center stack that flowed into the center console, in its place we get a decidedly BMWeque dashboard with a strong horizontal theme dominated by a large 12.3-inch wide-screen LCD and an old-school analogue clock (an interesting choice for an interior trying to be youthful). The interior arrangement is certainly dramatic, the downside is that Lexus has swapped the easy to use touch screen for their awkward joystick device.
If you think iDrive is a pain to use, Lexus’ new Enform system may take you to an all-new level of frustration. Since all the GS sedans at the release event were equipped with the navigation system, we can’t comment on the look sans-nav which I am told uses a smaller screen.
Luxury shoppers love dead tree as much as they love dead cow and the GS delivers on both counts. While full-leather upholstery is still not on the menu, you do get the latest in auto trends: a stitched leather dashboard. The stitched dash, improved seats and available “un-lacquered” wood trim make the interior look almost Scandinavian in design, a great improvement over last year’s interior.
Hybrid buyers are treated to a first in automotive interiors: bamboo. The light wood is far more attractive in person than pictures might indicate, and while I question the “renewable resource” marketing on a large luxury sedan, like the hybrid drivetrain, I’m sure it will make shoppers feel special, and that’s what luxury is all about anyway. Bamboo is definitely renewable, you need a nuclear device to stop it from growing.
Improvement rather than re-invention seems to be Lexus’ mantra, and this theme repeats itself with the hybrid battery pack. Instead of sporting lithium-ion batteries like the Infiniti G35h, the GS450h still gets by with “ye-olde” NiMH batteries with improved packaging to net more usable trunk space. One body in the trunk is OK, but two are still a squeeze.
Since Lexus has always been “the Japanese Mercedes”, it should come as no surprise that the GS350 comes with some of the most comfortable seating available. Base model GS350s receive 10-way power adjustable seats, F-sport models get 16-way seats with adjustable side bolsters and four-way lumbar support, and should the “luxury package” tickle your fancy, you’ll get 18-way thrones covered in semi-aniline cow. Wondering what the 18-ways are? The high end throne has an articulating back, the same inflating bolsters, adjustable thigh support, four way lumbar and “butterfly” headrests. Needless to say, if you have trouble finding a comfortable seating position, you’re not human.
On the gadget front, the GS is playing catch up with the competition. Of course, most shoppers check only a few option tick-boxes, and that’s what Lexus is counting on. Available goodies include an adaptive suspension system, full-LED headlamps (hybrid only), radar cruise control, night vision, lane departure warning with lane keep assist, smartphone app integration, pre-collision warning, a single-color heads-up-display, and an 835-watt Mark Levinson sound system. Much to my surprise, shoppers won’t find any collision mitigation systems (the ones that auto-brake for you) in the GS, nor will they find a radar cruise control system that will handle stop-and-go traffic, “virtual bumpers” massaging or anti-fatigue seats, snazzy 3-D Google maps, iPod voice control or even automated parking.
In contrast, the Infiniti M has more nannies than a pack of trust fund babies. The nannies will intervene in fairly drastic fashion to keep you from spilling your milk. The GS takes a different approach with the Lane Keep Assist providing only the slightest of nudges when you drift from your lane. The pre-collision warning operates in a similar fashion: it will let you know your bacon is in danger, but won’t do much to save it, that’s up to you. Since we were driving pre-production vehicles that still needed some gizmo-tuning, I’ll save my final word for a full review, but if you are anti-nanny, then Lexus’ gentle reminders of your bad driving habits may be more palatable than the systems from the Europeans.
Out on the open road, the GS continues to deliver the Lexus signature smooth and quiet ride. Keeping in mind we were driving pre-production cars, both Jack and I noticed the GS models seemed to be wanting in the thrust department. A quick run in each car yielded some lackluster 0-60 times of 6.8 seconds in the GS350 F-Sport and 6.4 seconds in the GS450h, more than a full second behind the 5.5 seconds Lexus quoted. While the E350 is no speed daemon, the 535i is notably faster than the GS, in a straight line. If you were about to write off the GS for poor road manners, as Jack said in part one; the GS350 surprisingly provides not only better balance but significantly more front end grip and more road feel than the 535i.
As I have said before, I usually prefer the better handling slower car to the poorer-handling faster car, The GS is no different and scores serious points with me. The decision not to include an Infiniti M35h in the track line-up seemed a strange one to me as it is the GS450h’s main competitor in the minds of everyone I quizzed at the event. In this match up unfortunately the GS450h’s only main selling point is a smoother transmission. Maybe that’s why it was conspicuous by its absence. You can check out our recent review of the Infiniti M35h for more information.
While Lexus has yet to release pricing, a little birdie told me to expect a slight increase in the base price. The whole price range should be similar to the outgoing model. Therefore, I would expect the GS530 to start around $47,000 with the GS450h starting near $59,000. Unless Lexus can pull a rabbit out of their hat, this makes the GS350 only a very slight bargain compared with the E350, 535i or A6 3.0T, but still a significant amount more expensive than the 528i or A6 2.0T, not to mention the Volvo S80 T6 or Hyundai Genesis 5.0 R-Spec.
If production models don’t meet the 5.5 second 0-60 time, then despite 306HP, the competition for the GS350 will really be the 528i and A6 2.0T. Interestingly, Mark Templin from Lexus indicated they do not plan on attacking the Germans at every front, instead staying focused on the meat of the Luxury market. For Lexus, this means (for the moment at least) no V8, and no dedicated performance line. Sound like Volvo? In a way, with the GS not competing head on with the big-boys they are making themselves more of a direct competitor for a 2ndtier luxury brand such as Volvo or Hyundai’s Genesis.
Since Lexus only brought along a BMW and Mercedes to play with, I must go off memory on the Genesis and S80 T6. Both the Genesis and S80 T6 provide more performance for the dollar than the Lexus (especially the Genesis 5.0 R-Spec) but the Lexus leads in refinement. The S80’s FWD biased AWD drivetrain makes it a competent highway cruiser and the turbocharged 3.0L engine makes it faster in our testing in a straight line, but the GS is by far the better handling vehicle.
The Genesis presents an incredible value proposition, it does not have the GS’ array of safety technologies, lacks rear seat climate control, a heads-up display and night vision, but it is significantly cheaper. You also get three different engine options to choose from, two of which are more potent than the Lexus offerings and all of which are cheaper than we expect the base GS to be. Still, there are only a small segment of shoppers willing to cross-shop a mainline luxury brand with Hyundai, but the number is growing. Lexus’ reputation for reliable engineering is of course still a factor, but the competition has also been paying attention. Stay tuned for a full review on the GS350 and 450h in the coming months.
Lexus flew Jack Baruth and Alex Dykes to Las Vegas, put us up in a swanky hotel, and gave us a delicious chocolate car. If you want to know more about that chocolate vehicle, you obviously aren’t a fan of us on Facebook. For shame.