With each revision since 1990, BMWs have become more like Lexus. Meanwhile, Lexus (some of them, anyway) have become more like BMWs. With the latest iterations, have the 5-Series and GS met somewhere in a muddled middle, or does each retain a distinct identity?
With the latest, “F10″ 5-Series, BMW softened the car’s lines, returning it at least halfway to the cleaner look of the E39. There’s nothing here to turn people off, but not much to turn them on, either. I personally prefer the tauter, more athletic appearance of the E60, despite its aesthetic excesses.
The first Lexus GS was designed by Giugiaro to be a Jaguar. But Jaguar didn’t want it, and Lexus did. [Update: a commenter notes that Italdesign has debunked this widespread belief. Though the world saw the Jaguar first, the firm designed the GS earlier.] The second GS’s more aggressive appearance was clearly an in-house effort. With both the third and latest generations of the car Lexus has claimed a new, distinctive design language (“L-Finesse” and “Waku Doki”), but each has nevertheless, like the second, appeared vaguely German. Viewed from the side in Luxury trim, the 2013 GS 350 looks much like a pudgier F10 5-Series, itself a pudgier E39. Medium red does not flatter the car.
Opt for the F-Sport (with a more aggressive fascia and gray 19-inch wheels) in silver, and the new GS looks much better.
Inside, the cars remain dissimilar. Though BMW interiors have become more artful over the years, their ambiance remains more businesslike, even severe. The GS’s interior looks and feels softer and more conventionally luxurious. One odd touch: a partially upholstered (in insufficiently convincing vinyl) instrument panel has padding in the areas farthest from the passengers. Done right, an upholstered instrument panel takes an interior up a notch or two. This one isn’t done right.
Much more important and done right: the highly adjustable seats included in both the F-Sport and Luxury Packages are far superior to the smaller, oddly contoured front buckets in the previous GS. They’re also both more comfortable and more supportive than those in the BMW. The Lexus approach to four-way power lumbar adjusters, with independent upper and lower adjustments, yields a better shape than a single bulge that can be shifted vertically. No longer offered in the BMW, but included with these seats in the Lexus: power-adjustable side bolsters. You sit a little higher relative to the instrument and door panels in the Lexus than in the BMW. Both have roomier, more comfortable rear seats than their predecessors, rendering the LS and 7-Series less necessary. Not so comfortable in the Lexus: a large bulge beneath the driver’s right calf (to accommodate the AWD system’s transfer case). A folding rear seat to expand the trunk is available in the BMW, but not in the Lexus.
BMW has continued to refine its iDrive control system, and the latest iteration’s simpler navigation poses little challenge. Lexus’s “remote touch” system, with a mouse-like force feedback controller, while niftier has a steeper learning curve. Theoretically, with more flexibility it should get you where you want more quickly, but in practice this is too often not the case. Specifying firmer feedback reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the number of inadvertent selections induced by bumps in the road. Even then, navigating in two dimensions (versus the one-dimensional lists in the BMW) requires more conscious thought and manual precision. Both systems employ large displays capable of displaying two screens simultaneously, but that in the Lexus is a couple of inches larger. Unfortunately, BMW also felt the need to reinvent the shifter. The Lexus’s conventional lever feels better and is easier to use.
For 2013, Lexus offers only one non-hybrid engine in the GS, a normally-aspirated 306-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. The 2012 BMW offers three turbocharged engines, with four, six, and eight cylinders and 240, 300, and 400 horsepower, respectively. While the six might seem the closest match to the Lexus, a case can be made for the tested four-banger. At lower rpm it’s about as powerful as the 3.5 and the 528i’s price is much closer to that of the Japanese car.
Before driving the 528i, I wondered whether a four-cylinder was up to the task of motivating a two-ton sedan in a manner worthy of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” label. Well, power isn’t an issue unless you require an especially energetic shove in your lower back. The four gets up to any legal speed nearly as quickly as the six. Character could be more of a stumbling block. The 2.0-liter engine doesn’t idle nearly as smoothly as the six and at low rpm sounds surprisingly like a diesel. The action of the automatic start/stop system sends a mild shudder through the car. Adding insult to injury, the eight-speed automatic tends to lug the engine unless in Sport mode. But select Sport mode and the transmission holds a lower gear even when cruising, severely impacting fuel economy. At higher rpm and with a heavy foot the four sounds much better, but still not quite in character for a luxury sedan.
The Lexus’s engine delivers its power much differently. While I wouldn’t call it “torqueless”, it’s not a neck-snapper off the line. But cross 4,000 rpm and power jumps dramatically (in a style reminiscent of Honda’s high-performance VTEC engines). At the same point, the engine’s aural output also gets louder and fuller, with a tuned character intentionally similar to that of the IS-F. Credit (or blame) a “sound symposer”, a tube that channels sound from the engine’s intake to the cabin. Some might find this sound overly massaged, but I personally enjoy the livelier sound and feel of the Lexus engine more than those of the Germans’ boosted mills.
While Lexus offers an eight-speed automatic in some models, the 2013 retains the old six-speed. Between this and its larger engine, the GS 350 AWD’s EPA ratings (19 city, 26 highway) don’t approach those of the 528i xDrive (22/32). In casual suburban driving with the engine warmed up the trip computer reported about 22 in the Lexus and about 25 in the BMW. Drive more aggressively and the difference between the two narrows a little, with the Lexus falling into the high teens and the BMW dropping to just below 20. Take full advantage of “Eco Pro” mode in the BMW, which yields a Prius-like throttle response, and the gap widens. I observed an average as high as 30 in the BMW (vs. a high of 25 in the Lexus). But I also observed an actual Prius tailgate then pass me. The GS also has an “Eco” setting, but its impact is much less dramatic.
Even with the optional Sport Package’s dampers set to “Sport” the new 528i feels a little soft and sloppy. There’s some float following dips and bumps and a surprising (if still moderate) amount of lean in turns. Mild understeer is the defining trait. While the 550i xDrive retains the character of a rear-wheel-drive car, the four-cylinder, with two-thirds the torque, can’t produce the same effect. Body motions in even the Luxury Package GS are better controlled, and the F-Sport feels tighter still. All-wheel-drive limits the influence of your right foot on the attitude of the chassis in the Lexus much like it does in the BMW—neither car employs an active rear differential or torque vectoring. Steering is nicely weighted in both cars, but with a firmer feel in the Lexus.
Yet the BMW remains the easier car to drive quickly along a challenging road. Additional bobbling about notwithstanding, the 528i can be more precisely placed through turns. Its steering seems little more communicative, yet the driver receives more nuanced information, much of it through the ears and seat rather than through the fingertips. Even in F-Sport form, the Lexus insulates the driver more. There is an upside to this last difference: going down the road, the more refined GS sounds and feels more upscale and more luxurious. The F-Sport rides more firmly than the basic car, but remains far from punishing. A sound meter might detect little difference between the BMW and the Lexus, but the quality of the noise that gets through is another matter. Where BMW might have simply aimed for low decibel readings, Lexus has carefully tailored the noise that reaches your ears to convey a sense of luxury and quality.
As tested, the Lexus were priced at $58,997 (F-Spot) and $59,759 (Luxury). These two packages cannot be ordered together, so you must choose between the former’s more attractive exterior and firmer suspension and the latter’s softer leather and additional amenities (articulating upper backrests, memory for the front passenger seat, automatic climate controls and heat for the rear seats). I’d readily opt for the former. The BMW 528i, equipped more like the F-Sport, listed for $61,125. Both cars are available with quite a few additional options, including adaptive cruise control, head-up displays, night vision systems, premium audio, and (with rear-wheel-drive only) four-wheel active steering. Run both cars through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool to adjust for unshared features, and the difference comes in just under $2,000. Probably not enough to be a factor at this level—but recall that the BMW is the 528i, not the 535i. For the latter, add $4,100.
Despite their convergence, drive the BMW 5-Series and Lexus GS back-to-back and they remain dramatically different cars. Despite a softer, less direct feel than past 5ers, the BMW still provides the driver with a larger amount of more nuanced feedback than the Lexus does. Meanwhile, the Lexus continues to more thoroughly insulate the driver (and passengers). For this and other reasons, the GS 350 also looks and feels more luxurious. Of the three cars reviewed, the GS 350 F-Sport best combines performance and luxury. It’s a very pleasurable car whether driven aggressively or casually. Lexus clearly goes further beyond objective criteria to the subjective experience of how the car looks, sounds, and feels. The largest advantage of the BMW, one for which the marque hasn’t been known in the past, is fuel efficiency. You can, of course, get the GS in hybrid form, but only if you’re willing to give up all-wheel-drive—and an additional $10,000.
Phil Coron of Meade Lexus in Southfield, MI, provided the Lexus GS 350 F-Sport. He can be reached at 248-372-7100.
Lexus provided the GS 350 Luxury, while BMW provided the 528i, in both cases with insurance and a tank of premium gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.