Import Sport Sedan Comparison: Fourth Place: Lexus GS350

Michael Freed
by Michael Freed

Lexus should include a PlayStation 3 with every GS350 they sell the public, so the new owners can take their new vehicle for a spin around the Nurburgring in “Gran Turismo.” That way they’d be able to safely enjoy their new Lexus and not waste a single penny in gas. Either way, the driving experience wouldn’t change much.

The GS350 makes a nice first impression styling-wise – smooth, handsome, surprisingly sleek, and nicely detailed. Gaze at the GS350 in profile, at a low angle, and it looks long, low and purposeful, like a futuristic car from the 1980’s Japanese animated film Akira. Like the original Lexuses (or is it Lexi?), this car will never really look out of date. And it’s more than just design; the engineers and assembly workers perfected their craft exquisitely. Body panel gaps are small enough to nearly disappear in dim light, and the paint job looks as close to grand piano-glossy as anything this side of a Rolls Royce.

Inside things are conservatively handsome, in the vein of a Nokia phone design. The GS350 greets the driver with a clean dash, and a detailed instrument panel with watch-face texturing. In typical Lexus fashion, the center stack pops out more convex plastic than a box of bubble-wrap. And yet, like the bubble-wrap, you can’t keep your hands off the things. One ergonomic curiosity: some secondary controls, like the power mirrors, instrument panel dimmer, and stability control shutoff, are housed in a fold-away compartment to the driver’s left. This gives the dash a less cluttered appearance, but it feels like an unnecessary gimmick in an otherwise straightforward dashboard. Perhaps Toyota has a single errant Citroen spy in their midst….

Lexus upgraded the GS350’s 3.5 liter V-6 to 303 horsepower for 2009, and it’s worthy improvement over the previous powerplant, which loved to rev, but didn’t produce a whole lot of power. The updated mill is smooth and powerful, but perhaps a bit too slick for its own good. Drivers looking for proof that luxury doesn’t mean soullessness should look elsewhere. If they weren’t already.

The slick-shifting six-speed sequential-shift automatic transmission – probably the best overall in this test – always has the right cog ready, and it allows the high-revving V-6 to sing soprano. Peak torque is at 3600 rpm, so the GS350 doesn’t blast off the line like the BMW does, but if you keep your foot in it, there’s considerable performance potential here. Lexus estimates a very credible 5.8 second dash to 60, but sadly the soundtrack is as boogie-motivating as a Philip Glass opera.

Luckily (or not), the Lexus wasn’t in the mood to dance anyway. Hit the twisties, and the GS350’s main weakness becomes clear: lack of communication between machine and driver. Things feel so remote and disengaged at the helm, as to make one wonder when a Playstation controller will finally be offered as a factory option. Folks who see driving as a chore might enjoy the overboosted ease around town, but the old adage, “BMW engineers take the autobahn to work, and Toyota engineers take the subway” will ring unfortunately true for enthusiasts.

The dynamic news front doesn’t proclaim DrudgeReport level despair though – the GS350’s refined chassis provides reasonable responsiveness, and the ride / handling tradeoff feels solid. The car hums down the Interstate raising no more than a whisper, and the isolation-chamber experience helps makes rush hour a far more tolerable experience than it should be. If you have stress issues, consider the GS as your road-going psychotherapist.

The GS’ reason-over-lust nature extends to pricing – the test car, with navigation, a splendid Mark Levinson sound system, ventilated seats, and all-wheel-drive, came in at a very reasonable $52,185. The traditional Lexus virtues – long-term durability, resale value, quality, and top-notch dealer service – will keep the GS’ driver happy and satisfied for a long time, as long as felonious driving isn’t on their menu.

But high-speed Baruthian episodes on our nation’s highways simply aren’t in the Lexus’s sensible-luxury oeuvre. What this means is that there are many good reasons a rational, logical, and ultimately boring person can choose from to justify settling for the Lexus. Maybe they drove the Lexus first, and decided, “hey, this will do.” Maybe their definition of luxury is met by sepulchral silence alone. Or maybe they’re upgrading from a Camry. In any case you can’t blame them… but you can do better.

Performance: 4/5

The upgraded engine is smooth, powerful, and easy on the ears, with a smart, slick autobox, but you have to keep your right foot planted to keep the power coming

Ride 5/5

Here’s the payoff for all that isolation and refinement – your very own road-going Fortress of Solutide

Handling: 1/5

And here’s the downside for all that isolation and refinement – a driving simulator for the road

Exterior: 3/5

Nothing exciting, but this look will wear well over time

Interior: 4/5

Somewhat cramped, but stylish and beautifully made

Fit and Finish: 5/5

Inside and out, the GS is flawless and heirloom-quality

Toys: 4/5

The off-the-wall stuff – heads up displays, lane departure warning systems, night vision, and the like – isn’t on the menu here, but the all expected goodies are, and the price is very reasonable

Desirability: 2/5

The GS350 might be a gotta-have for “Consumer Reports Is My Good Book” types, but those of with gasoline in our veins should look elsewhere

Michael Freed
Michael Freed

More by Michael Freed

Join the conversation
2 of 68 comments
  • Carsinamerica Carsinamerica on Oct 24, 2009

    @ Autosavant: Thanks for the informative reply. However, the IS and GS do have something common with the corolla, ie thei tiny size, and the IS and GS probably have less rear room than the corolla. The IS has less rear legroom than the Corolla, to be sure (and is small for its class), but the GS has as much rear legroom as the mini-Camry (a tenth more, actually). The GS is not tiny; it's roughly the same size as the BMW 5-Series (and it has more legroom than the 5er). It's a classic midsize sports sedan. Like many cars in its class, it's spacious up front, and rather less so in the back.

  • Accs Accs on Oct 28, 2009

    Jeez: Can someone just please tell me what happened to the DISTINCTIVE GS? Oh yeah.. Got caught in a hot lamp and turned to mush. jmo : I happen to live a solid hr from work if I leave by 615a every morning. I put on 138.3 miles.. every single day to and from work. Driving.. is about skill. Its about working the car. Most times.. there is little traffic and plenty of road to work out the kinks. Now I currently do it in a 00 Accord that I put 120k in 3 yrs time. My next car will be a Mazda 3 hatch... and she will run.. like its her JOB. I pass yahoos everyday driving everything from S / R Classes to Taurus to CLS and everyone is totally asleep at the wheel and or not paying attention to how traffic is moving and or generally whats going on. I.. Like to drive. And buying a Lexus... Is for people who dont.

  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.
  • Lou_BC There's a company in BC that has kits for logging trucks and pickups. They have "turn key" logging trucks too. What they market is similar to what Ram wants to sell. The rig runs on batteries and a generator kicks in when depleted. On the West Coast logging in the mountains they found that the trucks run mostly on regen braking. The generator doesn't kick in much. Going up mountain, the truck is empty.
  • 28-Cars-Later I should start a GiveMeMoney™ and do an EV converted Allanté. There are literally six or seven people who would be thrilled.