Review: 2013 Lexus GS350 and GS450h, Part One

review 2013 lexus gs350 and gs450h part one

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 [s]cramped[/s] 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 [s]dirt-cheap, Chinese-grown-and-harvested[/s] 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?

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2 of 54 comments
  • Jimmyy Jimmyy on Dec 04, 2011

    This Lexus, as well as the BMW and MBZ it is compared with, are all a total waste of money. I wonder what is wrong with people that spend money on that stuff.

  • BlackDynamiteOnline BlackDynamiteOnline on Mar 29, 2012

    Infiniti is 2nd-tier everywhere Audi is 1st-tier everywhere, except in the U.S., because we just don't like VW's and their lack of durability BD

  • Bryan Raab Davis I briefly dated an Australian fellow who was mad for Aspires; one of his better characteristics, if I’m honest.
  • ToolGuy Check out Ferrari's market cap:
  • ToolGuy • Not sure who you get when you call the "Company phone" number listed on the recall report, but confident that it ISN'T Ferrari (someone either screwed up or made a conscious exception; recall might need a recall; where is my excellence in government that all of you are funding?).• 99% of them are fine.• On later models, additionally, a message will also appear on the vehicle’s dashboard that reads as follows: “Brake fluid level low, Go to dealer slowly”. That right there is classic.• Anyway, this is what happens when you build to a price point... (ba dum tsh!)
  • Art Vandelay And what a giant pile of sh!t ths new format is. Great job guys, way to run off the last of the die hards.
  • Theflyersfan If you ever want a review on a 2022 Mazda MX-5 GT RF, I'll be more than happy to type up a few thousand words and add in some great pictures in front of Churchill Downs for y'all!In a nutshell, I agree with this review. I didn't have a chance to try the Recaro seats because the only test drive available was with another GT that someone backed out in buying so it was being used as a demo. But from what I was told, if you're larger than a 38 waist or taller than 5'10", it gets tight. But with the standard seats, and I'm 5'10" and maybe 20 pounds from the 38 waist, I fit fine. Now getting in and out with the roof up after shoulder surgery (especially leaving the surgery center with most of the right arm under a nerve block) is the total opposite of graceful!!! The look on the nurse's face when the MX-5 pulled up and I'm partially wrapped up like a mummy was priceless.I've had mine since the middle of April and have already put 6,700 miles on it, including round trips from Louisville to Chicago and the Philadelphia suburbs. Averaged 38-39 mpg at a steady 75 mph, and it wasn't a torture chamber. The metal top helped a lot. The standard seats are a bit thin on padding, and there was a bit of squirming by around hour 8 on the Philly drive, but it's possible. But even though this design was released in 2015, I still get compliments from total strangers at stoplights, carwashes, gas stations, restaurants, etc. The Soul Red Metallic paint just makes the car pop. I wish it was available with the Terra Cotta leather (the gray above is available with it), and that it didn't have the standard all in black, because it gets thermonuclear in there with the top down and the sun beating on you, but a minor quibble. But it's just fun. Pure driving fun. The best stick shift in any car today. Solid brakes, excellent handling, a sane amount of power to where you aren't going to get into anything reckless and stupid. After a 12+ hour day at work, there's nothing better than dropping the top and driving the 20 minutes home with the better than I thought it would be Bose stereo playing Moby into my ears through the headrest speakers. Mazda has already announced there will be an NE model so I can't wait for that. It'll be interesting how they will keep the weight down with the expected changes to eke more MPG out of what is already an efficient car.