2013 Lexus GS 350 - reinvented for high performance

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by TOM VOELK / Special contributor to KING5.com and NWCN.com

NWCN.com

Posted on December 2, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 2 at 2:57 PM

The luxury automotive brands all have their raison d'être (although none in the U.S. are French). Lexus has always seemed to be about cushy comfort with a triple layer of Teflon on every part.  Yes, they have made some athletic cars, but IS-F and LS 450 Sport never really caught on big time with enthusiasts (and if you can afford an LFA raise your hand). The gold standard in premium driving machines, no, ultimate driving machines, is of course BMW.  Audi is in hot pursuit.

Lexus understands its stigma as a numb boulevard cruiser and says it is changing its ways. Right.  We’ve heard this before.

Things are different at Toyota’s premium division.  Chairman Akio Toyoda likes to drive and has ordered an extra helping of soul as standard equipment in every Lexus.  The first to get it is the 2013 GS.  It wears a “spindle” grill, the aggressive new Lexus face.  It has a firmer suspension.  You can hear the engine roar.   Could it be Lexus is really changing?

To launch it, Lexus has brought a group of automotive journalists to Las Vegas International Raceway (apparently one Akio’s favorites), set up a couple courses and offered up two of the GS’s biggest rivals- BMW’s 5-Series and Mercedes’ E-Class-for us all to drive back to back.  And many have walked away surprised.

But First Let’s Get To Know the Line Up
 
This car will be available starting in February 2012, prices and EPA fuel economy are still unannounced.  Lexus is taking the Burger King approach with the new GS 350, it’s available in a wide variety of flavors so it’s easy to “have it your way.” There are three different models, Premium, Luxury and F SPORT.  Then choose from rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and a hybrid drive train (branded the GS 450h). 

It’s the same length as the outgoing model but about two inches wider.  The L-Finesse exterior design is balanced but Lexus missed their chance to do something A7 dramatic.  My eye catches on the chrome pieces that trim the C pillar (that’s the back window pillar in auto jargon) and rims the grille.  It’s not as elegant as an Audi A6 or as swoopy as Infiniti’s M37, it’s right down the middle, expected from Lexus. 

GS comes in two main flavors: The gas only 350 and the hybrid 450h.  Of the 350 models, enthusiasts will shop the F SPORT, it gets a firmer suspension, larger 19 inch wheels and an even bolder version of the new “spindle” mug.  The only overt advertisement of performance is an “F” fender badge.  F SPORT gets no additional horsepower.  The V8 has been dropped. 

Generally the GS is paneled with lots of wood.  F SPORT ditches it for straked aluminum. Seats have good lateral support for hard cornering, as they should.  There’s also proper aluminum pedals.  The six-speed automatic is the only transmission available on GS 350s, Lexus has tuned it for much quicker cog changes and there are rev-matching downshifts

Power To The Eco-Minded People

With 338 horsepower, the 450h hybrid is the most powerful GS.  A shopping tip, it isn’t available in AWD.  You can spot the eco-minded luxury buyer by the blue Lexus badges and lack of tail pipes.  Its 3.5-liter gas engine uses an Atkinson cycle and the electric side can run in either an eco or power mode. While the nickel metal hydride battery pack is positioned better in the trunk this time around, it still takes up space and eliminates the ski pass through.

The tranny changes to a continuously-variable unit here.  450h’s interior gets a unique look with bamboo inserts and lots of it.  The tach changes to power meter so you know how much fuel your saving, or NOT saving if your having fun. Combined estimated gas mileage is 31 miles per gallon.

A Driver’s Car.  Really.

I’m sticking with the gas only 350 models for this preview.  The 3.5-liter V6 pumps out 306 silky horses.  Motorheads take note, this mill gets both port injection (for smoother idling) AND direct injection (for efficiency and power).  The exhaust snarl is very un Lexus-like with an acoustical chamber that lets more of that edgy sound into the cabin when you goose the gas pedal. 

The six-speed transmission gets steering wheel paddle shifters standard.  A topic of discussion is that Lexus didn’t use their-eight-speed gearbox.  Good for bragging rights and fuel economy but according to Charles Hubbard of Lexus College, engineers found it hunted too much during hard acceleration.

Lexus says the GS 350 spools up to 60 miles an hour in 5.7 seconds.  Pretty darn quick (the 450h is just a tick faster).  But the real story with the GS is handling. While BMW has cornered the market in cornering for years, Lexus truly challenges them with a new adjustable suspension system that’s a significant advancement.  Whether it’s the standard models or the performance-tuned F SPORT, GS now dances with the best of them.  Even at high speeds there’s the feeling you can do no wrong in this car.

Yeah, I know it’s a cliché but I’ll say it anyways; this is not your father’s Lexus.

On the Performance loop at LVIR, GS feels lighter on its feet than the 5-Series and E-Class that Lexus has provided for direct comparison.  On this course I mostly drove the F SPORT in Sport+ mode and the electronic stability control feathers in so smoothly, it feels as if it doesn’t exist.  Point this car in the direction you want to go and it’s there, no fuss, no muss.  Even with electronic power steering there’s road feel telling your fingers what the tires are doing.  It’s easy to drive this sedan hard.

A timed autocross course was set up to demonstrate how nimble the GS is.  On this tightly coiled course, the GS performs like it’s a size smaller than it is.  It’s very athletic, quite a compliment considering the car I’m driving is not the F SPORT but a standard Premium model.  Even with electronic stability control off it’s easy to flog without loosing control, the seat of my pants knows when the rear is beginning to rotate and a slight flick of the wheel brings it back.  Lexus is very proud of this chassis tuning, as they should be.

All in all I lapped the courses at least a dozen times.  There was no Audi A6 or Infiniti M on hand for comparison but- and this is hard for me to wrap my head around- I walked away with the GS 350 as my favorite car to drive on the track.

But Who Will Drive This Car On The Track?

Precious few.  Most enthusiasts will just escape the city to find some fun roads and in its natural habitat the GS 350 is very buttoned down and refined, just what you’d expect from a Lexus.  It’s quiet with no wind noise, due to its very aerodynamic shape and small fins on the body and undercarriage to manage airflow.  Even the firmer F SPORT suspension is comfortable enough for everyday driving though it never ever wallows, even in it’s most compliant setting.

A Great Place To Spend Time

Inside, Lexus has installed a new sweeping instrument panel with stitched panels.  A focal point is the surrounds for the clock and disc slot, each carved from one piece of aluminum like an Apple MacBook Pro.  At over 12 inches wide, the crisp LCD screen is larger than an iPad and can display three different windows of information.  A rearview camera is standard and markings show a driver how far to park from another vehicle and still have room to get into the trunk.  How civilized.  A panoramic glass roof would define this space, only a standard sized unit is available.

The user interface is controlled with a mouse-like unit Lexus dubs Remote Touch.  It’s changed this year, with side select buttons disappearing, replaced with tapping the main button to make your choice.  As usual, I’ll be the “interface Grinch”, I find it slightly awkward to use, even with its haptic feel and adjustability.  Is it a deal breaker?  Hardly.  I’m just partial to touch screens and this one is too far away to make that possible.

While I’m griping, I’ll mention the door releases.  They are plastic and feel like it.  These are preproduction units and that might change.  This is an interior so nicely trimmed that even the steering wheel gets a new ergonomic shape perfected by engineers wearing special sensor embedded gloves.  Come on Lexus, spring for releases that at lease feel like they’re metal.

Very supportive leather chairs get heat and ventilation. There’s even a heads up display that can be set to show different functions.

Technology Fest

GS can be loaded to the gills with tech.  There’s blind spot and lane departure warning plus lane keep tech that helps maintain a centered position at speeds over 35 mph.  On top of that there’s a four-wheel steering option, night vision, and a killer 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.  The standard climate control system knows to only blow air where people are sitting.

In back, the middle seat is raised, so put kids there, there’s not much headroom.  On the other hand the outboard positions are sculpted and very comfortable. Foot and knee room are decent.    Luxury models offer up a control panel in the center armrest that allows passengers to select sound system sources, turn on bun warmers and adjust their own climate zone in back.  Very popular with the car pool crowd.

There are small storage nooks all over and a place to charge electronics.  A nice touch?  Side impact airbags protect those in back (there are 10 bags in all).  The large driveshaft tunnel gets in the way, consider GS comfortable for four.

When I’m traveling the TP Trunk test becomes “My Luggage” test.  All my gear bags and suitcase fit easily, it’s about the same amount of stuff a couple might travel with.  It’s certainly big enough for a couple sets of golf clubs, important in this segment.  Seats don’t fold to expand cargo, there’s just a ski pass through. 

The hinge arms are the kind that will scrunch your cargo if you load up to the brim.  There are some thoughtful cubbies and bag holders in the trunk.  Good to know Lexus is still putting a spare in their cars.

Common Sense Performance

Will drivers in the real world push the GS like we did at Las Vegas International Raceway?  Very doubtful.  But this is where bragging right start and that’s why Lexus was eager to show off its capabilities.  The expected 25,000 buyers who end up with this high-end sedan will get something that’s been in limited supply from this brand- fun.  The engineers have done a commendable job of stepping away from the stereotypical numb Lexus dynamic while keeping the coddling intact.  In short, GS successfully walks the tightrope of sport, luxury and tech without compromises.  It makes things very, very interesting in this segment.
 

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