by Larry Printz
photography by Marcus Holman
Lexus kicks it into gear against interloper BMW with a sporty yet luxurious sedan.
Last year, BMW ate Lexus’ lunch. The Bavarian automaker sold more vehicles than any other luxury car brand in the United States, a perch occupied for years by – you guessed it – Lexus. So you might understand why Lexus feels a need to respond to the challenge.
Lexus has something to prove. No one doubts its manufacturing excellence. There’s little argument that Toyota’s luxury brand upset the luxury automotive order when it launched in 1990. But it did so with cars whose dominant personality trait is one of sequestering the driver from the outside world. And it worked.
Others tried to follow in Lexus’ footsteps, with one exception: BMW. Now, BMW has toppled Lexus as America’s favorite prestige automaker, and Lexus is answering critics who say its models lack a certain excitement.
Exhibit A: the 2013 Lexus GS 350, the company’s initial salvo in its assault to reclaim the top position with a dose of sporting attitude. It’s an apt choice.
Debuting for 1993, the GS was the fourth model in the Lexus lineup. The rear-drive sedan sells for less than the LS, Lexus’ rear-wheel-drive flagship sedan, but more than the front-wheel-drive ES sedan. The GS was marketed as a sports sedan, a role it filled with limited success in 1997 and 2006, when it was joined by a hybrid variant, the GS 450.
But Lexus stole some of the GS’ thunder when it introduced the compact IS in 2000, positioning it as a sports sedan as well. You can guess what happened next: GS sales suffered.
The GS sold so poorly, on the track in test comparisons as well as in showrooms, that Akio Toyoda and other company executives were ready to kill it, according to Automotive News.
But American officials insisted the model was worth saving.
So the company has worked hard to give it the abilities one would expect of a great sports sedan. And even if the GS 350 shows that Lexus is – thankfully – not in danger of becoming BMW, it is a far tastier rendition of what has come before.
Of course, if your first view of the new GS starts at the back, or your gaze fixes on the car’s rounded greenhouse, you might not think so. But the front end tells you all you need to know. This new GS wears an aggressive new face that will spread to the rest of the Lexus lineup, with a grille shaped by two vertical chromed boomerangs. It’s distinctive and sporty, yet it’s finished with the expected Lexus polish.
That’s especially true once you open the door and climb behind the wheel.
Inhale. Go ahead.
OK, you can’t smell it, but if you could, you’d appreciate the intoxicating rich smell of leather this car possesses. It raises your expectations of what’s to come. Your eyes sweep around the cabin. As you’ve come to expect of Lexus, the materials are rich and substantial, the switches tightly assembled and easy to use by touch.
But it’s the screen you notice. That really, really big screen. Now, 12.3 inches may not sound large if you’re watching a movie in your home. But it’s serious real estate when used in a car’s instrument panel for the navigation, audio, climate and information systems. It allows Lexus to generously size its graphics; you don’t have to squint at the map while looking for a street.
The screen is controlled by a mouselike device mounted on the center console. Lexus thoughtfully gave it a clicklike feel as you move from one screen button to the next, so it’s easier to use without looking at the display.
Plenty of little luxuries make this ride easy to take, most of them included in the optional luxury and cold-weather packages. This is where serious hedonism begins, where you reward yourself for all your hard work. Who wouldn’t love rain-sensing wipers, which come on when the heavens open? Or snuggle into the heated and air-conditioned front seats? When the weather’s nicer, the power rear sunshade and rear manual side sunshades help keep the cabin cool. Of course, the rear ventilation and audio controls help make the ride more comfortable, as well as entertaining, for those in the second row.
But there’s more.
Like 18-way power front driver and passenger seats with articulated back, side bolster and thigh-support controls; four-way lumbar; and driver- and passenger-seat memory. The test car’s cabin, trimmed with high-gloss espresso-colored wood and camel-colored semi-aniline leather, was particularly fetching.
As a part of the cold-weather package, the car had a heated steering wheel, always welcome on frosty mornings. You would also appreciate the high-intensity heater, which heats up instantly, not to mention the windshield wiper de-icer.
As you have gathered by now, you’d be comfortable no matter what the weather.
But if there’s any doubt, simply take your screen’s controller and toggle to the Lexus Enform service, which offers up weather forecasts and radar, along with traffic reports, stock prices, sports scores and apps from your smartphone.
You can do all of this while ensconced in a cabin that’s roomy and welcoming. The front saddles are wide and firm, if a bit flat. They are very comfortable for multi-hour tours. In the back, legroom is a little more limited. A wide transmission tunnel makes this a better choice for two, although three can squeeze in.
But you know that Lexus has always offered opulent interiors, and this one is one of the best. What makes this new ride notable is how it performs. This luxury ride is more than simply stunning good looks.
Available in rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations, the new GS no longer sports a V8, offering only a 305-horsepower, 3.5-liter double-overhead-cam V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. A hybrid version, the GS 450h, will be offered as well, with a power output of 338 horsepower and EPA ratings of 29 mpg city, 34 highway.
Still, the GS 350’s performance is nothing to scoff at, with zero to 60 mph coming up in 5.7 seconds with rear-wheel drive and 6 seconds with all-wheel drive while returning EPA figures of 19 mpg city, 28 highway with rear drive and 19 and 26 with all-wheel drive.
The fully loaded all-wheel-drive test car returned almost 25 mpg, impressive given its size and performance. It’s more than sufficient to keep you in the front of the pack during the pokey parkway sprint.
But it’s the way this car feels that’s impressive.
Lexus’ Adaptive Variable Suspension allows the driver to choose among four modes: Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+. The car is always set to Normal when you start it, meaning that if you have a preferred mode, you must reset it each time. Eco dulls the car’s movements noticeably, while Normal feels closest to a traditional Lexus, with a supple ride and some softness over bumps. Sport and Sport+ noticeably firm up the suspension and eliminate body motions. The ride is firm but far from uncomfortable. The transmission reacts faster, although there are steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for drivers who prefer to row through the gears themselves.
The electric power steering filters out most road feel, but it’s nicely weighted, getting progressively heavier as speed builds.
But this comfort doesn’t come at the expense of its handling dynamics, with a reasonably athletic feel that doesn’t trade one for the other. Tackling twisty corners can be done rather easily in Sport mode. But if you’d rather cruise, Normal will bring the serenity you crave.
And while driving, you’ll notice something: wind noise. There isn’t any. The new GS is as quiet as a college library on a Saturday night. The exception? When you request some extra ponies with your right loafer. The exhaust note snarls with a symphonic perfection that’s music to your ears.
The 2013 Lexus GS 350 is a deft balancing act, one that serves two masters. The car accelerates quickly but can return up to 28 mpg in highway driving. It can carve through corners or serenely sail down the interstate.
And it does it with a character many Lexus products have never displayed before.