PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA Like a glacier gaining momentum, Lexus spent a decade selling its first million cars. The second million took four years. Even without any new cars for the past three years, by the end of last year, Lexus had trimmed another six months off the time required to move a million vehicles. To keep the snowball growing, four new Lexus sedans are arriving in the next eighteen months. First in line is the GS sport sedan we recently hustled through Southern California’s entertaining San Jacinto Mountains. Taking a bead on class leaders BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Lexus general manager Denny Clements hopes to quadruple GS volume, boosting its market share from 5 to 14 percent.
Such bold aspirations would be ludicrous for any other maker. But when push turns to dog fight, Lexus shows mean teeth. To shift the GS from serene softie into snarling 5-series and E-class threat, chief engineer Shigetoshi Miyoshi increased unibody stiffness 10 percent, teamed a new 3.0-liter V-6 with the existing 4.3-liter V-8, added a sixth gear to three automatic transmissions, and stretched the product matrix by adding all-wheel drive. Then he spent a leisurely forty months polishing his list of dream features.
The radar-based cruise control has the authority to apply the brakes when a collision is imminent. The variable-ratio, electrically assisted steering automatically corrects for wind gusts and stability lapses. To keep all-wheel-drive GSs trudging ahead, they’re fortified with brake-based traction control and a computer-controlled limited-slip center differential. The doors unlock and the engine starts with the key fob in your pocket, and the trunk lid closes at the touch of a button.
It’s a pity more time wasn’t spent sculpting a svelter wrapper. The oversized L in the grille, the rib-tickling beltline, and extra-long overhangs add visual weight that forged-look wheels, Hofmeister-kinked C-pillars, and the Bangle-bustled trunk lid can’t shake.
The GS300 is slightly larger than its predecessor, but you’d never guess it’s also 100 pounds lighter-at least, until you slide behind the wheel.
Belt up, and the GS flaunts athletic legs. The new direct-injection V-6 growls authoritatively, climbing to a 6500-rpm redline while delivering 245 hp. The manu-matic six-speed works so intuitively keeping the engine happy that few will long for a clutch and an H-pattern. The power steering-electronically regulated though it may be-provides a firm handshake with the road. Handling trumps ride on the priority list, so body motion quickly settles after any disturbance.
Even though it’s burdened with an extra 124 pounds, the all-wheel-drive edition turns in crisply and its 0-to-60-mph sprint is only a tenth of a second slower than the rear-wheel-drive car’s 6.8-second run. What Miyoshi’s engineering team has wrought is the first Lexus with the nerve to run with the big dogs. (Tune in next month to see how the $51,185 GS430 fares against the V-8 blue bloods.)
The GS300’s $42,900 base price buys French-stitched leather seats, a smattering of fine woodwork, eight air bags, and a seven-inch touch screen in the dash. The lavish options list includes DVD navigation, dealer-installed XM radio reception, and a Mark Levinson audio system with 330 watts powering fourteen speakers. All-wheel drive adds $1950 to the tab.
Interior ambience borders on German austerity, partly because of an effort to rid the dash and console of clutter. A drop-down panel to the left of the steering wheel files away fifteen switches. That seems like a fine idea until you crane your neck adjusting the rearview mirrors or have to push two buttons to unlatch the trunk or fuel flap. Lumbar and lateral support is superb, but the seat cushions could use more under-thigh foundation. Likewise, the driver’s dead pedal feels peglike under a size-10 sole.
These are minor lapses in an otherwise well-executed sport sedan. The GS300’s combination of attractive price, luxurious furnishings, and hunger for the road are exactly what it needs to prove Denny Clements prophetic.
On sale: Now
Price: $42,900 (base)
Engine: 3.0L DOHC V-6, 245 hp, 230 lb-ft
Drive: Rear-wheel (standard), 4-wheel (optional)