"What a great car." That's the first sentence in the logbook of our Four Seasons Lexus GS430, and it's a pretty bold statement to make when your audience is a bunch of automotive journalists with an uncanny ability to ferret out a vehicle's hidden flaws. Still, it's easy to see why that editor was so impressed by our newest long-term test vehicle. Completely redesigned for the 2006 model year, the third-generation Lexus GS features updated styling both inside and out, a new suspension system, upgraded safety features, and a host of advanced electronic systems. All-wheel drive is also newly available, a first for a Lexus sedan, but only on the V-6-equipped GS300. Sounds great so far.
For our test, we opted for the rear-wheel-drive GS430, which is powered by a 300-hp V-8 paired to a six-speed manu-matic transmission. The base GS430 comes nicely equipped with traction and stability control, heated and power-adjustable leather seats, wood interior trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and a seven-inch multi-information touch screen. The base price is $51,775. We, of course, specified several options, among them run-flat tires, a Mark Levinson audio/navigation system ($4030!), and rain-sensing wipers, which brought the total to a whopping $58,814.
It turns out we could have done without a few of those options, because rather than enhancing our affection for the vehicle, they diminished it. For one, the rain-sensing wipers never seemed to work as advertised. "The automatic wipers take too long to react to changes in rain intensity and never seem to find the right speed. There's no manual intermittent setting, so you end up manually turning them on and off. It defeats the purpose," noted assistant editor Sam Smith. A small nit to pick, admittedly, but still a valid complaint on an almost-$60,000 car.
For another, the pricey navigation system had a bad habit of prescribing a route that was neither the quickest nor the most direct. Senior editors Joe Lorio and Joe DeMatio found that out firsthand when returning from our Automobile of the Year test in Zanesville, Ohio, last year. The Lexus's nav system wanted to send them on a 302-mile route back to Ann Arbor when, according to MapQuest, the distance is only 249 miles. Other staff members found that the system would give up the ghost if they took a wrong turn.
And as for the low-profile, run-flat tires, we found that they made the GS430's ride unusually harsh on bumpy roads--even with the adaptive variable suspension tuned to the normal rather than the sport setting.
Still, the car handled pretty well, its lightweight control-arm front suspension and multilink rear setup delivering predictable cornering behavior despite some lack of feedback from the speed-sensitive electronic power steering. Getting up to speed was no problem, owing to great off-the-line throttle response and the transmission's willingness to downshift with little provocation (especially in sport mode).
Slowing down, on the other hand, was a completely different matter. We're not fans of electronic braking systems, and the GS430's was no exception. "I know that these brakes are sensitive, but do I really need to test the seatbelt every time I tap them?" inquired assistant editor Erik Johnson. "They act like an on/off button. You have to relearn how much pedal pressure to apply practically every time you get into the car."
Speaking of getting into the car, the levels of equipment and the quality of fit in the GS430's interior were what we've come to expect from Lexus. We appreciated thoughtful storage solutions like the double-scissor hinge on the center console and the door pockets that fold out. The seats were comfortable, the high-quality leather showed very little wear, and the controls were intuitive, although headroom was in short supply even for drivers of average height and the interior lighting was far too dim.
Several people complained about the drop-down panel to the left of the driver's knee, which contained mirror adjustment buttons, trunk and fuel-filler releases, and various other secondary controls. Not only was it positioned in a location hidden behind the steering wheel, but several drivers banged their knees on it when entering or exiting the vehicle. However, it did serve to unclutter the dashboard, and if this were a single-driver car, the panel would likely remain in the stowed position most of the time, alleviating the complaints our multiple-driver pool cited.
There was some disagreement over the polished walnut trim, which one staffer described as coming from "a disco-era love den" and another likened to a material from an even earlier era, saying it looked like Bakelite plastic. Copy editor Adrienne Newell begged to differ, saying that she "liked the drama" of the deep reddish color.
The GS430's exterior styling didn't elicit many mentions in the logbook, but it did get a second look from a fellow loiterer in the airport pickup lane who exited his vehicle and slowly circled the car while seemingly memorizing its shape. And one staff member went so far as to say it looked "taut and ready to pounce on its massive wheels." In the end, for all the talk of Lexus's new L-Finesse design language, which is supposed to fuse Italian design-house style with Japanese simplicity, we didn't find the GS430's lines particularly compelling.
While not 100 percent trouble-free, for the most part the Lexus lived up to its reputation for reliability. We brought the GS430 in for regularly scheduled maintenance every 5000 miles, with the most expensive visit totaling $344 at the 15,000-mile mark. The only other out-of-pocket expenses were for the purchase and mounting of winter tires and the replacement of a damaged wheel and tire (our fault). The headliner also was replaced under warranty.
The only other problem was what we thought was a faulty tire-pressure indicator. After double-checking the pressure in all four tires, we tried to figure out how to reset the light. Having no luck locating a reset switch, we took the car to the dealership, where we were informed that a two-position switch located under the glove box allows you to register two sets of tires. The toggle had been inadvertently switched to the secondary mode, triggering the faulty indicator warning. If only the owner's manual had contained that information, we could have saved a trip to the service department.
So, after 365 days and 24,327 miles, do we still think the Lexus GS430 is "a great car"? Perhaps great isn't the proper adjective. The GS430 is a car that's perfectly enjoyable to drive both around town and on a long trip, with a very satisfying powertrain and a good reliability record. Like the Audi A6 we reviewed three months ago, the Lexus GS430 is a luxury sport sedan that leans more heavily toward the luxury side of the equation than the sporting side. For most buyers, that's all right. For us, though, it's not quite good enough. We'll continue to look for a car in this category that perfectly blends the two.