Early next year, Lexus will start selling an all-new GS. While the production car’s styling has not yet been revealed, it was previewed by the LF-Gh Concept at this year’s New York auto show. That design was certainly polarizing, and while it has many critics, some of us feel that the new design language will translate well from the show stand to the street. We’ll find out next month when the car is revealed at Pebble Beach. The prototype 2012 Lexus GS350 we drove was fully camouflaged inside and out, but we spent considerable time behind the wheel and the changes are obvious.
FROM THE DRIVER’S SEAT The 2012 GS’s dashboard is a huge improvement over the current car’s, with far more luxurious-feeling materials and an enormous, 12.3-inch widescreen LCD screen. The screen is controlled by Lexus’ now-ubiquitous mouse-type controller located to the right of the shifter -- and that’s not necessarily a good thing. We find the controller difficult to use, requiring far too much fine muscle control and precision to land the pointer on the desired icon. And that’s when parked. Like in other Lexus vehicles, the interface is even more difficult in motion -- especially when on bumpy roads.
Those other controls that weren’t covered by vinyl camo look easy to use, though we’re guessing the center stack is missing those vital radio preset buttons. Still, the white-on-black gauge faces are highly legible, and the dash materials, replete with contrasting stitching, look very expensive. The previous GS’s popout control panel (by the driver’s left knee), and metal gauge faces have been ditched.
The driving position is very BMW (i.e. perfect), with all primary controls easily reachable and the steering wheel positioned perfectly to hold at nine and three o’clock. Though overall length remains the same, an all-new platform gives the GS twenty-five percent more trunk space and a larger back seat. Additional width assists in both elbow room and handling, and headroom has been increased thanks to a lower seating position.
POWERTRAIN Lexus provided very few details about the powertrain, other than that the 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic carry over. The six-cylinder is smooth through most of its operating range, though like almost all V-6 engines, it gets coarse as it approaches its maximum speed. The automatic is a gear or two short of this segment’s status quo, and its gearchanges aren’t nearly as smooth as in cars with ZF automatics. Lexus engineers did admit that the GS’s transmission calibration wasn’t yet final.
Butt dynos are notoriously difficult to calibrate, but ours indicated that the new GS350 felt a tick slower than the current GS350. Lexus says the new car’s weight gain is insignificant and due mostly to additional equipment -- and comparably equipped, the new GS is actually lighter than the last one, thanks to additional use of lightweight materials. A V-8 model will not be available this time, but there will again be a hybrid GS.
ON THE ROAD In addition to the more expensive-feeling cabin, the GS immediately feels a full class richer thanks to its far quieter ride. Lexus engineers stressed that the new platform offers a substantial improvement in rigidity, and this manifests itself with less chassis flex over bumps and far less impact noise. Tire noise is also far reduced versus the last GS.
Like the last GS, the 2012 uses electric power steering, but the similarities end there. The new system is far quicker, slightly heavier, and feels vastly more natural, with effort building as you dial in more lock. There is some feedback on-center, but our route was confined to ultrasmooth pavement with very little camber change or surface irregularities -- we’ll make our final judgment when we drive the GS in the real world. Brake feel is another area where the previous GS trailed its competitors -- especially the GS460, with its electrohydraulic brakes. The new GS350, like the past V-6 model, uses conventional hydraulic brakes, but the feel is more positive and natural -- and like before, anti-lock intervention cannot be felt in the pedal. (This is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your personal taste.)
An optional sport package called Lexus Dynamic Handling System, or LDHS, contains active dampers and four-wheel steering with variable-ratio rack. With or without the system, the GS shows exemplary body control and a smooth ride. The old GS’ harsh ride is gone without a trace -- though again, our drive was confined to smooth roads. The V-6’s exhaust is audible from behind almost all the time, but fades away into the background under leisurely cruising. Under load, a surprising amount of intake noise combines with the exhaust making lots of pleasant music.
ON THE HANDLING COURSE Lexus set up a coned course for us to explore the GS’ handling prowess -- and to compare it to the old car. We have considerable experience with the previous GS on autocross tracks, and that car always surprised us with its neutral handling and ultimate capability -- though it lacked any kind of feedback. Familiarization runs in a 2011 GS350 reminded us of that fact. It also reminded us about the GS’s loose rear end, sometimes sticking like glue, sometimes coming quickly unstuck when you didn’t expect it. In my notes, I wrote “She’s quick, but she’s a big ol’ mess.”
The 2012 GS demonstrates a marked improvement in handling, especially at the rear end, where a completely revised suspension offers predictable responses in all situations. The new GS earned a solid A on the autocross course, always willing to rotate and resisting understeer like a champ. Body lean, though visible in the photos, is controlled well enough that it’s all but imperceptible inside the car. And the new car’s dramatically quicker steering made tight curves far less work to navigate.
The new GS equipped with LDHS (Lexus Dynamic Handling System) was even better -- the active steering and rear-wheel steering combine to make the effective steering ratio even quicker, and thus equipped, the GS feels even more lithe. In quick transitions, you can feel the rear-wheel steering a half-beat behind, but such conditions are unlikely in the real world. The system is, like Infiniti’s, nearly transparent. The LDHS car was also equipped with upgraded brake pads, which were slightly less grabby than the base pads and allowed better modulation.
It should be said that both of the cars we drove wore summer tires (235/45-YR18 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires on the base GS; Bridgestone Potenza RE050As in 235/50-YR19 and 265/35-YR19 on the LDH-equipped car.) All-season tires, on eighteen-inch wheels, will be standard.
LESSONS FROM THE GERMANS Alas, nobody’s perfect, and the GS isn’t, either. Our first, and biggest, complaint was already addressed: that of the hard-to-use mouse pointer for the infotainment system. Further, it seems that Lexus has learned a few lessons imitating the Germans, and frankly, they would have been better off ignoring them.
First up is the BMW-style turn signal stalk (the stalk always returns to the center rather than staying where you left it; a computer controls the cancel function). The GS’ chief engineer defended the system saying that European customers want it, but we find conventional turn signals work better -- especially in the case of Lexus’ first attempt: the GS forces you to actuate the turn signal in the wrong direction to cancel a signal. (BMWs now allow you to cancel by actuating the switch in the same direction.)
Second is the rotary drive mode selector. On the surface, customizing the driving experience seems like a good idea, but BMW learned a while back that many customers are confused by the hundreds of choices offered by their chassis setup systems -- and dumbed them down to just a few modes. Modern BMWs can be put in Comfort, Normal, Sport, or Sport Plus modes (and, technically, DTC/TRAC, which reduces traction control intervention, and DSC Off, which turns stability control off.)
The GS follows a similar strategy, offering Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ modes. The problem is that there’s not nearly enough of a difference between the modes. Paying extra close attention, we could barely discern a difference in ride quality or body control between Normal and Sport+, and we suspect Lexus buyers will also never know – and will wind up ignoring the button.
And that leads us to the big question: WILL THE GS CHANGE LEXUS?
During this preview, multiple Lexus staffers, including the GS’ chief engineer, hinted that it’s this car’s mission to change Lexus’ public perception. Apparently, Toyota has realized that Lexus cars don’t generally appeal to the same enthusiast crowd that lusts after its German competitors. Upping the performance game, the company thinks, will change this.
I’m not sure I agree. The BMW 5-series is the performance benchmark in this segment, but the reasons go far deeper than a 528i’s capabilities. They go beyond a 550i’s capabilities, too. And even an M5’s. The 5-series is the car to beat because the company’s whole identity is wrapped around driver involvement, pushing the performance envelope, and developing new technologies. That’s certainly not the case with Lexus -- a company focused on American-style luxury, which is often the exact opposite of what BMW concerns itself with. And with no V-8-powered GS-F performance halo, Lexus will have an even harder time.
Remember, Lexus’ big seller is the RX crossover. And the ES sedan -- a gussied-up, front-wheel drive Camry. Lexus has become the Buick of today’s fiftysomething generation, which is certainly not a bad thing -- but the idea of Buick as a sports sedan is as strange as Lexus making a supercar. And we all know how that turned out.
We look forward to driving the production GS350, and we’ll readily admit that the GS might well equal the BMW 5-series in measurable performance. And given the current 5-series’ uncharacteristically dead steering and aloof, overly refined nature, maybe it’ll even beat the Bimmer in objective measures. We don’t, however, expect the GS to change the public’s perceptions about what Lexus stands for. That’s probably a good thing: Lexus has developed an enviable reputation for producing genuinely high-quality, reliable cars. If those cars can close the performance gap to the Germans without compromising the quiet, smooth, reliable luxury, everybody wins. We’ll keep you posted.