Competing in the heavyweight heart of the luxury market, the Lexus GS has often stood in the shadow of rivals like the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes-Benz E-class, and the Audi A6. More so than the upper end of the market, where the LS does well, or the entry-luxury segment, where the ES is quite popular, the mid-luxury market prizes driving dynamics. Thus, for Lexus GS chief engineer Yoshiko Kanamori, who was attempting “to move the GS into the heart of the luxury market,” the number one way to do that was to give the new car an “emotionally intriguing driving experience.”
Increasing the emotional appeal of the GS was also the impetus behind the new styling. Like it or not, it does stand out more than any previous GS. The pinched grille, which Lexus refers to as a “spindle” grille, is a key element of the new face of Lexus; expect it to quickly spread throughout the company’s lineup. A new F Sport package further turns up the visual wattage with more aggressively styled lower front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler, a unique grille texture, and nineteen-inch wheels.
The car’s overall length and wheelbase remain the same, but width has increased by less than an inch. That has led to a noticeably wider cabin, and the horizontally oriented dashboard plays up that fact. The new interior is much more modern-looking than its dowdy predecessor. Cars with navigation -- which is optional but is expected to be in nearly all cars -- get a huge, twelve-inch split screen. (Cars without navigation have an eight-inch multi-function screen instead.) A raft of newly available options brings the GS into the modern age; they include a head-up display, night vision, blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and a driver-drowsiness monitor. The interior is notably richer than before, and there are padded surfaces covered in stitched leather on the dash, the sides of the console, the center armrest, and the door panels. LED ambient lighting is standard, three two-tone color schemes are available, and the trim bits are matte wood, bamboo (for the Hybrid, naturally), or wavy-textured aluminum (in the F Sport). Highly comfortable, multi-function power seats, with extendable under-thigh support and articulating backrests, are included with the luxury and F Sport packages (the F Sport seats add adjustable lateral support). The overall effect is luxe and modern, and nudges up against Audi and Infiniti at the top of the class.
The ultrawide screen has great resolution and, smartly, is split asymmetrically, with the larger portion usually given over to navigation and the smaller side still able to show audio info, HVAC details, or hybrid system monitoring. The Lexus Remote Touch mouse controller has been improved, in that you now simply push down on it to select “enter” rather than pushing a button on the side, although it still requires more concentration to use than most knob-style controllers. There are a few physical buttons, for the climate control and for some audio functions, with knobs for volume and tuning, but we’d still like to see more functions outside of the screen, such as navigation zooming and audio presets. The large center console houses the heated and cooled seat controls; two cup holders under a dampened lid (which, strangely, doesn’t sit flush when closed); a knob to select drive modes; the nicely shaped gear lever; and a wide center armrest. Order the luxury package, and rear-seat passengers get their own audio controls (which can be locked out from the front) and climate controls. Rear-seat space has improved slightly and offers good headroom and generous knee clearance, but footroom under the front seats is tight.
Whir the power seat into place, then do the same with the power-adjustable steering column, and you’ll find that the seating position is very good, with a large dead pedal and good forward visibility. (Rear visibility is not great, but of course a backup camera is standard). The meaty, three-spoke steering wheel encourages you to grab hold at nine and three.
Punch the ignition button in the GS350 and the carryover 3.5-liter V-6 fires up. Revised engine management has yielded a token improvement in output, to 306 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. A drive select knob alters throttle response, although the differences are subtle. The engine intake has been altered to channel more sound to the cabin, and indeed, there is a notable growl at mid and high rpm. Lexus has elected to stick with a six-speed automatic transmission (with standard shift paddles) despite the fact that seven- and eight-speeds have become common in this class. Even so, engineers were able to eke out a 2 mpg improvement in fuel economy, to a respectable 19/28 mpg.
We can’t talk about fuel economy without mentioning the GS450h. The hybrid’s engine is still 3.5 liters, but it’s now a more efficient, Atkinson-cycle V-6, and that helps the new GS hybrid realize a major improvement in fuel economy. Whereas the previous GS450h got a rather embarrassing 22/25 mpg, the new car is rated at 29 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Compared with the standard GS, then, the hybrid provides an additional 10 mpg in the city and a 6-mpg improvement on the highway, making it a much more credible proposition than the previous version. Its also demands fewer tradeoffs, with regenerative brakes that are far easier to modulate than before -- they still don’t feel as natural as conventional brakes, but they’re not bad for regenerative brakes. Also, a repackaged battery eats up less trunk space.
Despite Lexus’s goal to make the GS more of a driver’s car, the V-8 offering has been dropped. The hybrid, with 338 total horsepower, is now the most powerful GS, and Lexus executives express the hope that it might satisfy buyers who come looking for a V-8. We doubt it. Admittedly, we’re not talking about a lot of people (the take rate for the V-8 was in the single digits), but throttle response with the CVT and the fact that you can’t get all-wheel drive or the F-Sport package with the hybrid mean that it’s not likely to satisfy a V-8 intender. Also, the GS450h’s greater horsepower is offset by its 400 extra pounds, so acceleration is really no better than with the standard V-6 (5.6 seconds to 60 mph, according to Lexus, versus 5.7 for the GS350).
Unfortunately, the F Sport also offers no additional performance -- it has the same powertrain as any GS350 -- although Lexus is giving F Sport greater credence than it used to. Previously, F Sport performance bits were available on a piece-by-piece basis, with eye-watering price tags ($3025 for the front brake upgrade, anyone?). Now, F Sport is a package, and while it has no powertrain changes, its mechanical upgrades include adaptive dampers, variable-ratio steering, staggered eight- and nine-inch wide wheels with high-performance tires (eight-inch-wide wheels and all-season rubber with AWD), and larger front brake rotors with higher-friction pads. Also exclusive to the F Sport -- as an option -- is four-wheel steering.
With a base suspension, an adaptive suspension, and a firmer adaptive suspension (in the F Sport) -- the latter two offering standard and sport modes -- there’s a lot of different permutations to the new GS chassis. But on our drive through the Orange County suburban sprawl, on a short section of the twisty Ortega Highway, and even on an autocross course, our overall impression was that the bandwidth of the various suspension iterations was in fact pretty narrow. With the adaptive suspension, for instance, the difference between the two modes was discernible, but just barely. Commendably, however, even the F Sport’s firmer setting delivered a comfortable ride over what little bad pavement we could find; and in the standard setting the car still felt tied down on the Ortega Highway switchbacks. Four-wheel steering, which can be off-putting because it creates a second yaw moment for a given steering input, instead was well-integrated and made the car slightly more agile through the slalom course. In real life, however, its more useful benefit may be its fractionally shorter turning circle.
All GS iterations use electric power steering, and it’s improved over the previous version. Cars equipped with active suspension also have selectable steering effort. Unfortunately, the higher steering effort and the firmer damping are called up together, with Sport-plus mode, so you can’t combine the higher-effort steering (which you might want all the time) and the mellower suspension (which would be preferable on bad roads). That said, the steering is fairly quick and it does load up as you add more lock, but it’s still somewhat artificial feeling and muted in its feedback. Again, we were happy that the variable-ratio system in the F Sport does not call undue attention to itself, à la BMW’s available active steering. Speaking of BMW, though, there was a 5-series on hand at the autocross course, and its steering did feel more natural -- and the 5-series hardly provides the ultimate in BMW steering -- and the BMW chassis, although more tail-happy, also seemed more progressive when it let go.
“We’re not trying to make a BMW,” insists Lexus U.S. boss Mark Templin. Which is good, because they haven’t. The new GS, however, does notably improve what was one of the brand’s most confused offerings. The GS350, particularly the F Sport, shows real progress in making a more rewarding driver’s car. And the GS450h is a far more efficient and less compromised hybrid. There is, however, room to take the GS further in the sports direction, with turbocharging or supercharging, additional gears, and a still more focused chassis. But Lexus insiders insist that the 2013 GS is the beginning of a journey for the brand, not a destination, so we’ll just have to see where it leads.
2013 Lexus GS350
Base price: $49,000 (estimated)
Body style: 4-door sedan
Construction: Steel unibody
Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.5 liters (211 cu in)
Power: 306 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel, 4-wheel
Fuel economy (city/highway): 19/28 mpg (RWD), 19/26 (AWD)
Steering: Electrically assisted
Turning circle: 34.8 ft (33.2 ft with 4-wheel steering)
Suspension, front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Ventilated discs, ABS
Wheels: 19x8-inch front, 19x9-inch rear aluminum alloy (F Sport)
Tire size, front: 235/40R-19
Tire size, rear: 265/35R-19
L x W x H: 190.7 x 72.4 x 57.3 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Track F/R: 62.0/62.6 in
Headroom F/R: 38.0/37.8 in
Legroom F/R: 42.3/36.3 in
Cargo capacity: 14.3 cu ft
Weight: 3795 lb
Fuel capacity: 17.4 gal