By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Nov 5th, 2010 @ 12:00 pm
 
Like that pesky honor student who always sat in the front row, was first to raise his or her hand to answer a question and never seemed to score below an A on an exam, Lexus has managed to become teacher's pet in nearly every segment in which it competes. Its luxury cars have been a hit with consumers for more than 20 years, but there's one crucial segment where Lexus hasn't made much of a dent: Midsize luxury cars.

It's a tough class that spans the globe from Detroit to Sweden to England to Japan and, of course, to Germany.

Lexus' GS range has promised everything from Italian design to a tantalizing demeanor, but it has never been a major player. To figure out why, we borrowed a shiny new 2011 Lexus GS 460 sedan from one of the automaker's regional distributors, Gulf States Toyota.

What is it?
Now nearing the end of its third generation, the GS slots in above the sporty IS and below the luxury-laden LS. It's sized about like the tremendously popular ES 350, but the GS offers rear-wheel-drive and a much higher price tag - not to mention the optional V8 seen in our tester.

Its basic style is derivative of the original Giugiaro-penned 1991 GS300 (a rebadged Toyota Aristo), but the latest car was introduced for 2006. Smoother and suaver than the second-generation GS - notable for its Shakespearean "Something wicked this way comes" ad campaign - the S190-platform car retains the two-engine configuration of its predecessor.

As enthusiasts, we jumped at the range-topping GS 460 with its 342-horsepower 4.6-liter V8. A hybrid - dubbed GS 450h - was briefly on offer before sluggish sales forced its removal from the North American market.

What's it up against?
Equipped with a V8 engine, the GS' biggest traditional rivals come from Germany - namely the BMW 550i and Mercedes-Benz E550. But can-do home-market competitor Infiniti's new M56 presents serious competition, as does the shapely Jaguar XF.

Any breakthroughs?
As the oldest offering in its segment, the GS 460 doesn't exactly brim with unexpected touches. But at $60,490 as tested, it offers a surprisingly good value. Our tester included radar cruise control and Lexus' Pre-Collision System, which prepares the car for an impending wreck. We tested the latter but not the former.

An advanced eight-speed automatic also comes standard on the GS 460, a byproduct of sharing its powertrain with the mega-buck LS 460.

What's it look like?
The current GS continues the theme introduced more than a decade ago with Lexus' subtle-but-shapely original GS 300. A bulbous greenhouse and tall tail give it a more distinctly recognizable design language than can be seen in any other Lexus product; this GS is clearly linked to its predecessors, while other Lexus models seem to reinvent themselves with each redesign.

Quad headlamps first debuted on the second-generation GS, but they have been squared off for round three. Intricately detailed, they are wrapped in chromed plastic and blend nicely into the signature Lexus grille.

The swept-back five-spoke alloy wheels, finished in a light graphite shade, were especially rich.

No, the GS isn't as suave as Infiniti's newest M and it's not as stoic as Germany's BMW and Mercedes offerings, but it has a light-on-its-feet appearance that still manages to blend uptown sophistication with simple style. We wish all Lexus sedans were this stylistically balanced.

And on the inside?
Here's where the GS is starting to show its age. Conventional switchgear contrasts with the ever-complex interior configurations found in the rest of the segment. Where rivals have touch screens and buttons galore, a base GS (not our tester) features simple climate and audio controls. With the optional navigation package, Lexus' standard - and rather dated - touch screen display is added.

In fact, while the Infiniti M practically brags about its technology, the GS tucks away many of its secondary switches in a stow-away bin just left of the steering wheel. The mantra here seems to be simple luxury.

Don't think that the GS' design doesn't look and feel upscale, however. Materials are top notch throughout, if a little conservative in their selection compared to rivals. A richly burled wood grain and a traditional felt-like headliner stand in contrast to the matte or suede finish exotic materials found elsewhere.

The more cramped proportions give the GS' senior status away, too. The sloping roofline cuts deeply into head room and rear seat ingress and egress. At least the four outboard seats are comfortable and supportive, boasting aggressive bolsters and fine leather trim.

But does it go?
With less horsepower on tap than its V8 rivals, the GS 460 won't win stoplight races. That hardly means that it's a slouch, however, its eight-speed automatic firing off quick shifts even when left in standard mode.

By the numbers, the V8 puts out 342 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, but its 339 lb-ft. of torque peaks at a fairly low 3,600 rpm. It's also certified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle, complying for ULEV II standards - a fair achievement for a V8 sedan.

The big V8 is a paragon of smoothness, emitting a muffled but sensuous growl under hard acceleration but barely making itself known otherwise. So, too, is the aforementioned transmission. Eight gears might seem like a lot, but the GS shuffles its way through them with minimal fuss or drama. Sport mode - accessed by slapping the shifter to the left - turns up the wick and locks out higher gears.

Lexus puts 0-60 sprints at 5.4 seconds and suggests that the quarter mile comes by in just under 14 seconds.

Further adding to the GS' sublime performance is its ride. Adjustable shock absorbers offer two perceptible modes, a comfort-oriented Normal and a sport-oriented, well, Sport. Naturally, Sport firms up the ride and reduces roll through corners, while Normal features a more Lexus-traditional smooth ride. Simply put, the GS was unflappable over even the most undulating terrain we could find. Its 18-inch Yokohama rubber isolated and coddled us, but made no enemies when we wanted to drive more aggressively.

Not so the GS' steering, which offers more feel than the Mercedes-Benz E550, but far less than BMW's 550i. The GS is precise and and easy to control, but falls just short of being genuinely fun.

Fuel economy isn't a big draw in this class, but, for the record, we averaged around 19 mpg in town and saw as high as 26 mpg on highway journeys. That's a bit higher than the 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway suggested by the EPA.

Why you would buy it:
Classy and refined, the GS is aging remarkably well.

Why you wouldn't:
Newer offerings from Germany and Japan are more fun and more feature-laden.

Leftlane's bottom line
We expected to be able to easily write off the GS 460 given its age and Lexus' general aversion to enthusiastic driving. But a week behind the wheel of the smooth and capable GS revealed a surprisingly complex and enjoyable luxury sports sedan. For most buyers, its positive attributes, like its unflappable demeanor and unparalleled refinement, will probably outweigh its technical and dynamic demerits.

That it's a veritable bargain in its class makes it all the more appealing as a below-the-radar sports sedan.

2011 Lexus GS 460 base price, $54,470. As tested, $60,490.
Luxury Value Package, $2,945; Pre-Collision System and Radar Cruise, $1,500; Rear spoiler, $200; Intuitive parking assist, $500; Destination, $875.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.