Open your automotive history primer to "Chapter 14: Why Mercedes-Benz Peed Its Pants" and you'll find that Lexus cracked the luxury market almost overnight back in 1989.
But while the ES and especially the LS were instant successes that charted a new course for the premium market, Lexus has never made serious inroads with its GS line against midsize rivals BMW 5-Series
and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
An essentially all-new GS 350 for 2013 promises to shake things up a bit, and while this isn't the first GS we've ever gotten excited about, it is arguably the most interesting.
What is it?
When Lexus pushed its LS flagship upmarket in the 1990s to take on Mercedes' S-Class, a void in the middle of the market opened up. The brand launched its highly-anticipated, Giugaro-penned GS 300 for 1992 to a collective "meh" from both the motoring press and public alike. A subsequent redesign a few years later infused the GS with some pizazz, but even a brilliantly Shakespearean "something wicked this way comes" ad campaign couldn't topple the 5-Series or the E-Class.
Lexus laid down another bunt a few years later with the third generation model, but there was some real excitement built around the redesigned-for-2013 GS you see here. For the most part, that comes from Toyota's soft-spoken heir and CEO, Akio Toyoda, who committed to adding enthusiast appeal to the automaker's product. As we've seen in the Scion FR-S
, Toyoda's promise wasn't empty. But could he revive the suffering GS?
In addition to its new looks inside and out, the GS gains a much more buttoned down suspension and the option of an even more enthusiast-oriented F-Sport package for the standard rear-wheel-drive model. A 306-horsepower version of Toyota's ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 is standard; last year's V8 is gone entirely. Our tester was a snow-belt friendly, heavily-optioned GS 350 AWD provided by Toyota's Gulf States distributor in Houston.
A GS 450h hybrid is also available.
What's it up against?
Once a segment with few all-wheel-drive offerings, now nearly every luxury automaker sells a model that sends power to all four wheels.
With its all-wheel-drive ability, our test GS 350 squares off nicely against rivals like the Audi A6
3.0 quattro, the BMW 535i xDrive, the Infiniti M37x and the Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic.
How does it look?
The latest GS' only link to the past is in its C-pillar treatment, which vaguely recalls the original Italian-designed model. But the GS is as expressive now as its plump-looking great grandfather was understated 20 years ago.
Lexus' "L-Finesse" styling language is evident throughout, especially in the GS' front fascia. Tautly pulled, as though it is holding its breath, the GS doesn't exactly drip with beauty, but it does finally stand out. Lexus' new signature "spindle" grille is on board, wrapped in only a hint of chrome. Sharp LED running lamps swoosh across the lower half of the head lamps. From the side, the proportions are a bit awkward, but the detailing is a delight. Big mirrors might seem incongruous, but they are offset by the gently flared fenders.
The GS' rear is our favorite, although its tail lamps seem to draw heavily from the Hyundai Sonata
even if they are more delicately finished. We also really like how the tail pipe surrounds are integrated into a racy rear spoiler.
Undoubtedly, this is a Lexus midsize sedan like none before.
And on the inside?
A clear sense of design cohesion not necessarily always seen in the luxury segment permeates the GS 350's interior. By that, we mean that its pinched look - love it or hate it - very much carries through to the inner trappings.
Lexus took a wholly unique approach to its interior design language. Instead of switchgear grouped in a stacked, vertical plane, everything is low and spread out horizontally before spilling over to a high center console. The result is a myriad of tightly-grouped buttons, but an instant sense of familiarity makes nearly everything feel like home.
The heavily stylized dashboard isn't particularly cosseting at first glance, but there's a subtle sense of driver focus. A thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel with integrated paddle shifters adds to the sporty orientation.
Unfortunately, there are a few ergonomic miscues. No matter how we adjusted the steering wheel, a display for the crash-sensing system blocked out the odometer. Then there's the infotainment system, which is managed by a mouse-shaped joystick next to the gear lever. The system is less cumbersome than some German rivals, but we still wished for a panel of radio preset buttons. We remain impressed with Lexus' app-based Enform infotainment and its industry-leading smartphone connectivity, however.
Despite its midsize girth, the GS isn't overwhelmingly roomy inside. Rear seat passengers have ample shoulder room but leg space is tight. So too the front passenger's quarters, thanks in part to an extra central hump to clear our tester's all-wheel-drive hardware.
On the materials front, the GS could be the leader of the class. Glossy wood trim with a hint of metallic sparkle was the highlight, nearly overshadowing the excellent leather quality and the attractive titanium/gold-tinted trim that doesn't feel like the plastic that it is.
But does it go?
Toyota's 3.5-liter V6 remains one of the more underrated powertrains around. Even tasked with hauling around about 4,000 lbs., the 306-horsepower, 277 lb-ft. of torque GS 350 AWD is a rocketship. Officially, Toyota quotes the sedan at 5.8 seconds in the 0-60 sprint, and we believe every bit of it. Mid-range acceleration is strong, although it doesn't quite match the turbocharged twist of the BMW 535i.
Fuel economy, on the other hand, isn't a strong point. The GS 350 AWD guzzles premium at a rate of 19/26 mpg, or an average of 21 mpg. We essentially matched the EPA's estimates, eking out 27 mpg on a highway jaunt. That's still on the low side for the segment.
A six-speed automatic transmission is down a gear or two compared to spec sheet-leading rivals, but it delivered rapid-fire, ultra-smooth shifts whenever called upon. And, unlike a few German competitors, it didn't require a brain surgeon to operate the gear lever. A manual mode can be accessed either by rocking the gear lever or flapping the steering wheel-mounted paddles. We generally found that the transmission was just fine when left in drive.
A control knob just aft of the gear shift in the center console dials up a quartet of modes: Eco (forces drivers to press the gas pedal harder for acceleration), Normal, Sport S (faster shifting and a more aggressive throttle) and Sport S+ (a firmer suspension and more taut steering). Naturally, we preferred Sport S and S+, both of which change some of the gauge cluster lighting to a zesty red shade when engaged.
Even left in Normal, the GS' steering felt pleasantly weighted and nicely direct. Sport S+ tightened things up to a degree, although it did not bring any extra feel to the party. As a result, the GS has a slightly disconnected feel evident primarily when pushed hard through rapid canyon-like switchbacks. The steering is rock-solid on center, but it becomes a little too darty on initial turn-in, a point made more obvious by the utter lack of body roll. In fact, the GS' road-holding isn't unlike that of BMWs of yore - before the brand switched to run-flat tires and compensated with overly soft suspensions. Light on its feet and ready for action, the GS is a hoot to push hard. If only its tiller was a match for the Bavarian giant. Maybe Toyoda-san needs to send a few FR-S engineers over to the Lexus department.
In the more sedate driving most drivers are most likely to encounter, the GS' firm but not punishing ride and thoroughly composed demeanor make it feel like the premium car that it is. Grip is stellar, as we'd expect from an all-wheel-drive machine. Wind and road noise are non-existent at highway speeds, although there is a mild, piped-in growl from the engine bay to remind drivers that Lexus is done being the Novocaine of automakers.
Why you would buy it:
Finally, the Lexus GS lives up to its wicked
Why you wouldn't:
You've been burned by bland GSs in the past.
Leftlane's bottom line
Although it isn't perfect, the Lexus GS 350
is a vastly more characterful machine than before. Dynamically at the top of the class, the GS gets more interesting with every mile.
And that's especially high praise for something from Toyota, an automaker that reveled in building anonymous transportation devices for decades.
2012 Lexus GS 350 AWD
base price, $49,450. As tested, $65,299.
Blind spot monitor, $500; Heads Up Display, $900; Luxury/Night Vision package, $8,290; Mark Levinson audio, $1,380; Navigation, $1,735; Pre-Collision System, $2,000; Trunk mat, $105; Cargo net, $64; Destination, $875.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.