Back in the Game: Mid-Level Sedan Becomes Relevant Again
Through October 2011, sales of the Lexus GS luxury sedan were a paltry 3346 units, less than half that of the crosstown rival Infiniti M (8813) or the slowest-selling German, the Audi A6 (7890). Worse yet, compared with the big boys, the BMW 5 Series (43,040) and Mercedes-Benz E-Class (52,340), the GS was barely a blip on the radar. Lexus’ onetime prominent player, which debuted back in 1993 and won our Import Car of the Year award in ’98, has become a forgotten entry. That’s a trend Lexus is aiming to reverse.
Enter the fourth-generation 2013 Lexus GS, restyled and reengineered to jump-start that reversal when it goes on sale in February. But “restyled” seems an inadequate description, as the highly evolved L-Finesse design language, with its prominent “spindle” grille, LED light treatment, and 7 Series-esque rear end, is such a radical departure from the previous car. But given current GS sales numbers, Lexus needed radical. Controversial for sure, the grille, which resembles that of Schwarzenegger’s Predator, looked even more extreme on the LF-Gh concept. It’s been toned down for production, now appearing — dare I say? — cool.
The GS’ chiseled body is made of a mix of aluminum, high- and ultra-high-strength steel, and hot-pressed steel, the last boasting a tensile strength so high that it can’t be cold-stamped. (HPS is used in the B-pillar and roof for increased side-impact and rollover protection.) All in all, Lexus claims the body is stiffer (up 14 percent in torsional rigidity) and lighter, which helps keep curb weights to what they were before. Better still, the body’s clean shape, along with such aero tricks as undertrays with longitudinal ribs, nets a Cd improvement from 0.27 to 0.26. Dimensionally, the new GS is 0.7 inch wider and 1.2 inches taller (1.4 for AWD), although wheelbase (112.2) and overall length (190.7) remain the same.
Step inside the GS, and the interior’s transformation is as great as the exterior’s. Utilizing a new wiring system and electronics, Lexus was able to construct an all-new dash, center stack, and console, all trimmed in richer wood, aluminum, leather, and soft-touch plastics. The result is Lexus’ most appealing and advanced interior to date. Of note are a redesigned gauge cluster with a 3.5-inch TFT display; momentary-type wiper and signal stalks, the latter offering the three-flash lane change; a console-mounted remote-touch controller for infotainment a la the RX and CT 200h; a head-up display; and a huge 12.3-inch multi-information screen that shows navigation, audio, HVAC, and Enform 2.0 functions. If the display doesn’t sound that big, consider that it’s the same size as the entire gauge cluster on the new Cadillac XTS. As for Enform 2.0, it connects through a smartphone, allowing passengers to use such apps as Yelp and Facebook. And lest I forget, the cabin boasts sizeable bumps in headroom, hiproom, and rear shoulder room (legroom is down slightly).
The volume seller will be the rear-drive GS 350, which is fitted with a 3.5-liter, 306-horse V-6 and six-speed automatic, and priced from around $48,000. Unlike its predecessor, the new 350 is available in Luxury and F Sport trims – the former piles on the full luxe treatment (wood and leather steering wheel, rear audio controls, 18-way power front seats, adaptive suspension), while the latter brings the complete sport suite (redesigned fascias, 19-inch wheels with staggered summer tires, larger brakes, perforated-leather interior, aluminum trim and pedals, and dynamic handling with variable-gear-ratio steering).
All-wheel-drive variants, using a center differential with multiplate clutch pack that can vary the torque split from 50/50 front/rear to 30/70, will bridge the sales gap between the RWD 350 and the GS 450h hybrid. Speaking of the 450h, it ups the ante with 338 horsepower (total output from 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6 and two electric motors) channeled through a high-tech CVT, delivering combined fuel economy of over 30 mpg – all from a sedan that can hit 60 mph in about 5.6 seconds. And what about the V-8-powered GS? Gone. Lexus feels the hybrid is plenty peppy to satisfy power-mongers, and cites that 95 percent of segment buyers opt for a V-6 anyway. If anything, Lexus may eventually bring to the U.S. a 2.5-liter, 207-horse V-6 available in other markets.
At the GS press preview in Southern California, I began with back-to-back stints in rear- and all-wheel-drive preproduction 350s. On dry roads, both felt decidedly similar, with each delivering nice, linear action and decent feedback from the new electric power steering system. The revised front control-arm and rear multilink suspension, both of which feature more aluminum pieces, kept body motions well in check and provided a composed, comfortable ride. The 3.5-liter is pleasingly powerful — supplying enough gusto for 0-60 in around 6.0 seconds — hybrid-quiet at idle, yet makes itself known under WOT, thanks to an “intake sound creator” that sends mid- to high-rpm music directly into the cabin. The carryover six-speed now comes with standard shift paddles, so accessing manual control is easier than ever. That said, shift speed and smoothness seemed a little behind that of today’s top seven- and eight-speed boxes, including the Lexus LS’.
Next up, the F Sport, Lexus’ answer to BMW‘s M Sport package. Although the front-end treatment is arguably a bit much, the overall appearance is stealthy and mean, a facade that should make many Euro-brand enthusiasts take notice. With 265/35R19 rear tires – the widest ever for a GS – and 235/40R19s up front, the F Sport felt firm, planted, and crisper than the base 350. For a small dose of adrenaline, dial the drive-mode selector to Sport, which heightens throttle response and turns the meter display from blue to red. Want a big dose? Select Sport Plus, and the variable suspension, transmission, and steering all amp up accordingly, delivering the tautest, most agile GS. Unsurprisingly, the ride suffers in Sport Plus, but not so much that it tarnishes the handling gains on a twisty road. Expect pricing to come in around $55,000.
The F Sport is Lexus’ answer to BMW’s M Sport package
Last, but certainly not least, is the 450h, which I found to be the most significant GS. Smoother, quieter, quicker, and more seamless than its predecessor, the 450h is an impressive engineering feat, offering the power and speed of the previous V-8 GS 460 combined with the fuel economy of the current 1.8-liter Corolla. Fuel economy, estimated at 29/34 city/highway, is better than that of the Infiniti M35h and the Mercedes E350 BlueTEC. The GS 450h also feels the most special of the lineup, due in part to an exclusive bamboo-trimmed interior that’s about as elegant and green as a Japanese garden. Bottom line? About $60,000 to start and pushing $70,000, if equipped with such options as Mark Levinson audio, navigation, and Luxury Package.
Active safety features on the GS include an available blind-spot monitor, Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning, night vision, and a precollision system. Ten airbags, including dual front knee bags, provide passive protection.
In light of the previous gen, the new GS represents advancements in refinement, performance, fuel economy, technology, and luxury. Further, the hybrid positively raises the bar among premium hypermilers, as it’s a deftly executed best-of-both-worlds four-door. Yet, with a standard V-6 that puts out mid-class power, a behind-the-curve six-speed, and a front end that some will deem scary, the GS is a sizeable step forward, not a huge leap. At the very least, Lexus can count on double, maybe even triple, the sales as well as an entry that will not be soon forgotten.
|2013 Lexus GS|
|BASE PRICE||$48,000-$60,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINES||3.5L/306-hp/277-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6, 3.5L/286-hp/254-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 24-valve V-6, plus 180-hp front and 200-hp rear electric motors, 338 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed auto, cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3800 – 4200 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||190.7 x 72.4 x 57.3-57.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6-6.0 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||19-29/26-34 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||116-177/99-130 kW-hrs/100 mi (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.62-0.90 lb/mi (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||February 2012|