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2013 Lexus GS350, GS450h Review
New GS well equipped to steal mid-size luxury crown
By Derek Kreindler, Photography by Toyota, Nov. 23, 2011

For all of Lexus' success with its RX, ES and IS models, the company's GS mid-luxury sedan has never been able to keep pace with their other models, let alone major competitors like the BMW 5-Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class. For the 2013 model year, Lexus has completely redesigned the GS, with a 180 degree departure from the dowdy GS of years past.

FAST FACTS

1. GS350 models make 306-hp, are rated at 19/28 mpg and can hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, while an AWD version is rated 19/26 and 6.0 seconds.

2. The GS450h gets a total of 338-hp, achieves 29/34 mpg and can hit 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds.

3. An F-Sport package adds a 16-way sport driver’s seat with power side bolsters, 19-inch wheels, an upgraded Adaptive Variable Suspension, larger brakes and custom aerodynamics.

4. A Drive Mode selector lets the driver choose between Normal, ECO and a Sport mode with better throttle and transmission response. A Sport S+ on the F-Sport and Luxury packages also improves steering response, firms up the adaptive shocks and reduces the interference from the traction and stability control systems.

Gone are the V8 powered models available since the car's first major redesign in 1999. Lexus says that the GS450h Hybrid provides all the power of a V8 with a 31 mpg combined rating, and with the general trend of downsizing in the industry, it's a gamble that may pay off. After all, the current cachet of a hybrid in this era is about the same as a V8 would have been in less environmentally conscious times anyways.

ALL-NEW LOOK OUTSIDE, SHOCKINGLY GOOD INSIDE

Starting with a new design language that Lexus calls "L-Finesse", the new GS makes a clean visual break from the almost fastback proportions of the old car. The new GS looks more like a stretched out IS, and while the smaller car's stubby proportions make this look work, the larger GS loses some of the elegance, with the rear view strongly resembling a Hyundai Sonata.

Inside, the GS is leaps and bounds above the previous car, as well as the BMW and Mercedes that were on hand for comparison. Natural looking wood, high quality leather and a large 12-inch LCD screen are the highlights of the cabin, while the driver and passenger are swaddled in plush bucket seats with available 18-way adjustment. The rear seats are significantly roomier than the outgoing car, which was a longtime minus against the GS among consumers and critics alike. Plus, hybrid models get a redesigned battery pack that allows for more trunk space.

2012 Lexus GS350 Interior

PLENTY OF NEW TECH

2012 Lexus GS350 Entune System

The GS also has a new built-in app suite as part of the Entune system, with integration via the driver’s cell phone that allows for one to access popular apps like Pandora, Yelp and MovieTickets.com without leaving the car. A cloud-based voice recognition system saves users from having to scroll through endless menus, but transactions cannot be completed unless the vehicle is in park. The app suite, as well as other functions like climate controls, the stereo system and the GPS navigation system, are operated by a revised version of Lexus' computer mouse-style control “Touch Tracer” stick. We found this to be rather difficult to use, as the unit lacks precision and adequate tactile feedback. Accurately selecting one of the functions is difficult while stationary, and can be borderline dangerous while driving. There are buttons and knobs to use as well, but the control stick is clearly the focal point of the cabin, and its lack of intuitive use is a sore spot for the GS.

A Lane Departure Warning System is also available, and uses the Variable Gear Ratio Steering system to keep the car in its designated lane, similar to what Infiniti and some German automakers offer – unfortunately the packed 405 Freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour wasn’t the ideal time to see what the system was made of.

V6 OR HYBRID

Lexus has never been known for dynamic handling or blistering acceleration, but the GS performed admirably on our Southern California test loop that included canyon roads, the Pacific Coast Highway and an autocross course at the now defunct El Toro air base. The GS350 has a lovely, melodic engine note past 3000 rpm, thanks to a series of enhancements made by Lexus engineers for this purpose alone. Two powertrains, a direct injection 3.5-liter V6 making 306 horsepower is the standard engine, while a revised hybrid powerplant featuring a 286 horsepower V6 and a 52-hp electric motor (338-hp combined) acts as the top end model, replacing the outgoing V8.

2012 Lexus GS450h

While the power may be there on paper, the character of the two cars is starkly different. The hybrid's CVT gearbox produces the typical "motorboat" effect of holding a constant rpm, but depressing the accelerator at highway speeds produces ample thrust for even the most velocity hungry driver. The standard V6, by contrast, works well in conjunction with its standard 6-speed automatic gearbox to deliver a relatively rapid pace.

Both vehicles suffer from the usual Lexus ailment of poor brake pedal feel, with the hybrid in particular suffering from the double affliction of requiring regenerative braking capabilities to be factored in as well. The GS450h's pedal is difficult to modulate - there is only a few millimeters of travel before the pedal goes rock hard. GS F-Sport models are equipped with 14-inch monobloc front calipers, but we didn't notice any improvements in performance from them.

DYNAMIC, BUT A DRIVER’S CAR?

2012 Lexus GS450 Drive Mode Select

While the steering lacks the tactile magic of the BMW 5 Series, the chassis does a good job of communicating what the car is doing, giving the driver clear indications of understeer or oversteer (a rare but satisfying occurrence). Excellent ride quality is another Lexus hallmark that's carried over to the new GS, but we found that models with more aggressive tire packages sent far too much road noise into the cabin.

We tried using the Drive Mode Select feature – a rotary knob that allows for normal, sport or economy-minded driving modes – and found that the changes largely came in terms of throttle response in the sport modes. Gear changes and throttle responses are sharpened but the differences are hardly enough to justify fiddling around with the knobs for any extended period of time.

On the El Toro handling course, we were able to put the F-Sport against the previous GS, the BMW 535i and the Mercedes-Benz E350 (Lexus strongly discouraged us from taking one of the standard cars onto the makeshift track). Notably absent were the Infiniti M37, Jaguar XF and Audi A6. We found that the F-Sport was more than a match for the previous GS and E-Class, but the 535i, with mediocre all season tires, still felt superior. We wonder how a base GS350 would have fared on the course, let alone a 535i with a sport package.

2012 Lexus GS350 F-Sport

Lexus touts its Lexus Dynamic Handling (LDH) technology as the driving force behind the F-Sport’s performance. LDH is novel in that in addition to co-coordinating the car’s steering system and braking functions, it also uses a rear-steering feature to turn the rear wheels as much as two degrees in either direction. Lexus claims that qualities like maneuverability, high-speed stability and overall handling are enhanced, but the effect was imperceptible to us – although perhaps that’s the idea. The best automotive technologies do tend to work silently in the background, but we weren’t given an adequate opportunity to truly judge the system’s effectiveness for ourselves.

THE VERDICT

The Lexus brand has always had a strong premium image, but for one reason or another, the GS has failed to catch on. The new GS, with a full suite of trims including hybrid, AWD and luxury package models should help the car blanket all corners of the market.

2012 Lexus GS350 Rear

At the time of our drive, Lexus didn't announce pricing for the GS, but did say that it would undercut German rivals by an aggressive margin. It's worth noting that in addition to our heavily choreographed drive route, the vehicles tested were pre-production prototypes, but still extremely close to what will be offered in showrooms in 2012. Based on our seat time with other rivals (save for the new A6), we can surmise that the GS offers excellent value, a beautiful cabin and enough performance for all but the hardcore BMW faithful for whom anything less than the Ultimate Driving Machine is unacceptable.

LOVE IT
  • Sharply dialed-in chassis
  • Interesting tech breakthroughs
  • Strong straight-line performance
LEAVE IT
  • Steering a bit numb
  • Hybrid re-gen braking still unpleasant
  • Stretched IS styling may not work for everyone

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