GS – It’s a Lexus heart attack

June 1, 2012, 10:39 am

It’s one thing to cover all the bases, another to be truly coveted. The fourth generation Lexus GS is seeking true love. Is it finally the car of your dreams?


SECOND opportunity – yeah, I know, lucky, lucky guy - to experience the stunning LFA supercar, this time on New Zealand tarmac, provided a powerful personal reminder about the Lexus persona you thought you knew.

Lexus GS350 F Sport in Crimson - by black wall

There’s nothing like sitting in a 320kmh and $970,000 future-now carbon chassis coupe whose 412kW V10 engine, when at full battle cry, comes spine-chillingly close to replicating the sound – and perhaps some of the sensation – of Formula One-ish frenzy to be reminded that the brand that kicked off with a single model 25 years ago now not only spreads in all directions, but can also deliver above and beyond the call of duty. When it wants to.

I guess that was the impetus for Lexus New Zealand deciding to airlift out of Melbourne the LFA owned by their Australian counterpart – one of just 11 roaming Australia and the very car I drove at Sandown circuit late last year – and allowing journalists to experience it around the Hampton Downs track yesterday.

A streaming wet and thus somewhat slippery surface meant all the LFA driving was left to Australian rally and race driver Neal Bates. That might seem a bit spoiler, but from my firsthand wheeltime at Sandown last year I know the LFA is not to be taken lightly.

Assuredly Bates was earning his keep on my four lap run. Even in the hands of a driver who has put in several thousand kilometres of LFA track time, it was hard work. Every exit line was an exercise in containing lurid oversteer and some patches of standing water on the straights were triggering wheelspin.

Same place, previous day. A dry track and this time we were blasting around in the new Lexus GS sedan. Not QUITE as exciting as the LFA, admittedly, but worth the effort all the same.

We were out to check the veracity of this maker’s assertion that this wholly-fresh new fourth generation model, while outwardly seeming to have no more commonality with the LFA than a tabby does with a tiger, in fact does have some of the monster coupe’s fighting spirit. So onto the track we went.

Lexus GS350 F Sport in Crimson - rear by cafe

And …. well, good and bad. Good news is that they’re right: This GS does have a playful side. Not so positive is that, due to certain Lexus-isms that the maker just can’t seem to let go, it’s not as much fun as a certain Munich make that, while never directly identified, is very patently the barometer.

Actually, with GS, two out of three weren’t too bad, and the other should really have been kept in the pits. You’re thinking that I’m referring to the GS250, the new baby model using the IS250's 154kW/253Nm 2.5-litre direct-injected V6 and therefore the first of the breed to have a sub-3.0-litre engine. Actually, no.

Quite the opposite. The pure petrol models –the other being the GS350, with a brand new 233kW/378Nm all-alloy quad cam 3.5-litre – sustained being chucked about, revved to the limit and late-braked with no obvious issue.

In hindsight the track time was ultimately too much of an ask of the flagship petrol-electric GS3450H, also with a 3.5-litre V6 but in 215kW/352Nm form and married to a 147kW/275Nm electric motor and battery pack.

Though the fastest off the line (6.3 seconds, versus 6.7 and 8.8), the gruntiest on paper, and unsurprisingly the thriftiest (with claimed optimum economy of 6.3 litres per 100km and emissions of 139 grams per kilometre against 9.7/225 and 9.3/215), the world’s first hybrid sporting sedan still comes up short under extreme punishment, because it is ultimately challenged by the same issues as the old car.

One is weight. Even though the battery pack is smaller and more centrally located, it and electric motor still add another 170 kilograms over the petrol-powered GS350, taking it to 1901kgs. It hauls it well – acceleration really is impressive - but hauling up is another matter. That shows up the issue with the car’s constantly variable transmission – a necessity, because the orthodox six-speed auto in the other models doesn’t work in a petrol-electric marriage. This CVT, like all of its ilk, fails to provide any useful engine braking.

Lexus GS350 in Meteor - by curved building

So all the retardation is left to the brakes. It’s a big ask when you’re hot-lapping. After four drivers had each put in three fast, late-braking laps, the stoppers were overcooked and soon after the hybrid drive system threatened to do likewise. An in-car message alerting to the latter was a white flag.

Out on the public road, a slightly different story. Here, still, the GS250 is the model that retains the sweetest feel, but unsurprisingly has to be worked hardest. The GS430H when kept on easy-going roads, runs especially quietly, is very refined and frugal, but tends to lose composure on more demanding sections. So, as before, the main thrust of ownership might be that it assuages Green concerns, because the exhaust outputs are incredibly low. For driving pleasure, though, I’d still rather have a diesel.

And the GS350? Again, the best of the three: Again, there’s a touch more body roll than you might determine necessary, but the handling is sure-footed and delightfully – naughtily – throttle-adjustable, it turns in well and the engine simply delivers a wonderfully broad range of muscle. It’s the one Germany should fear most, though not wholly. Even here the steering is woefully lacking in feel, and while grip is very good, the car still doesn’t communicate as well as it might.

But, yes, it’s clear the brand claim that GS has picked up at least some genuine sporting spirit and enthusiast appeal is more than just marketing rhetoric.

What lifts the game? One interesting development is to deliver rear-wheel steering, which was all the rage with Japan Inc 20 years ago, though the setup is a far cry from the sometimes crude systems of the past. This time complex electronics that link all the modern dynamics controls such as electronic stability and traction control to finally deliver on the technology's promise.

It alternates between turning in the opposite direction to the front wheels at speeds under 80km – albeit by small degrees – to the same direction over that speed to assist high-speed stability and handling, with tangible effect around some of Hampdon’s corners.

Lexus GS350 saddle tan interior with luxury package - dash

GS also goes big on electric assistance. It has a new, less intrusive version of Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system; the fancy Lexus descriptive for an electronic stability control. It also delivers a selectable drivetrain programming that tailors a car’s feel at the push or turn of a switch.

The GS setup comes standard with three toggle-selected driving modes - Normal, Eco and Sport S plus, with F-Sport, Sport S-plus.
This special driver-oriented additions translate to more body control and confidence, while reducing the stability control’s intervention threshold (though not enough). The gearbox joins in with faster shifts and downshift throttle blips.

The purely petrol engines are mated exclusively to a revised version of the Lexus six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Where's the eight-speed from the LS and IS-F? Engineers reportedly deemed this unsuitable for the driving character they wanted. Does that translate to: The eight-speed wouldn’t atune so well to the peaky V6? Whatever the case, it’s not a strong selling point. Six-speeds aren’t special any more.

At 4849mm long, 1839mm wide, 1455mm high and with a wheelbase of 2852mm, the all-new Lexus GS is 1mm shorter, 19mm wider, 25mm taller and has a 2mm wider wheelbase than the previous model.

The biggest dimensional change is to the track, which is 40mm wider at the front and almost 50mm wider at the rear, promising a more poised stance and enhanced cornering ability.

That 3.5 is stunning in its technology - featuring both direct and port sequential fuel-injection – and output, developing 50kW more power and 66Nm more torque than the smaller 3.0-litre engine of the old generation.
What you’ll immediately remember it for is the snarl; it sounds fantastically rorty when extended. Allowing that, alone, is quite a big step for Lexus, so long a master of silence.

Lexus GS250 in Silver - rear by shoe shop

There’s a caveat: Every car I drove was had the F-Sport enhancement fit out that adds $7000 the GS250, which kicks off at $102,900 and the $134,900 (GS450h) and $8000 to the $117,900 GS350.

If you’re a Lexus fan who is into driving, F-Sport is something you’d never do without.

You’d potentially put it ahead of the optimum Luxury spec that applies only to the GS350 and petrol electric, and bumps them to $143,400 and $159,400 respectively.

Admittedly, at the moment the fan base is relatively small. With just 10 percent luxury market share annually since 2006, Toyota’s bent-L brand has a much smaller slice of the pie than BMW, Audi and Benz.

However, Lexus New Zealand manager Debbie Pattullo and her boss, Toyota New Zealand CEO Alistair Davis, believe GS in particular, and the fresh styling and engineering aims that in time will sweep across every Lexus and are encapsulated by a new NZ-specific Japanese language marketing line, Kokoro wo Komete (‘soul meets machine’), will fuel significant growth this year.

LNZ is specifically tasking its six-strong GS range with claiming a 17 percent slice of the medium-sized luxury sedan sector, with 100 unit sales for the remainder of the year. It’s a big lift as presently the brand has one fifth of that count.

Lexus GS at HD 2
One immediate strength of the new car is its styling, especially bold up front where the key ingredient is the new tight-waisted ‘spindle’ grille but also very handsome in profile. The rear end is also distinctive, though perhaps a little derivative. Patullo visibly blanched when I ventured that my driving partner and I thought that the tail was rather Hyundai i45-ish.

Anyway, what you see for the first time here will be eventually spread across the entire family. It seems incredible that it was taken Lexus to twig that common styling traits are a good thing, but there you go.

The new model is about the same size as the old one, but seems roomier inside, though Lexus insists it is a four-seater, not a five, so shapes the back seat accordingly. Headroom in the rear is good but toe room remains tight for passengers.

The boot is a lot bigger but the rear seats don’t fold down in the petrol models to allow carriage of long items. They can’t in the hybrid because the batteries reside between the seatback and boot wall.

The interior is to usual Lexus standard; the brand claim that its cars are checked off by ‘master craftsmen’ seems a bit far-fetched, but you’d be hard-pressed to look for obvious assembly flaws.

Ergonomically, too, it’s reasonably sound, and at least that concept of hiding buttons away in a flip-out compartment has been dropped. Still, there do seem to be many buttons and some are awkwardly located It’s not good when you pull what appears to be the interior boot release and instead pop the bonnet. This all started, by the way, because the boot opening mechanism still lacks an external trigger.

The GS also takes a revised version of Lexus’s computer mouse-style multifunction control. It’s more intuitive but still imperfect because the full phone and sat nav functionality can only be operated when the car is at a standstill. The highest spec features a massive 12.3-inch LCD screen while others get an 8.0-inch item. Oh, yes, there’s also a new analog clock.

Lexus GS at HD 1

F-Sport also enlivens the look. In addition to the usual styling enhancements inside and out, the kit also adds larger wheels (increased from 18 to 19 inches), commensurately lower profile rubber, firmer spring and damper settings and, on the GS350 and GS450h, a computer-controlled dynamic handling system with an addition ‘F sport plus’ setting on the adaptive suspension and variable-geared electric steering.

As for the luxury pack? Well, it does seem very expensive, but then it also packs in every bit of glam Toyota technology; from the pre-crash system and dynamic radar cruise control that used once be standard on all high-end Lexus sedans, to 18-way electric front seats and a head-up display.

On top of this there’s opportunity to upgrade yet again. For $3600 the standard 12-speaker Panasonic stereo is swapped for a 17-speaker ‘wake the neighbours’ Mark Levinson system.

It’s worth noting that the standard car is hardly in poverty pack spec, with leather, full electrics, blind spot monitoring, park assist and full Bluetooth and sat nav looks to cover quite few bases already.

Davis says Lexus will continue to push into advanced technology including hybrids – “they will remain a core feature for us” - and also deliver a stronger focus on “emotional driving pleasure, trying to make the car and driver feel as one.”

The GS is heading down the right track; one already taken by the IS-F and a car that’s way in the lead, that stunning LFA, but would benefit from further refinement. Sharper steering, the facility to allow the traction and stability controls to be properly muted and perhaps a sportier transmission would help.

What’s next? Reports out of the United States suggest a GS coupe is coming in 2014. Davis has downplayed this, but let’s hope it’s true. Though niche, coupes are brilliant at engendering the emotional appeal Lexus clearly craves.

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