2013 Lexus GS First Drive

Lexus finally gets its sport sedan right. But is anyone still listening?

What It Is/ Who It's For: The 2013 Lexus GS is a tech-savvy sport sedan for those who want Lexus refinement and BMW passion.

Best Thing: Is it the 12.3-inch media display, or the snarling intake and exhaust note?

Worst Thing: The GS is a good looking car, but it isn't the head-turner Lexus envisioned.

Snap Judgment: Genteel GranTourer is a competent 5-Series alternative, maybe more.

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Introduction

Lexus engineers might forgive you for thinking the current generation GS is bland. In fact, at the media launch for the next-gen touring sedan, Yoshihiko Kanamori, Chief Engineer for the 2013 Lexus GS, said the current car is "not fun to drive." We're not sure if that was an apology, but it was an honest realization which begat an important study culled from the Japanese phrase "Genchi Butsu," which, when translated, means "Go and see."

And so five years ago, Kanamori-san and his team did just that. They drove the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the BMW 5 Series, and the Audi A6. From this experience, Kanamori-san determined that the next GS needed to possess an emotionally-intriguing driving experience, a new design direction, both inside and outside, an advanced hybrid technology in lieu of V-8 power, and the smartest packaging in the segment. The result is a completely redesigned grand touring sedan with what Kanamori-san says has "no compromises."

We'll reserve judgment on that when we score more wheel time, but with such lofty sales expectations -- 20,000 units first year goal; Lexus sold 206 GS' in November, and just 3552 so far this year -- we're primarily interested in seeing how it fares against the class-leading Germans. It turns out, surprisingly well.

For 2013, there are two engine options, but Lexus refers to the lineup as having four models: GS 350, GS 350 Luxury, GS 350 F-Sport, and GS 450h. The base model GS 350 arrives with a reworked 3.5-liter V-6 and either rear- or all-wheel drive. With 306 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission, Lexus projects 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway rating in Eco mode, 2 mpg better than the current model, thanks to an advanced injection system and other tweaks. For a more premium ride and better mileage, the GS 450 Hybrid returns with 338 horsepower and a 29 mpg city/34 mpg highway rating, a 35-percent mileage increase compared to the 2011 model.

At the moment, there is no high-powered performance model to compete with the BMW M5, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, or Audi S6, but the GS 350 F-Sport, with its four-wheel steer system, S+ transmission and engine mode, and aggressive suspension and wheel package, figures to be an attractive sporty option, nonetheless. More importantly, the platform is lightweight and flexible should Lexus introduce a high-performance GS-F, as it did with the IS-F.

The 2013 GS hits showrooms in February, and prices will be released later this month.

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Walkaround

The biggest exterior change to the new GS is a distinctive new nose, arguably a handsome and substantial improvement. In fact, the "spindle" grille will be, from this point forward, Lexus' signature look. It isn't as iconic as BMW's twin-kidney grille, but it is perhaps a more striking proclamation, the kind of visual cue that announces its presence from down the street. Elsewhere, though, the redesigned GS looks like every other Lexus sedan, but with less chrome. But isn't being less identifiably Lexus what the company was aiming for? And will consumers see nothing, if not "nose job?"

Sitting Down

If the exterior is little more than a nose job, it's because Lexus focused a great deal more attention on what lies underneath. The front seats are, according to Lexus, "whiplash lessening." That sounds cool, maybe a little complex, but the soft perforated leather is supportive on a spirited drive, doesn't require an endless number of positional tweaks, and provides commanding access to the steering wheel. And that's important, too, since seating position was designed with less obstructive pillars in mind, which enable better front and rear visibility than the previous GS, which was apparent on the race track and on the freeway getting there.

Better outward visibility is commendable, but there's more to see inside, too. Although the GS dimensions are largely unchanged, the interior feels and sounds cavernous, thanks to the optional 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio package we sampled, which may be the most-impressive sounding OEM audio setup ever. As impressive as the audio was, it takes second seat to the game-changing horizontal instrument panel. Featuring the Lexus' revamped "Remote Touch" mouse and a laptop-like 12.3-inch infotainment display, it includes the latest in iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio and SMS text-to-speech. It also has the latest version of Enform, with Bing search ability, and Yelp, Pandora, and movietickets.com access. The display only comes with the optional Luxury Package on the base model, in addition to the optional navigation system, but we think it's worth it.

We spent less time in the back seat, where Lexus claims to have improved entry and exit. Of course, you might still bump your head as I did, but once there we enjoyed playing with the flashy rear climate controls. There's also room for four golf bags in the trunk, an amount of space that could easily support a trip to Costco.

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Driving

Our first drive began with a GS 450 Hybrid and a 50-mile cruise up a local mountain road that's a favorite of motorcyclists. Around town, the hybrid motor is quiet and its integration from electric to gas engine is smooth and strong. I switched between Eco, Normal, and Sport S modes without hiccup, allowing the transmission to control economical or sporty gear changes on its own. The paddle shifters worked as they should, holding a gear as desired without intervention. Upon entering the freeway, I was amazed at how small the GS felt. It's not a small car, but its battery weight is well-packed, hardly hindering its 338 horsepower from a burst of onramp acceleration, which Lexus claims is good for a 5.6 second dash to 60 mph. In the mountains, the hybrid felt surprisingly nimble, and free of boat-like sway, thanks to the adaptive suspension settings. At its softest, in Eco and Normal modes, the drive was leisurely and comfortable. At its stiffest, in Sport S mode, road imperfections became accentuated, but not harshly so.

The GS 350 AWD Luxury model I sampled next wasn't as impressive, at least not in Southern California's warm, dry climate. There's nothing really wrong with it, and it functioned well, but it just didn't seem necessary compared to the rear-wheel drive base model. It felt heavier than the more-powerful hybrid and wasn't as thrilling around town, though Lexus claims it is an important model in the lineup for the regions where all-wheel drive is a seasonal necessity. Fortunately, it should return very close to the same fuel mileage as the base, rear-wheel drive model. As with the hybrid, road and wind noise were minimal, as typical of Lexus sedans. But an interesting new noise, however, is the sound horn in the engine's intake tract that amplifies the exhaust note. It isn't overly racy or obnoxious as it is addictive and smile inducing.

Finally, I rounded out my day by driving both the base GS 350 and the GS 350 F-Sport at the race track, and comparing them back to back with the 2011 GS 350 AWD, BMW 535i, and a Mercedes-Benz E350. Lexus engineers had set up an autocross course, essentially a single-lane track consisting of orange cones and comprising of multiple styles of corners and medium-length straights, to test the handling, braking, and acceleration characteristics of the new GS against the competition. Although it was definitely the most fun I had in the day, from a consumer perspective, the upshot is that Lexus has engineered a truly dynamic sport sedan. The GS 350 F-Sport will likely be too radical for most consumers, with its staggered and grippy 19-inch wheels, stiffened suspension, and racy trim details. But on the racetrack, it is well composed, well-balanced, and exhilarating. On the street, well, with the transmission selector modes, the choice is yours.

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Summary

The new GS is good, and parts of it are great. But is it enough to unseat its German rivals? On looks alone, the GS is a flashier version of typical conservative Lexus. We're taking a wait and see approach in whether consumers in this segment will take to the mild redesign, especially after the original sporty concept sketches. But if they do, they'll be rewarded for what they find beneath the sheetmetal. Lexus has delivered a sport sedan that is every bit as dynamic as similarly-equipped competition, and have included a host of as yet unmatched technology features.

For our money, and our southern California climate, the GS 350 and 450h are the standouts. The GS 350 F-Sport is an exceptional-handling sports car on the race track, but in the real world, it's hard to argue anyone needing, or wanting, more than the excellent base model or hybrid.

Spec Box

GS 350/ 350 AWD: 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway
GS 350 Luxury/ 350 Luxury AWD: 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway
GS 450h/ 450h AWD: 29 mpg city/ 34 mpg highway

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