2013 Lexus GS 350 Road Test

The 2013 Lexus GS 350 sheds its predecessor's boring skin and emerges as a bona fide luxury sport sedan.

What It Is
A true midsize luxury sport sedan alternative for those tired of BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz
Best Thing
The first Lexus in years that feels special.
Worst Thing
We don't own one.
Snap Judgment
The best car Lexus currently builds.


What makes a luxury car worth its price?

Objectively, there's little reason to pay extra for a luxury brand. Cars are terrible investments, after all, and it's not like a $60,000 luxury sedan is twice as good as hauling people and things than a $30,000 family car. Sure, a luxury car will have more features and nicer leather, but rationality tells us to buy the cheaper car, and then put that extra money into a college or retirement fund.

Yet people have no problem spending big money on cars, and the reason is as simple to state as it is complicated to explain: Emotion.

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Take the 2013 Lexus GS 350. This is the best car Lexus currently makes, maybe the best it has ever made. Shattering the longstanding myth that Lexus cars are little more than warmed over Toyotas, it is without question the equal of the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and Audi A6 against which it competes. It achieves this not just because it matches them in performance and features, but because it hits the emotional high points that ultimately distinguish luxury cars from lesser vehicles, and which have evaded Lexus for so long.

This is the first Lexus in a very long time that simply feels special when you drive it. It's more than the result of filling in checkboxes on a product planner's competitive feature set. That's how Toyotas are made. Instead, this Lexus feels like its designers let passion get the better of them, but without losing sight of those cold numbers. The result is that Lexus has finally made a car that not only connects on the emotional level you expect from a luxury car, but somehow makes its $57,000 as-tested price seem like a bargain in the process.

What We Drove

The 2013 Lexus GS 350 we drove was actually a mid-level, rear-wheel drive model. Starting at $47,775, including the $875 destination charge, you'd think that everything would be included. Not quite. While plush leather, push-button ignition with keyless entry, LED interior illumination, a power tilt and telescope steering wheel, and tons of other features were standard, Lexus still managed to keep some in reserve for the options list. Chief among them was a Luxury Package that included an adjustable suspension; heated and cooled front seats; headlights that follow corners as you turn the wheel; a wood and leather steering wheel, along with nicer leather overall; three zone climate control; and rear window shades. Our car also sported a $1,735 navigation system that includes a huge 12.3 inch high-resolution display and the insanely clever Lexus mouse-type controller, and a $1,380 Mark Levinson sound system that had our resident audiophile weeping with aural pleasure. After $500 worth of parking sensors, a $105 trunk mat, and a $64 cargo net, the total rang up to $57,309. That's a hefty chunk of change, but right in line with its competitors.

While the feds haven't crash tested the 2013 Lexus GS 350 yet, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives it a Top Safey Pick for acing its barrage of front, side, rear, and rollover tests. In addition to the solid structure, the GS 350 sports 10 airbags coming at you from the front, side, knees (for front passengers) and ceiling; stability, traction and anti-lock braking control; and automatic collision notification with an emergency assist button. More safety systems are available, with an active cruise and collision avoidance system ($2,000), lane-keep assist ($500), and a night-vision system ($2,200) all on the options list.

The Commute

Commuting in Los Angeles is one of the world's great automotive equalizers. It matters little if your car makes 100 horsepower or 500 hp when you're only going 5 mph at any given moment in your twice-daily lesson in Job-like patience.

However, with enough distractions in the cockpit you'll hardly notice, as was the case with the Lexus GS 350. The interior is beautifully styled, and such a radical departure from the Lexus norm that you could be forgiven for initially thinking you'd seated yourself behind the wheel of a BMW or Audi. Yet while the GS borrows from those Germans, it doesn't directly imitate any of them. The audio and climate controls have been reduced to a bare minimum, but not minimized; the audio system knobs are machined aluminum, and the click of each switch has a distinct heft. Behind the shifter is another machined aluminum knob, this one for selecting between one of four driving modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport+. In traffic, we recommend fuel-sipping Eco, which saves gas while still allowing you full access to the car's 306-hp V-6 engine when those grab-it-now holes in traffic appear.

The multifunction navigation screen is huge, crisply focused and brilliantly colored; traffic information, weather, radio of any variety, your iPod, virtually anything you could want will show up on the screen. You can post your location on Facebook Places, dial up whatever Pandora's algorithm thinks you want to hear, and fine tune the Mark Levinson audio system's output to your liking with ease, thanks to the Remote Touch controller. This mouse-like device controls a cursor on screen, but more importantly, it uses something called "haptic feedback" that makes the controller feel like it "locks" into place over click points. The upshot is that you can be sloppy with the way you move it around, but still get accurate results.

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While you're stuck in traffic, letting the sounds of the outstanding audio system sweep over you is soothing, rousing, or whatever your selection inspires. Regardless, you'll swear you can hear each individual horsehair of Yo Yo Ma's bow slide across his cello's strings, and each ridge of Dylan's fingerprints on his guitar strings. Unfortunately, the voice recognition software Toyota uses isn't particularly accurate, and doesn't recognize commands as simple as "play song xxx," even if your musical tastes run more toward Carly Rae Jepsen than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The rear seat is another area of mild concern. While as nicely appointed as the rest of the cabin -- including rear seat climate controls integrated into the fold-down armrest -- the seat cushion is on the low side, and thus it's not the most comfortable long-ride cruiser for four or five. However, unless your commute stretches 150 miles each way, it's doubtful you'll get much complaining from the rear.

The Grocery Run

Strip away the luxury trappings and powerful V-6 engine, and the 2013 Lexus GS 350 is a midsize sedan, perfectly suited for grocery getting, picking up the kids from school, or whatever sundry task you may assign it. Besides, it's not like its $57,000-and-change price tag is so high that you have a legion of servants to do those things for you, so the GS 350 has to be at least reasonably practical.

The trunk opens wide, although the springs aren't quite strong enough to lift the lid entirely out of the way. First world problems aside, the trunk is plenty big enough for a week's worth of groceries, and it opens widely to accommodate that extra big box of diapers or toilet paper, if need be. If you have long item, the center armrest in the rear hides a passthrough to the trunk.

The rear seat easily accommodates three children, and getting in and out is a snap. While you're loading your groceries, the keyless entry will unlock the rear door when your kid pulls on it, sparing you an extra button-push on the key fob. Although you'll probably wince when your little ones clamber across the leather in their Skechers, you can at least rest assured knowing that the LATCH points are easy to reach, and that it's easy for all the kids to strap themselves in.

The Weekend Fun

Pack your bags, and hit the road. The 2013 Lexus GS 350's driver's seat adjusts in about a zillion different ways, and if you can't find a comfortable driving position, it's quite possible you aren't a human being. Not only does it have the standard fore/aft, height, and seatback angle, but you can adjust the top part of the seatback separately from the bottom; the lumbar position is adjustable for both thickness and height; and even the headrest can be adjusted closer or farther to your head. Like the rest of the car's interior, it's covered in soft leather, and there's a soft place to rest your left elbow whether you prefer resting it atop the door or on the actual armrest; there's even a soft, leather-upholstered padded section on the center console where you can rest your right knee. If you opt for the adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, the GS 350 would be an open-road dream. Your rear seat passengers will enjoy the trip, too. Not only do they have their own climate controls, but the rear window and optional side window shades will keep the sun off them if naptime nods its head.

If your journey takes you along a mountain two-lane -- and your passengers don't mind a little aggressive driving -- the Lexus GS 350 is a surprisingly willing partner. The adjustable suspension individually tailors each shock absorber's response to provide a smooth ride without compromising handling. However, switch the console-mounted drive mode knob to Sport+, and the shocks stiffen, the steering sharpens, and the engine responds more quickly. Enhance the experience by putting the six-speed automatic in manual mode, and you're rewarded with quick shifts that hold all the way to redline. The engine is a gem, with a pulse-quickening roar at full throttle that's perfectly in line with its sci-fi-inspired front-end styling, but surprising given the Lexus reputation of sedate motoring. A brisk drive up a canyon road will be enough to dispel any remaining thoughts discerning drivers may have that Lexus isn't serious about taking on the Germans in these conditions; in fact, it beats them at their own game. If you're really into high-performance driving, you should probably trade up to the F-Sport model, which includes tire, brake, and suspension modifications geared toward the driving enthusiast.

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Summary

Basically, Lexus nailed it with the 2013 GS 350. It has the power, performance, panache, and poise you expect in a luxury sedan in this class. It's comfortable, quiet, and plush when you want it to be, but with the quick click of a knob on the console it's a world-class sport sedan. But it's more than the sum of its parts, too. It's not just a car that you can take on a long road trip, but a car you want to take on a long road trip. Or a short one. Or just take the long way home from work.

Is it flawless? Of course not. Fuel economy was only so-so, averaging in the high-teens. At least one passenger wasn't fond of the dash design, thinking it was too high and imposing. The voice recognition isn't quite up to snuff with newer systems from Ford, Cadillac, and others. If you have the radio off and listen closely, you might notice that the V-6 drones a little at highway speeds. Some of us thought that the aggressive front end's styling was let down by the rest of the car, especially the rear.

Nitpicks aside, the 2013 Lexus GS 350 marks the beginning of a new chapter for the company. After more than a decade of telling us that its cars would be more dynamic and engaging, Lexus has finally delivered on its promise, and made us intensely curious about what's in store for its next-generation compact IS, and its full-size LS, both due within the year. For now though, we're itching to get back behind the wheel of the new GS. Look for reviews of the all-wheel drive and hybrid versions soon.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $57,309
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 19 mpg
EPA Highway: 28 mpg
EPA Combined: 23 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 400 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent (2012 model)

Notebook Quotes "There's just something about really big luxury sedans that have always appealed to me. The GS only reinforced that notion." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"while I like the large screen, the rest of the controls seem misplaced across the dash. Aesthetically, I found the layout a little awkward to use. What's up with the buttons btw, especially climate and audio controls?" -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor
"The Lexus GS has absolutely sybaritic amounts of luxury: every surface is pillow-soft, every control precise and firm, every metal surface cold to the touch. It's an exercise in both restraint and excess: sure, it's rational in only the way a Japanese luxury car can get, but holy cow -- do power seats even come with so many functions?" -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"I'm a fan of just about everything with this car. If ever you question whether BMWs have gotten too soft and lost their way with the right combination of luxury and performance, the GS makes a compelling case as a better alternative."-Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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