Driven: 2013 Lexus GS350

By Brandon Turkus

December 03, 2011

 —Las Vegas, Nevada
 
In the world of mid-size luxury sedans, the big players have been the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The Lexus GS, meanwhile, skated under the proverbial radar, lacking the performance cred of the 5-Series, the luxury cachet of the E-Class, or the sumptuous interior of the A6. It wasn’t a bad car, but even Lexus admits the Germans had dominated the market. Lexus is hoping to reverse that trend with the 2013 GS, and after a long day flogging it at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we think Toyota’s luxury brand has got a pretty good shot of doing it.
 
Sadly (or not depending on your interpretation), our time with the GS was almost entirely in a track environment. So if you are reading this article hoping for detailed reflections on how comfortable and smooth the ride is, you’ll probably be disappointed. If, however, you want to read about just how sporting the new GS really is, you’re in the right place.
 
The transformation starts with a new exterior. The “spindle grille” of the GS is the new face of Lexus, so get used to seeing that look around the local country club. Many of the aesthetic pieces also hide functional improvements, such as the revised lower fascia that channels extra air into the brakes for enhanced cooling. The wheels have been modified to further reduce the coefficient of drag, while several tweaks to the shape and angle of the back bumper and taillights increase aerodynamic efficiency even further.
 
The real improvements come in the cabin, where Lexus worked hard to create a driver-centric arrangement that wasn’t just comfortable, but was actually engaging. The seats feature a wide range of adjustments, with a ten-way power setup standard (18-way power seats are available on the Luxury trim, while the GS350 F-Sport offers 16-way buckets). In base trim, the seats proved comfortable, although we were limited to track work, meaning we’ll need to wait until we get a GS into the office to conduct long-distance testing. For performance driving, though, these thrones were up to the task. Side bolstering was appropriate without feeling claustrophobic, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position. We messed about with the seat in several different positions, and also found the GS to have excellent sightlines for a variety of seat heights.
 
Following the engaging tone set by the new seats, a new, leather-wrapped, three-spoke wheel comes standard. The thick-rimmed and small-diameter wheel isn’t the sort we’d normally associate with a Lexus, feeling like a less-padded version of the BMW M3’s sport wheel. Behind it sits a pair of paddle shifters (standard across the range). These paddles feel good and have a nice action, but feel oddly placed in relation to the wheel itself. They poke out ever so slightly from behind the spokes of the wheels, and could stand to be positioned a bit higher up, as their layout feels like an instance of form before function.
 
In addition to the primary interfaces, the cabin is a nice place to spend time. The dash materials look and feel good, with a nice array of wood and leather on hand. The GS boasts the latest iteration of Lexus’s mouse-controlled navigation system, this time featuring a massive 12.3-inch screen. It’s split, with about two-thirds of the screen dedicated to the standard systems (nav, info, phone, climate, audio, etc.) while the right third of the screen can be adjusted to display simpler info, like climate and audio. It’s a nice setup, but we wish we could turn it off and just have one massive screen to work with (like in BMW’s iDrive).
 
When the GS comes to market, it will be with the choice of two engines. The GS350 features a 3.5-liter V-6, with 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, while the GS450h hybrid will have a version that runs on an Atkinson cycle and is mated to a battery and an electric motor. If you are thinking this doesn’t match up too well with the BMW 5-Series’s 3.0-liter turbo six-pot, you’d be right. The 535i that was on hand for comparison felt quicker in most instances. The naturally aspirated Lexus mill did feature a snappier throttle response than the blown Bimmer, but in a straight drag race, our money is on the torquier German.
 
In its own little world, though, this 3.5 is pretty good. We mentioned the sharp throttle response, but this engine is more than a one-trick pony. Power comes on in a smooth, linear fashion, as expected of a Lexus engine. Off-the-line thrust isn’t going to smoke the tires (we tried), but there’s enough mid-range grunt to make the GS feel heroic during passing maneuvers.
 
Far and away the best thing about the V-6 was the way it sounded. Lexus used what it calls an Intake Sound Creator. It kicks in at mid to high rpms, and uses a damper to capture intake vibrations and, thanks to a set of resonance tubes, turns the vibrations into noise. That’s right, Lexus is essentially making its engines sound louder in the cabin. And boy does it work. The closest comparison we could make is that the GS sounds ever so slightly like a Nissan 370Z or Hyundai Genesis V-6 Coupe, but with more induction noise in the cabin, and a smoother exhaust note outside. It’s that good.
 
If you are wondering why we haven’t mentioned a V-8-powered GS, it’s because there isn’t one anymore. That’s right, the new GS lineup will consist of a naturally aspirated V-6 and a hybrid drivetrain. We can’t say we’re happy about it, especially when BMW and Mercedes-Benz both offer V-8 versions of their mid-size lux sedans, but Lexus claims that its planned lineup will satisfy most customers, with those seeking V-8s opting instead for the GS450h hybrid.
 
Bucking the trend, Lexus chose to feature a six-speed automatic, as opposed to the eight-speed boxes that are quickly becoming the norm in the market (BMW and Audi both offer eight-speed autos, while Mercedes uses a seven-speed autobox). According to Chief Engineer Yoshihiko Kanamori, the eight-speed that Lexus was testing for the GS didn’t deliver the desired level of performance, and spent too long hunting for gears (funny, we said the same thing the last time we tested a car with Lexus’s eight-speed auto).
 
Shift speeds for the 6AT can happen in as little as three tenths of a second, and unlike other Toyota products, this transmission actually listened to our inputs. Slotting the gearlever into manual mode gave us snappier shifts, as well as throttle blips on downshifts (if you are in Sport mode as well). Yes, if you hit redline, it’ll still upshift automatically, but the fact that this transmission actually obeyed our inputs and shifts on command is a huge step forward from the old GS.
 
The GS’ six-speed isn’t just good in a vacuum though. It stood up well enough to the BMW’s eight-speed auto, and felt far more competent in a performance setting than the E-Class’ seven-speed transmission. Upshifts and downshifts felt faster, and better timed (when left in automatic). Shift shock wasn’t an issue either, as mid-corner shifts (we were testing, get off our case) didn’t do much to disrupt the chassis.
 
As good as the powertrain is, it’s nothing compared to what Lexus has done with the steering and handling. This is an electronic power steering setup, but it’s probably one of the best we’ve tested in a very long time. It features a fast 13.2:1 steering ratio, but manages to not feel overboosted or artificial in its execution. It weights up nicely, and manages to be very workable in a dynamic driving situation. It doesn’t deliver a ton of feedback, though, instead relying on the suspension and chassis to deliver grip information to the driver. If there’s one thing to take away from this new steering setup, it’s the amount of confidence it instilled. We put it through some seriously dynamic driving situations and came away impressed with the way it handled (no pun intended) itself.
 
It was a similar story with the handling, as a multitude of changes were made to the GS to improve its dynamic ability. For a start, this new car is stiffer than the one it replaces, thanks to an increased use of high-strength steel reinforcements in the chassis, as well as hot-pressed ultra-high-strength steel in the B-pillar construction and roofline. Aluminum suspension pieces cut some unsprung weight, while the interior materials see a ten-percent reduction in weight as well. Despite the weight savings, the 2013 GS weighs the same as its 2011 predecessor, tipping the scales at 3795 pounds.
 
These changes, along with the double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension make for a car that is far more engaging in handling situations than the old GS. Body motions, especially roll, have been seriously curbed, while squat and dive weren’t really issues either. The outright handling ability was nice, but it was the amount of confidence the GS inspired that really made it fun to drive. There was a real progression in the body movements, and grip was well communicated through the seat of the pants, making it easy to judge just what was going on between rubber and road. We never felt like the GS was going to bite us, even with the stability control flashing angrily at us. The remarkable thing was driving the Lexus back-to-back with the 5-Series. The BMW felt nervous, almost twitchy, when pushed around with the same vigor as the GS.
 
When our tech briefing began that morning, Lexus vice-president and general manager Mark Templin called the GS a grand-touring sedan. With the dynamic improvements that were made, we have every reason to believe him. As we said earlier, we drove the GS almost exclusively in a track environment, meaning we’ll need to wait to get one into the office to do an extended test of just how comfortable it is. Maybe we’ll throw a couple of the Germans in there as well. Hmmm,
 
VS: BMW 535i
 
As we said, the 5-Series will win a straight-line race. Its turbocharged powerplant just delivers too much torque for the Lexus to really compete. In fact, shown a set of curves, the 5-Series might still win. The thing is, the GS is easier to drive quickly, and for that reason, it would probably be our choice.
 
The GS feels more stable, especially when being pushed hard. At times, the 5-Series felt unruly, liable to step out of line with less provocation than the Lexus. Part of the problem was the nature of power delivery from the turbocharged six-cylinder, as hitting the gas too early on corner exit could cause stability problems.
 
VS: Mercedes-Benz E350
 
With the 5-Series, A6, and GS all getting significant redesigns, the E350 is now the old car in the range, and it shows. The cabin in the Benz just can’t stand up to the new Lexus. The materials don’t feel that great, and the infotainment systems are feeling at least a generation behind everyone else.
 
We’ll need an extended test of the GS to get a firm verdict on its luxury credentials (especially the ride around town), but based on our time with it, it is going to outshine the older E-Class.
 
2013 Lexus GS350
Engine: V-6, 3.5 liters, 24v
Output: 306 hp/277 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.7 sec
Top Speed: 142 mph
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 19/28 mpg
Base Price: $47,000 (est)
On Sale: February 2012