Dynamic change for Lexus GS range
The GS Lexus is back, although it has never really been away. It's just that worthy though the mid-sized luxury executive design has been in the six years since the most recent version was launched in New Zealand, it has slipped from buyers' shopping lists, as BMW, Audi, Benz and Jaguar have pushed all-new models into the fray. So the GS's slide from buyers' consciousness was as much about timing as anything else, although many punters wanting to spend upwards of $100,000 in this segment merely buy German through habit.
That habit might change with the arrival of an all-new GS lineup, which offers a load of standard goodies, high refinement and comfort levels, all wrapped in a slick new styling and design package that gives the car much more on-road presence than before. There is a new Lexus face featuring a waisted spindle grille, thrusting outer mandibles either side of it, and slim headlamps that light up with Nike-like swooshes.
Having such a crisp and striking front was important for the GS's design team. They had noted that on the motorway, other road users without exception moved over to make way for fast- approaching German cars, but stayed where they were for the GS.
Lexus is hoping that a whole new pecking order will be established by the thrusting new front end, although Infiniti and Nissan also fronted up with spindle grilles, which is a bit too busy for my eyes.
The all-new GS range has a new entry-point 2.5-litre, 154-kilowatt, 253-newton-metre GS250 model, a staple 3.5-litre, 233kW, 378Nm GS350 and the 213kW, 345NM GS460 hybrid, which can add 147kW and 275Nm from its electric motor.
The V8 model has been dropped. No wonder, for it was the most expensive in the previous lineup and yet was slower than the hybrid without the green scene bragging rights.
The GS350's engine is slightly uprated and retains a similar six- speed automatic. However, it can now be had with a Drive Mode Select system that allows the driver to choose between Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes, maximising either environmental efficiency or dynamic abilities.
The transmission shifts more quickly than before and this shows with the car's pleasingly sharp 6.3-second zero-to-100kmh time. The GS250, which as its name suggests is the same as the GS350 save for a 2.5-litre engine, is not as quick as its larger-engined sibling, with an 8.8-second to legal speed limit sprint time, but for many it will be quick enough.
Lexus says it has been studying the strength of the smaller-engined E-class Benz and BMW 5-series models' sales success, and sees a real opportunity in the circa 2.0-litre to 2.5-litre luxury bracket, especially with its six-cylinder refinement against the German brands' four-cylinder units.
The GS250 also offers good entry-point value, with a sticker of $102,900, which saves $15,000, compared with the GS350 with the same specification.
Both conventional GS models are demonstrably sporty in terms of their demeanour, with Lexus deliberately directing specific levels of engine sound into the cabin to engage the driver.
The GS450h, which uses an Atkinson cycle version of the same V6 block used by the GS350, coupled to a hybrid electric system, may be the quickest in the range, but it's also the most refined, thanks to its almost ethereal power delivery and its smooth, seamless CVT transmission.
While the total combined outputs from both petrol and electric power are impressive, the car's hybrid system is deliberately programmed to provide a sufficient rather than overwhelming combination of the two. Its zero-to-100kmh time of 6.1 seconds is not much quicker than the GS350's, but its consumption and emissions figures of 6.3 litres per 100km and 139 grams per km of carbon dioxide are a massive 3.4L/100km and 86g/km improvement, respectively.
As you would expect, the GS450h sticker is the steepest of all, at $134,900.
From the welcoming interior lights and puddle lamps that the owner, key in pocket, will notice approaching the car and opening it, to the white lighting that runs from the rear doors through the front to the dash, Lexus has endeavoured to create an atmosphere befitting its position in the automotive firmament.
That same bright, white lighting helps pinpoint elements throughout the cabin and it's a very strong factor for the car.
There's a simple analogue clock strapped into the lower dash strip on a pelmet of satin finished alloy. The driver-focused dash is set on a horizontal plane with the doors and the centre console, conspiring with the basic design to create the driver's working area.
A heads-up display and a choice of 8-inch or 12.3-inch display screens with standard satellite-navigation impart all the information a driver will need, while the ability to opt for a mere 10-way seat adjustment package or 16 and 18-way add-ons if you choose F-sport or Luxury versions will please box-tickers.
Front-seat heaters and ventilation are standard for all models, while Luxury package models have seat heaters for the outer rear seats too.
Airflow ducting for the ventilation function has been significantly improved over the previous generation, with almost double the amount of airflow when the seat is in use.
All models have return and away functions for the driver's seat and steering wheel. This makes it easier to enter and exit the vehicle by moving the seat and steering wheel backwards when the engine is off and the driver's seat belt unfastened.
The front seats are brilliant, and the rear ones are vastly improved over the previous model, with more knee room and better location and support. Lexus calls it a four-seater, although belts are supplied for five. To remain luxurious, I would leave out that fifth passenger.
The car's standard sound system is a Lexus-Pioneer 12 speaker, 299-watt Premium Audio setup with all the usual standard iPod, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, although buyers can opt for the Luxury package's 17-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson system if they prefer.
Even the entry-point GS250 feels superbly well planted, offering a huge amount of grip on its standard 18-inch rims, and changing direction is immediate and accurate, with an electric steering setup as good as any.
It all feels even better if you opt for the F Sport pack, which makes the car feel more taut without dropping into pot-hole hell, and that can occur with some sports setups. The F Sport is immediately sharper and cleaner than the base car, but the big bonus is in the braking department. I doubt that I've driven a road-going sedan with such linear and effective stopping power. The whole effect is one that almost feels un-Lexus.
Cosy progress was always the brand's major premise, whereas here it takes the game to the usual German suspects in terms of handling prowess. I just hope Lexus is able to get enough punters behind the wheel to demonstrate it.
Always the leader in terms of refined luxury sedans that offer good value and unimpeachable build quality and reliability, it appears the new GS has inserted that missing ingredient to the equation that Lexus admits has been missing - soul.
It's a car you want to connect with, and while there are some old Lexus foibles, like old-folk's home- like floor mats and not enough bright colours on the options pallette, the car goes close to the top of the tree in terms of dynamics.
The GS glides over the highway even when it's on coarse chip, with little noise intrusion, but in a heartbeat, it can flick and flack through a back road with the best of the luxury mid-sized breed.
Fortunately, you don't need the big noters in the range to enjoy such prowess. The new entry-level car is quick enough in day-to-day terms, and with a $6000 F-sport pack on top of its $102,900, I could easily think I'd got all I really need.
It's a pity about that silly grille, although from behind the wheel, you can't see it, can you?
* Drivetrains: Front-mounted RWD, 24v injected V6s with 6-speed auto, 6-step CVT in hybrid.
* Performance: GS250 - 2500cc, 154kW at 6400rpm, 253Nm at 4800rpm. Max 230kmh, 0-100kmh 8.8sec, 9.3L/100km, 215g/km CO2. GS350 - 3456cc, 233kW at 6400rpm, 378Nm at 4800rpm. Max 235kmh, 0-100kmh 6.3sec, 9.7L/100km, 225g/km CO2. GS450h - 3456cc, 213kW at 6000rpm, 345NM at 4600rpm. Electric motor:147kW, 275Nm, Max 250kmh, 0-100kmh 6.1sec, 6.3L/100km, 139g/km CO2.
* Chassis: Double wishbone front, multi-link rear suspension. Electric assisted steering.
* Safety: 10 airbags; ABS, and a full suite of driving aids.
* Dimensions: L 4850mm, W 1840mm, H 1455mm, W/base 2850mm, F/track 1575mm, R/track 1560-1590mm, weight 1640 to 1825kg, fuel 66L.
* Pricing: GS250 $102,900, GS350 $117,900, GS450h $134,900. F-sport adds $6000 to GS250, ($8000 to GS350 and GS450h).
* Hot: Sharper style; interior details; compelling entry point; value; chassis; brakes.
* Not: New grille isn't unique; no luxury pack for GS250; no all- wheel-drive option.
* Verdict: GS250 is the pick, with great specs and value and it will boost the lineup's appeal.