SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide
Lexus sedans have been known for high quality construction, luxurious elegance, and conservative styling. Performance has not been a priority for the company's sedans, and, although the Lexus coupes have are more radical, and influential, in styling, even they are luxury cars first and performance cars second.
Recalibrate your thinking. The new 1998 Lexus GS sedans not only have show-car styling, they have serious performance capabilities. Only the GS model designation is the same, as the only parts shared with the old GS300 are the battery, the front suspension design, and the 6-cylinder engine's crankshaft. A V8-powered GS400 joins the 6- cylinder GS300. They share styling and most components other than the engine, but have distinctive personalities. The new GS300 is a fast touring sedan. The GS400 is a land-bound executive jet.
The new GS400 is the production version of the Lexus HPS (High Performance Sedan) show car that made its debut on the auto show circuit last year. The HPS turned out to be, as its press release said, "a dramatic hint of what's in the future for luxury sedans." Differences between the HPS and the GS400 are few, and mostly only minor equipment level. The dramatic styling, 300-horsepower V8 with variable valve timing, adaptive-shift 5-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual control (E-shift, in the Lexus lexicon), and electronic vehicle stability control (VSC) system are standard equipment. The HPS's self-leveling high-intensity discharge headlights and navigation system are available on the GS400.
I've had the opportunity to drive the 1998 GS400 at the press introduction in Southern California, and for a recent week at home. The intro included a brisk trip up the twistingly scenic Angeles Crest highway to the Streets Of Willow road course at Willow Springs International Raceway, both excellent places to test handling, braking, acceleration, and the VSC system. The GS400 is a Lexus that is completely at home on the track, with no compromises against luxurious comfort in everyday life. It's a state-of-the-art performance sedan that should give the Germans conniptions, and looks to be the best current automatic-transmission sports sedan.
APPEARANCE: The new GS keeps the flavor of the old GS300, but is much bolder and more muscular. It proclaims its power while losing none of its elegance. The basic shape of the car, with its long, rounded passenger cabin, short hood and rear deck, and short overhangs, is as radical as the Lexus SC400 coupe was at its introduction. It successfully combines performance styling elements, including mildly flared fenders and aero-look front air dam, side rocker panels, and rear fascia, with luxury cues like chrome trim around the lower beltline and side windows. The large headlamps and inset high-beam lights update the design pioneered by the SC400 and adopted by several other manufacturers, and are echoed by the taillights. It will be interesting to see if the '98 GS has the same effect on competitor's styling as did the original SC400.
COMFORT: The second-generation GS is larger inside, and more luxurious than the original. It is far closer to the LS400 in appointment and interior style than its ancestor, with supple leather upholstery and tasteful amounts of walnut trim. There are memory positions for the driver's seat, steering wheel, and mirrors, and the steering wheels tilts out of the way automatically for entry and exit. All windows, and the moonroof, are one-touch open or close, with pinch protection. The rear seat is contoured and commodious, and has both console and floor vents. Although the rear overhang is shorter, the trunk is larger than in the previous GS300. Automatic climate control and high-quality standard Pioneer or optional Nakamichi audio systems enhance the luxury experience. The sports soul of the GS is reflected, literally, in its easy-to-see "Optitron" back-lit instruments and thick, leather- wrapped steering wheel. And the surge of power available via the right foot....
SAFETY: The 1998 GS400 has dual reduced-power front airbags, side airbags, 3-point harnesses for all 5 seating positions, antilock brakes, traction control, and the VSC anti-skid system as standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: The GS400 is at home on any sort of road. The suspension strikes a good balance between luxury car comfort and sports sedan handling. The optional P235/45 ZR17 tires on my test car had plenty of grip but did add plenty of road feel as well, which is common for such low profile tires. The GS400 is not a cocoon. It is quiet and comfortable around town. When pushed hard on the track, it responds well. The VSC system really does work, and very transparently.
PERFORMANCE: E-shift is the E-ticket. Each arm of the steering wheel has an upshift button on the back and a downshift button facing the driver. They are active only when the gearshift lever is placed in "M", and placed so as to be easily available at any steering angle. Shift speed in manual is as quick as that of a good manual gearbox. The electronic control unit prevents downshifting when the engine would be overrevved in the lower gear, and locks out first gear at all times. These are both good safety and longevity features. With 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque from the 4-cam 4.0-liter V8 engine, sub-6-second 0-to-60 times are the order of the day. Autobahn cruising speeds should be no problem, and variable valve timing makes the GS400 just as well-suited for city commuting. Just put it in "D" and cruise - the 5-speed automatic is one of the best and helps give the GS400 the best of both performance and luxury.
CONCLUSIONS: Few cars combine luxury and serious performance as well as the 1998 Lexus GS400.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 44,800 Price As Tested $ 50,732 Engine Type aluminum alloy dual overhead cam, 32-valve V8 with VVTi continuously- variable valve timing Engine Size 4.0 liters / 242 cu.in. Horsepower 300 @ 6000 Torque (lb-ft) 310 @ 4000 Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 110.2 in. / 189.0 in. Curb Weight 3690 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 12.3 Fuel Capacity 19.8 gal. Fuel Requirement umleaded premium Tires P235/45 ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE030 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc Suspension, front/rear independent, upper and lower control arms and coil springs / independent multi-link with control arms Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 23 / 19 0 to 60 mph 5.7 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 14.3 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.29 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Power tilt & slide moonroof $ 1,020 Heated front seats $ 420 Color-keyed rear spoiler $ 420 High-intensity discharge headlights $ 500 Chromed 17-inch alloy wheels with upgraded tires $ 1,915 In-dash 6 CD changer $ 1,050 Carpeted floor mats $ 112 Destination Charge $ 495