The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

2013 Lexus Launch - GS 350, GS-F Sport and GS 450h Previews

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2013 Lexus GS Line

SEE ALSO: Lexus Buyers Guide

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Las Vegas NV December 6, 2011; I guess it is about time for Lexus to refresh their line of contenders in the mid-size luxury sedan market – the GS. The third generation GS, dating from the 2006 model year, is getting a bit long in the tooth, as they say, and needs to catch up with competitors like BMW’s 5-Series, the Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6. These German cruisers are loaded with technology and they set a mighty high bar for performance. Watch out, though, this fourth generation Lexus GS is coming to get them.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

We just attended the launch of the new GS line – GS 350, GS-F Sport and GS Hybrid – in lovely, sunny Las Vegas. Back home in Michigan the freezing rain covered by fresh snow made me happy to be in the desert southwest. Most of our vehicle evaluation time was spent on broad swaths of pavement at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway where an autocross course and a small race circuit allowed us to test the performance and handling while schmoozing with the engineers and execs who could fill us in on the detail.

Let’s start with the bottom line. The new GS line is mighty impressive in nearly every category, though a tad disappointing in a few elements of styling. ..but only a few.

We saw a concept car at the New York Auto Show last year that hinted at the new design language Lexus would use in their future products. Much of the current Lexus styling tends to be too conservative in the view of many of our colleagues, and I agree. Lexus buyers liked that conservatism so it worked well for them. What we see in the new GS is a dramatic front end, an elegant interior and a rear view as plain as white bread.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Lexus designers call their new front end look a “spindle” design – sort of wide at the top and bottom while slim in the middle. The lower fascia flares out and down encasing round fog lights and angular air inlets. We worry that curb scrapings might be exacerbated by some of that drama. The unimaginative design from b-pillar back could adorn just about any car in this or any other class of car. They lost the cool swooping fastback shape of the second- and third-gen predecessors.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Inside is where the new design really shines. I referred to it earlier as elegant because it is beautiful, understated and classy. Materials are luxurious without being ostentatious, and the small analog clock in the center of the dash speaks to a theme and ambiance of class without pretension. An old southern saw proclaims “an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.” There’s no manure here.

In the center of the dash is the 12.3-inch navigation and control screen – 8 inches for the navigation and the rest for other controls. A slick rocker knob acts like a mouse in scanning and selecting functions giving just enough minor resistance between virtual buttons to feel the process as well as see it. We’ve seen this on the other high-line luxury cars and love how it feels and works.

You can also have the Lexus “Enform 2.0” with “Safety Connect” voice-activated apps suite system. Limited apps for restaurant reservations, theater tickets, music management and a bunch of other stuff combine with managing music and other infotainment functions by voice command. The first year is free. After that a subscription charge applies. More apps will be added, of course.

Wood, stitched leather, soft-look metal trim and ambient lighting make a statement about Lexus’ image. The best trim is in the Hybrid where popular, eco-friendly bamboo accents the dash and steering wheel. We’re told the steering wheel is all hand crafted. It sort of takes wood trim to a new level. While only available in the Hybrid now the bamboo may become so popular they’ll have to offer it in the others.

One engine powers all three of these iterations of the GS, a 3.5-liter V6 with “split injection (direct injection with two nozzles making a ‘v’ pattern), variable valve timing and all the engineering sophistication we expect. The previous model could be had with a V8 but we understand the take rate on that was minimal so no more V8 for the GS. With 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, it didn’t really need a V8, I thought. More on that later.

And, only one transmission puts that power to practical use. It’s a six-speed automatic with manual mode, paddle shifters and blip capability. Shift points and speed of gear change depend on many factors including the driving mode setting. Fuel mileage is rated about the same for all three GS models at 29 mpg city, 34 highway and 31 combined.

An all-wheel drive system will be optional with a normal 30/70 split that becomes 50/50 on demand. A rear-wheel steering system with a 2-degree range, comes on the GS-F Sport and assists substantially with spirited driving needs. We felt that vividly on the little race track.

“Why not a seven- or eight-speed,” asked one of our colleagues. The answer was all about the engineers believing they had the perfectly balanced combination as it was and the changeover to a new transmission with more gears would be well beyond the point of diminishing returns. Time will tell if that was a good decision. Most cars in this class are going to 7- and 8-speed transmissions.

The GS Hybrid adds an electric motor fed by nickel-metal hydride batteries stacked behind the rear seat to the 3.5 V6, in this application retimed to an Atkinson Cycle. The whole system makes about 338 horsepower and is virtually unchanged from the previous hybrid design, except the new configuration of the battery allows more efficient use of truck space.

The new GS is just about the same size as the old one with just a slight increase in track. The same wheelbase and overall length apply. The chassis/body structure has been stiffened with the judicious use of high-strength steel and a new pressed steel layer in the b-pillar. They claim significant improvement is aerodynamics and serenity (noise, vibration and harshness). Little fins on the taillight lenses, for example, redirect air flow at the tail of the car to minimize turbulence.

Competing with the luxury Germans requires a high degree of technology, like blind spot warning, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and all that driver assistance stuff. The new GS has all that plus an optional little sensor on the top of the steering column pointed at the driver’s face that sees drooping eyelids and lessening focus on the road, warning the driver of falling asleep or distraction.

Pricing has not been announced but one exec assures us it will be “happy pricing.” In this economic climate, he insists, they must compete intensely. Neither have mpg numbers been established yet, but we can be sure they will be better than the previous numbers. Again, that must be the case in today’s market.

The GS and GS F Sport will be out in February with the Hybrid out later in the spring.

On our contrived test courses at the racetrack and out on the open roads around Las Vegas, it sure didn’t feel like it needed more power or torque. Notwithstanding a little lag in the uptake on full throttle it had all the thrust we need. Certainly, we could want more, but we sure don’t need more. Pushing through the autocross course, or around the miniature racetrack we were thrilled with the acceleration, particularly the Hybrid that add’s thirty-plus horsepower and instant low-end torque to the equation. I took the Hybrid on a good jaunt along the I-15 and across Charleston Road to Red Rock Park dicing in and out of heavy traffic and away from a thousand traffic lights with aplomb. It was along this route I noticed the cabin was dead silent.

Back on the track we had the opportunity to compare the GS with equivalent 6-cylinder products from BMW and Mercedes-Benz – the 5-Series and E-Class. We’re assured that the German cars had not been tampered with. We asked that question because the GS handled through the slalom noticeably better than the competition. We think of those German cars as the standard, but this Lexus performed measurably better.

You’ll begin to see adds for the new Lexus GS cars during the Super Bowl and all over the media thereafter. They’ll also be taking the cars to a city near you getting as many potential buyers as they can behind the wheel fully expecting many to be so enamored with the car they’ll have to have one.

Since Lexus is offering no V8 or mega-horsepower version of the GS they’ll concede that part of the market to the Germans, for sure, but looks like they’ll be competing much more intently in the bulk of the mid-size luxury sport sedan market.

Watch this space for a full review when they become available in the test fleets sometime in February.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved