December 18, 2006
Back in 1986, Honda introduced a radical concept: its high-end Acura division. At the time, critics scoffed, and continued to do so when Toyota brought out its Lexus brand in 1989. The prevailing logic was that no one would pay that much for a Japanese car, since Asian imports were generally perceived to be economy cars.
Of course, the laughing stopped fairly quickly, especially when it became obvious that Lexus wasn’t aiming just for the domestic manufacturers, but for the market spot previously dominated by the German automakers, especially with Lexus’ rear-wheel drive models.
Positioned between the ES and top-of-the-line LS series, the GS sedan undergoes a transformation for 2007: the GS 300 loses its 3.0-litre V6 in favour of a 3.5-litre V6, becoming the GS 350. The model is available in rear-wheel drive or in my tester’s all-wheel configuration, a full-time system that splits the torque 30/70 during normal driving, but will automatically transfer it up to 50/50 when required by road conditions.
The GS is also available with eight cylinders as the 4.3-litre-powered GS 430, and an admirable performer it is; but it’s not necessary to move up to the larger powerplant (which is only available in rear-wheel drive) if you don’t want to spend the extra money or put extra fuel through it, since the V6 does such a good job. (In my week of driving, much of it on the highway, I managed a very reasonable 9.7 L/100 km, albeit on premium fuel.)
The V6 employs dual variable valve timing, as well as a two-stage acoustic control induction system, which tunes the intake manifold length to engine requirements; the GS has a fat powerband that keeps a steady supply of giddy-up at one’s foot, even in that toughest test of a vehicle, heavy highway traffic. Some cars can stumble when they’re braked quickly and then immediately asked for a burst of speed to change lanes, but the GS managed it effortlessly. It uses an electronic throttle control system, which can be a hit-or-miss proposition: on some vehicles, there’s a split-second hesitation between foot and engine response that annoys me to no end, but the GS exhibited none of that. And even at hard throttle, the engine is luxuriously whisper-quiet.
On the highway, the GS is remarkably composed and stable, even at higher speeds; take a curve, and it corners flat, with all four tires digging in. At a recent Lexus event, I was given the opportunity to drive a GS with its anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control turned off, and told to twist the wheel hard at speed while keeping my foot on the throttle. It’s definitely not something I’d recommend on the road – the point was to show me how well the company’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system works, available on the GS 430 but not the 350 – but I could immediately tell that they’d slipped me an all-wheel version, as it held the road fairly well at all corners, considering the extreme force being placed on it. All-wheel drive should never be considered a substitute for good driving, but it does have its advantages.
There is a trade-off, though; I was surprised that at lower speeds, especially on rough pavement, I often ended up fighting the wheel to keep the car straight on course, as the front wheels followed road imperfections. That’s not helped by the fact that the leather-wrapped wheel needs more texture, as it’s very smooth and slippery.
Inside, the GS 350 sports a clean, simple dash design, with tight gaps, soft-touch materials and tasteful woodgrain accents. Lacking a navigation system, the large screen in my tester’s centre stack substituted a trip computer. A proximity key and engine start button eliminates the need to put a key in the ignition – a system I’ve always found unnecessary; how much trouble is it to turn a key? – but buyers are obviously taken with the idea of their machines responding obediently to their touch, so Lexus follows suit.
The GS also sports a common Lexus touch, a drop-down control panel that slides out from the driver’s side of the dash at the touch of a button. It’s a great place to hide infrequently-used controls, such as the odometer reset or the gas door release, but it also contains the mirror switches, and I find that too inconvenient. Mirror adjustment is often done “on the fly” – even when I move my seat to prevent fatigue on a long drive, I often need to readjust the mirrors – and there shouldn’t be a second step to accessing the controls.
Fatigue really wasn’t a problem, though, even on a trip from Toronto to Ottawa and back; the seats are comfortable but supportive, the armrests are in line with the centre console, and with a touch of the power tilt-and-telescopic wheel, it’s easy to find the right driving position. The rear seat is equally roomy and comfortable, and despite the sloping C-pillar, there’s enough head space for even taller passengers.
The GS looks lovely at night, also: opening each door triggers an individual light that shines on the corresponding seat. But the footwell lighting is so bright as to be distracting; if there was a way to dim it, without turning the instrument lights too low, I wasn’t able to find it, even with the owner’s manual.
The trunk is a generous 100 cm in length; the rear seats don’t fold, but there is a pass-through. Closing the trunk is simple: give it a push, and it drops, then electrically screws itself shut.
All in all, the GS 350 is a pleasure to drive, with its responsive handling and quiet but powerful engine. Still, much of a car’s impression is in perceived value, and sitting behind the wheel, it felt like the car’s $65,250 sticker price was too high; had I gotten in without checking, I would have pegged it around $55,000. Perhaps it’s the car’s muted styling, both inside and out, that caused me to err by such a wide margin.
The GS 350 comes with a long list of standard features, including power sunroof, six-CD stereo, headlamp washers, knee airbags and easy-access with memory, including the power steering column. It doesn’t have the heft of a German sports sedan; instead, it’s got a cat-like lightness on its feet and a nimble touch on the road. You’ll have to decide for yourself on the price perception; the road manners do an admirable job of speaking for themselves.
At a glance: 2007 Lexus GS 350 AWD
Base price $65,250
Freight $ 1,775
A/C tax $ 100
Price as tested $67,125
Manufacturer’s web site