2006 Lexus GS 300
2006 Lexus GS 300. Photo: Bill Petro, Lexus. Click image to enlarge

by Grant Yoxon

Nanaimo, British Columbia – Just outside of the town of Chemainus, famous for its many mural walls, we pulled the 2006 Lexus GS 430 over to the side of the road and my driving partner, Winnipeg Free Press automotive editor Kelly Taylor, slid an Eric Clapton DVD into the Lexus’ 14-speaker, 330-watt Mark Levinson audio system.

The Mark Levinson system can play DVD video, DVD audio and DVD-R discs as well as CDs and provides a surround sound listening experience that brings the concert hall onto the road. We sat and watched for a while, enjoying the crisp, clear video as well as the exquisite sound, before shifting the six-speed automatic transmission into drive and continuing on our way.

Videos can only be watched with the car in park and the parking brake engaged. But if you have the time and inclination, the LS 430’s navigation screen doubles as a tv monitor. It will also display images to the rear of the car with the optional back-up camera.

A few minutes later we were exercising the GS 430’s plentiful muscles on a closed course set up on a runway at Nanaimo airport. This is the quickest Lexus ever, capable of zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 5.7 seconds. Stopping is equally quick. The GS 430’s front rotors are a whopping 13.1 inches (332.7 mm) in diameter and employ high-friction pads. As well, the 430’s brake system is electronically controlled. The system uses a “stroke simulator” or sensor at the brake pedal to determine the actual brake stroke applied by the driver. The brake system computer then calculates the optimum brake force for each wheel. The result is straight, controlled and incredibly short panic stops.

2006 Lexus GS 300
2006 Lexus GS 300 Photo: Bill Petro, Lexus. Click image to enlarge

This is quite possibly the most technically sophisticated sedan Lexus has ever built, even more technically advanced than the considerably more expensive LS 430. Over the last few years cars in this $60,000 to $80,000 range have become increasingly more sophisticated, more luxurious and more powerful as technology trickles down from the ultra luxury segment. And the new GS 300 and 430 benefit from some of the technology first seen in the LS 430, like the LS’s Pre-Collision System (more on this later).

Shigetoshi Miyoshi, Chief Engineer, Lexus GS
Shigetoshi Miyoshi, Chief Engineer, Lexus GS. Photo: Bill Petro, Lexus. Click image to enlarge

With the available technology, developing “the single most complete performance package in the mid-luxury segment” might have been an easy task, but Shigetoshi Miyoshi, Chief Engineer for the development of the Lexus GS sedans, had an even greater challenge. Not only must it be a performance leader, the new GS would be the first Lexus sedan to incorporate Lexus’ new design language, termed “L-Finesse”.

The L-Finesse philosophy emphasizes three elements: simplicity – in form and function and in uncluttered design; contrast – in look and feel and “in the contrasting emotional states of excitement and relaxation; and dynamism – “in the combination of a vibrant, forceful and vigorous look with thrilling performance.”

At first glance, this philosophy may not seem such a great departure from the Lexus of past, which combined conservative, mainstream styling with excellent, if not class leading performance.

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430. Photo: Bill Petro, Lexus. Click image to enlarge

But the 2006 GS is a departure from the past. Simplicity does not mean conservative. The new GS, with its long hood and short rear, fastback-like deck, is striking in its simplicity. The design is simple and unadorned, but the GS does not fade into the automotive landscape. Black grille inserts and sharply defined seams add contrast to the uncluttered exterior panels, but with subtlety.

During our press preview on Vancouver Island we were cautioned that the new GS may not be a radical styling change from the previous model, but it is one step up on a styling ladder that will take each successive model further away from Lexus’ reputation for generally conservative styling and further differentiate it from parent Toyota.

Next up is the IS 300 luxury sport sedan, which revealed its new skin earlier this month at the Geneva auto show. Next year the entry level luxury front driver, the ES 330, will get the treatment, as will the ultra-luxury LS sedan.

2006 Lexus GS 430

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Inside the GS, the look is decidedly elegant. Passengers are greeted with a stunning array of creature comforts, soft textures and smooth bird’s-eye maple or walnut surfaces. Standard features include a 10-speaker, 134-watt AM/FM cassette audio system with 6-disc in-dash CD player and steering wheel controls, dual zone climate control, leather seating with heated front seats that are 10-way power adjustable, the full array of power accessories, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, push button start and smart keyless entry. The key never leaves your pocket. The GS features a standard 3-driver and 3-passenger position memory system for the seats, steering column and outside mirrors, and the key fob can be programmed to automatically reset to the driver’s preference when any one of the three different key fobs enter the driver’s door.

The GS features two hidden compartments – one under the sliding top of the centre console storage box and one to the left of the steering wheel – for buttons and switches that are not used routinely. Compartmentalizing some of the switches helps keep the dash clean and uncluttered.

Rear seat leg room is more than sufficient and more than is found in many other competitors in the sport luxury segment. As expected, the interior is tight and well put together.

Both V6 and V8 models run quiet on the highway, with little wind noise and insulating passengers from the clatter of passing traffic – the better to enjoy the superb audio systems. But Miyoshi-san wanted to design a car “that would allow drivers to feel like they were behind the wheel of a premium autobahn cruiser.”

One need only press the accelerator.

L-Finesse may be Lexus-lingo for exquisitely refined and dynamically forceful, but in street rodder terms, the GS is a sleeper.

The GS is available with two engines. An all new three-litre, 24-valve V6, producing 245 hp and 230 lb.-ft. of torque is the standard engine. This engine uses direct-to-cylinder fuel injection, which enables better-controlled fuel injection timing and a higher volume of air for cylinder charging. Zero to 96 km/h times (60 mph) are estimated to be 6.8 seconds.

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

The V8 is a carry-over from the previous generation, with a few refinements. Displacing 4.3 litres and producing 300 hp, the GS 430 will accelerate to 96 km/h in only 5.7 seconds. It is the quickest Lexus ever and about equal to the BMW’s autobahn cruiser, the 545i, in the zero to 100km/h sprint.

The GS 300 is available with rear wheel drive and, for the first time, all-wheel-drive. The AWD system incorporates both a front and rear differential and a centre transfer case. The transfer case utilizes a planetary gear set and a “centre differential control limiting clutch.” It is an electronic system. Based on input from wheel speed sensors, a computer ads or reduces pressure on the clutch pack, allowing torque to be split and transferred to the front or rear axles. During start-off acceleration and slippery conditions, the torque is split 50/50 front and rear. Under normal conditions or when the car’s vehicle stability control system (VSC) intervenes, the torque split may vary up to 30/70, front to rear. Electronic traction control further enhances 4-wheel traction.

VSC enhances cornering stability by sensing and correcting oversteer and understeer situations. The VSC system works in conjunction with the anti-lock brakes and traction control system to decrease engine output and apply the brakes to the front and rear wheels to correct the unstable condition.

2006 Lexus GS 430
Autos contributor Jeremy Cato (driving) and Autos editor Greg Wilson test the GS 430’s VDIM.

2006 Lexus GS 430
Testing the braking stability of the 2006 Lexus GS 430. Photo: Bill Petro, Lexus. Click image to enlarge

The GS 430, available only in rear wheel drive, gets some additional activity safety technology – vehicle dynamics integrated management or VDIM. The details of this system are best left to another article, but essentially it uses electronic sensors to anticipate that a skid is likely and invokes electronic braking, electronic steering and engine output management to correct the situation before it happens rather than after it happens. The system is completely non-intrusive and actually enhances the driving experience. Corrections are made without the driver even knowing it.

To test the VSC, VDIM and AWD systems, we drove each vehicle (GS 300 with rear wheel drive and VSC, GS 300 with all-wheel-drive and VSC and a GS 430 with VDIM) at 70 km/h onto a water soaked runway at Nanaimo airport and purposefully attempted a 180 degree u-turn. All three vehicles turned in and slowed to a stop, but the arc of the turn was narrower for the VDIM-equipped 430 than either of the 300s, while the rear-wheel-drive 300 turned with the widest arc.

The GS suspension is fully independent with double wishbone design up front and a multi-link design in back. The GS 430 also receives adaptive variable suspension with sport and normal modes. Summer tires are standard – P225/50 R17 on the GS 300 and P245/40 R18 on the GS 430. Owners will need to switch to snow tires during winter. Using two sets of tires rather than all-season tires means no compromises at any time of the year. All three GS models have a tire pressure monitoring system.

Standard safety features on all models includes dual stage driver and front passenger airbags, front seat mounted side airbags, front knee airbags, and front and rear side curtain airbags. Optionally available on the GS 430 is Lexus’ pre-collision avoidance system which first appeared in the LS 430. The system uses a millimeter-wave radar sensor to detect possible objects ahead. Sensors then determine whether a crash is imminent and the system places the brake assist in stand-by mode, the seatbelts are retracted and the adaptive variable suspension sets the shock absorbers to suppress nose dive that occurs during braking. By preparing the vehicle and the passengers for a crash, lives can be saved.

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

The Lexus GS 300 starts at $64,300 with rear-wheel-drive and $66,700 with all-wheel-drive. Option packages include a Touring Package, which adds the Mark Levinson audio system, power rear sunshade, rear spoiler, intuitive park assist, ventilated front seats, rear seat airbags and rain sensing wipers. A navigation package includes wood steering wheel, navigation system and rear backup monitor.

The Lexus GS 430 starts at $74,700. The Touring and navigation system packages are the same as with the GS 300 with the addition of the pre-collision system which is part of the GS 430’s navigation package.

2006 Lexus GS 430
2006 Lexus GS 430. Photos: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Since its inception in 1989, it is clear that Toyota intended Lexus to seriously challenge the German brands – Audi, Mercedes-Benz and most importantly BMW. But despite a solid reputation for quality and reliability, Lexus has not yet overcome the perception that, yes, Lexus builds a fine sedan, but not the ultimate sedan, the consensus being that the BMW 5-series, despite the controversy over its styling, is still the benchmark in the mid-luxury class.

Miyoshi-san made several veiled references to BMW in his remarks to journalists. “L-Finesse”, he said is “a direct response” to what Lexus’ styling experts saw as a “troubling design trend towards surface complexity and exaggeration of form, most apparent in the premium and luxury brand segments.” He also referred to the GS as a “premium luxury autobahn cruiser” and jokingly referred to his design team’s head technician for dynamic evaluation as “the meister.”

The 2006 Lexus GS is not a 5-series BMW. For Miyoshi-san and Lexus, imitation would not be sufficient. Building “the single most complete performance package in the mid-luxury segment” meant taking their own road – in a different styling direction and a different route to performance.

Look next year for an even hotter gas-electric hybrid version of the GS.

The ‘ultimate driving machine’ has an appeal to enthusiasts that is hard to resist. But the Lexus GS may appeal more to buyers who do not need to be first, just fast, who want the ultimate in luxury and technology, and who have no misconceptions about their driving ability.

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