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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
Gigantic L logo on the grille aside, the new GS isn’t immediately recognizable as a Lexus. In profile, it bears a passing resemblance to the old GS, with its swooping roofline and high tail, but the way the design is executed is entirely different. Lexus dubs its new styling theme “L-Finesse”, and counts among its tenets flowing curves that intersect in sharp and surprising ways; more cynical observers might see an obvious connection to BMW designer Chris Bangle’s “flame surfacing”, and to the bustle-butt trunk lid that we first saw on the 7-series.
Whatever the case, this is a car that now draws a substantial amount of attention on the road, even when finished in the attractive-but-nondescript metallic grey of my $64,000 GS 300 test car. Its sharply-accented curves are set off by some careful details, including a beautifully-crafted set of 17-inch wheels, tail lamps that gracefully blend the high tail into the rest of the chunky body, and fat, chrome-trimmed rub strips along the bottom of the doors that give the whole design a solidly-anchored feel. The chrome-ringed headlights blend seamlessly into the nose cone, and as you would expect of Lexus, all of the body panel gaps are razor-thin, giving the GS a real sense of quality and heft.
Heft is initially what you feel behind the GS’ wheel as well, despite the fact that this new car actually weighs about 30 kg less than the old one. The steering, brakes, and throttle all have a deliberate feel to them, and make the car feel slower than it actually is. This is fine, actually, when operating the GS around town with the six-speed automatic slurring silently between its closely-packed gears, but falls a bit short of the excitement promised by the car’s zoomy styling and big wheels.
Pick up the pace a bit, however, and you discover that the new GS actually has a bit of a split personality. The variable-geometry steering, while light and feel-free in town, gains feel and responsiveness when you’re working it at big angles, and the transmission has a switchable “power” mode that holds gears longer so that the engine can sing a louder song (you can also shift the six-speed auto manually). The new 3.0-litre, 245-hp direct-injection V6 reverses the tide of Lexus engines that have grown increasingly gruff over the last couple of years, while also providing even more power and even better fuel economy (I averaged 11.6 L/100 km, which is pretty good for such a large sedan).
Step up to the GS430 and things get even sportier. Not only does it have a powerful 300-hp V8 and bigger wheels and tires, but it’s also available with an electronically-adjustable suspension and Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. This next-generation stability control system not only works the brakes, throttle, and now steering, faster than ever before, but does so with much more subtlety as well. I tried VDIM on a wet test-track in Japan a couple of years ago, holding the throttle to the floor around a very tight slalom course; the prototype GS I was driving never deviated from the desired course, but crucially, never felt like its performance was being hamstrung by all of the electronic intervention.
Interestingly, where the new GS deviates from the old GS (and Lexus norm) is on the inside. Not only is the GS’ cabin roomier than the old one’s, but it’s also significantly more stylish, with the same kind of soft curves and sharp intersections that you find on the outside. Unlike the button-intensive Lexus dashboards of the past, the new one is deliberately stark, with a central touch screen surrounded by a minimal number of switches and knobs, and great big swaths of leather and black-stained wood on the console and doors.
Unfortunately, some of the complication is just hidden away, and one of the other old Lexus hallmarks – superior ergonomics – has suffered for the new sense of style. Case in point a lot of the controls that would normally be to the left of the steering wheel, such as the mirror switches and the switch to deactivate the parking radar, are now hidden in a drop-down panel that cleans up the dash a bit.
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Which is fine if it was just those buttons, but the trunk and fuel door releases are in there too, meaning you now have to push two buttons (and wait for the panel to drop down) before being able to do what you once could do with one push.
What’s worse, when the panel’s down, much of it is obscured by the steering wheel. The controls for the heated and ventilated seats are located in the centre console, but are often hidden under the sliding armrest; the seats themselves are wonderfully comfortable, but adjusting the headrests is a pain, because the buttons to release them are actually embedded into the leather, under a soft little circle that’s difficult to find, even in bright sunlight. On the plus side, the cabin’s materials are of exceptional quality as always, even the base stereo sounds fantastic (with an optional Mark Levinson system for true audiophiles), and space is never an issue except for very tall back-seat riders.
So what we have here is a more complicated car than it first seems. Which is probably actually better news for Lexus than if it had created something that was exactly what it seemed. Part of the whole experience of buying a luxury product – be it a car, a piece of clothing, whatever – is that sense of discovering hidden layers the more time you spend with it. It’s what helps to justify the extra expense over something cheaper and more practical; you want simple, buy a Corolla. The new GS isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s a far more interesting car than it once was. What will help it to sell, and grow Lexus’ share of the luxury pie, is that its newfound sense of intrigue comes packed along with the same solidity, quality, and superb ownership experience of previous Lexii. So it takes a bit longer than before to figure out the GS; the new car’s all the better for that.