x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Road Test: Lexus is back on form with 2013 GS

At last Lexus has produced a GS that lives up to the original in terms of style and sporty endeavour.

The 2013 Lexus GS350 is the boldest statement of intent to come from the Japanese marque in quite some time.  Courtesy of Lexus
The 2013 Lexus GS350 is the boldest statement of intent to come from the Japanese marque in quite some time. Courtesy of Lexus

The original was lovingly shaped by Italian legend Italdesign Giugiaro, crafted by dedicated Japanese worker bees eager to share their relentless pursuit of perfection and sold with an eye-popping combination of luxury and bargain-basement pricing. It was also a sporty car, dedicated to peeling rubber and making vroom noises on command. The year was 1993, the car was the GS300 and the Lexus brand was still cloaked in success.

Then rot and darkness settled in. Lexus, like all its Japanese compatriots, became cautious in both styling and engineering. The GS's promise of European performance with Japanese reliability faded. The GS became one of the luxury segment's most ignored cars and the lustre was quickly fading from Lexus' sheen.

I suspect that somnolence is about to end.

Unlike the previous remake, the 2013 GS is essentially all-new from the ground up. Even more important is that its tired, please-don't-notice-me persona has been jettisoned. Gone, for instance, is the bland styling, replaced with what surely can be forgiven (considering Lexus' styling gurus have only just recently been granted artistic freedom) is a grille that's a little over the top. Nevertheless, a little too aggressive is a whole bunch better than really boring and, if all those slashes and scoops in the front fascia do nothing else, they at least signal there's a new car sporting the GS badge.

I tested the full-zoot sporting GS350 - labelled the F Sport - packed with all manner of sporting technologies that BMW M brag about so insufferably. Besides the stiffer suspension and uprated dampers, for instance, there's an adjustable suspension, complete with its own rotary control button and bright digital readout on the dashboard's 310mm LCD screen. Not only does this computerised system vary damping between "normal" and "sport +" but even within those two base settings, the electronics monitor how stiff or soft the shocks have to be.

The result is an all-independent (double wishbones in front and a multi-link rear) suspension system that's more than just tokenly firm. Fully-zoomed out in its sport + mode, the GS exhibits precious little roll and a spectacular level of grip. Even the steering is calibrated AMG firm rather than Asian flighty. If anything, I'd recommend that the steering effort could be a little lighter at car park speeds; but only if it didn't affect the excellent feedback it generates at higher speeds. The rear-wheel-drive version of the F gets a variable-ratio steering system which should alleviate the problem; quite why the available AWD version doesn't is quite the mystery.

Nor is the ride dramatically sacrificed for this new-found turn of speed. Oh sure, current Lexus loyalists will almost certainly be surprised by the new GS's firmness but, really, it's nothing that hasn't been offered in a BMW M suspension package before.

Lexus' evergreen 3.5L V6 has also been upgraded for 2013, though to a far lesser degree. Horsepower is up to 306, a miniscule jump of two horses. Mid-range torque has also been fattened up, but this is still a motor that likes to rev.

It also likes to make noises doing so. Lexus has, believe it or not, added a sound generator to the intake plumbing and, if you put your foot into it, there's an entire symphony of V6 engine noises to be had. As much as the new-found boldness is lauded, however, it is worth noting that no V6, even this one massaged by the masters of refinement, can match the sweetness of an inline six. In this one regard, BMW's 535 still holds the advantage. One that is extended somewhat by Lexus's decision to soldier on with a six-speed automatic transmission. Eight is now de rigueur when it comes to self-shifting cogs and upstart Hyundai is rumoured to be working on a 10-speed slushbox.

The F Sport is, however, available with all-wheel-drive, the tester transmitting 30 per cent of its torque to the front wheels under normal circumstances and 70 per cent to the rear; 50/50 distribution is available if everything goes awry. It's worth noting that the F Sport is available in AWD and RWD guises; the slightly sportier front-driver gets wider rear tyres and one of those rear-wheel steering mechanisms that keeps going in and out of vogue. And lastly, rear-wheel-drive F Sport models get a set of two-piece full-floating front disc brakes, a rarity even among exotic sports cars. Braking is, needless to say, exemplary. Again, why the AWD version of the F Sport doesn't benefit is a mystery.

If the exterior's styling is trying just a tad too hard, the cabin's decor speaks of a designer at the top of their game with equal measures of audacity and elegance. This is, in a simple comparison, the first interior to challenge Audi for the leadership in savoir faire.

Imbued, as so many luxury cars are now, with an on-board computer that seemingly controls everything, the GS is a brilliant mesh of uncluttered Spartan beauty and sensible functionality. Buttonry, thanks to that computer, is minimised, but only where sensible. Radio stations are scanned via that computer thingie but can also be changed manually via knob (which, by the way, is machined, not cast, from aluminium, just like the volume control switch).

The computer thing-a-ma-bob, meanwhile, is mostly simple to use, aided in large part by a "mouse" that really is a mouse and not just a twirly thing that can just go around in circles. With the GS's controller you can move the scroll arrow in any direction. When it approaches an icon, it hones in and you simply tap it.

Perusing is made easier because Lexus offers an optional LCD screen that is a humongous 310mm wide. It dwarfs anything I've seen in a dashboard, at least in a dashboard not modified by Big Pimpin' TV. That means you can divide the screen between the navigation system and the radio and still read either. Consider this a must-have upgrade. The only negative to Lexus' take on the on-board computer is that, unlike the Audi system, which has a "back" button right beside the controller, the Lexus' is on-screen and not nearly as tidy to use.

There's plenty more to admire about the decor, however. My tester had a special-order Red Rock leather, which adds both pizzazz and class. The 18-way adjustable front seats are heated and ventilated and the steering wheel can be likewise climate enhanced. There's even a nice little bejewelled clock in the centre dash whose little arms are actually more milled aluminium, rather than cheap plastic.

It all adds up to a GS as enticing as the original.

It's fast, it's sporty and, perhaps most of all, it has a personality. The relatively minor disappointment that it may not have the latest in transmission technology should be at least somewhat mitigated by Lexus's decision to hold the base price line down to Dh195,000. And even the full boat F Sport with all-wheel-drive rings in for less than the Dh300,000 mark at Dh290,000.

After a much-lamented absence, Lexus would appear to be aggressively back in the car business. And it's about time, too.

The specs

Price, base / as tested Dh195,000 / Dh290,000

Engine 3.5L V6

Gearbox Six-speed automatic

Power 312hp @ 6,400rpm

Torque 377Nm @ 4,800rpm

Fuel economy, combined 9.1L/100km