I can’t be the only one tired with the current German pre-occupation with rock-hard suspension, unfathomable control systems and poor-quality materials.
What we need is a real alternative, something of a Johnny-come-lately to the car industry, to remind the sausage-sampling thigh-slappers that what their executive customers really want is reliable, usable, comfortable and entertaining transport to soothe their furrowed brows after a hard day in the boardroom.
Toyota, the world’s most successful car manufacturer, has been listening. They’ve been busily punting Lexus, their luxury offshoot, through something of a renaissance of late, with a new visual identity and a raft of new models scheduled to glide gently onto the market over the next few years.
The first of which, the new GS, arrives in the UK this month (April) in two guises – the 3.0-litre V6 GS300 and 4.3-litre V8 GS430. We’ve tried them both.
The previous Lexus GS looked a little too much like an upscaled Toyota Avensis and, while it was undoubtedly a fine car, this sector requires more than minicab levels of road presence. Lexus’ answer to that is a new design language they’ve dubbed L-Finesse.
L-Finesse draws upon Japanese cultural heritage in an attempt to offer a design laden with power and simplicity. It’s a subtle concept, more so than BMW’s ‘flame surfacing’, with good examples to be found in the ‘S’ contour around the interior door handle that curves back to lead into the armrest, matching the curve at the top edge of the rear light cluster that flicks down and forward to become the bumper line.
Simon Humphries, Group Manager of Lexus’ Global Design Management Division, describes how the new design language follows a distinctively Japanese practice.
“Japanese hospitality is very different from Western. In Western society, when I invite you into my home, I want you to make yourself at home. In Japan, hospitality is very much oriented toward anticipating the needs of your guest.”
“Applying that concept to, for example, the GS, we’re trying to anticipate the needs of the driver. When you approach the car in the dark, the light comes on inside. When you open the door, a single spotlight highlights the seat where you’ll sit. You sit down, start the ignition, and a light illuminates the gearshift lever. Once you turn on the engine, everything dims, and you’re ready to drive off.”
“All of it is building a sense of hospitality, of anticipation of the driver’s needs. And that is quintessentially Japanese, but it’s something that every customer in the world will appreciate.”
Some areas can feel a little clumsy in places, notably around the front with the somewhat Korean-looking grille and the bulbous headlights, but there’s no doubting the quality of the engineering. Panel gaps are miniscule and precise, and there’s a fascinating solution to the problem of where to locate the headlight washers: they glide out from behind a thin sliver of the chrome headlight surround, with less than a millimetre to spare either side.
It’s a design that needs to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated, with photographs all but hiding the strong, buttressed rear deckline and muscular, flared front wheel arches. The standard 17″ alloy wheels of the GS300 SE look a tad wimpy, though, with the bigger 18″ versions of the SE-L and GS430 doing a much better job of filling out those arches. The SE-L’s lip spoiler finishes off the rear of the car nicely, too.
The quality theme started by the exterior continues inside, of course. The soft-touch dashboard materials feel a foot thick, and joins between panels are executed with the conviction of a company confident in their manufacturing capabilities.
The seats are electrically adjustable in as many directions as you could need, and both driver and passenger seats have a three-position memory. While the seats themselves are supremely comfortable, sports fans may prefer more in the way of side bolstering for those more enthusiastic moments. The steering column, which features an excellent range of adjustment and is tied to the seat memory, retracts when the engine is switched off to make entry and exit easier.
Rear cabin space is more than enough for any size of golfing partner, despite the sloping roof line. The boot, while capable of stowing multiple sets of clubs, is accessed through a narrow opening and suffers from considerable wheel arch intrusion, creating something of a long ‘T’ shape that shorter owners may find difficult to retrieve belongings from.
Wake the car with a press of the Start button, leaving the key fob in your pocket. The instruments ahead burst into life (the needles spring into action first, followed by the numerals), revealing a trio of gorgeous metal-backed dials, covered by electro-chromatic glass that alters its transparency to match the current light levels to improve readability.
The centre console is devoted largely to an eight-inch touch-screen that is the main control method for the car’s various functions. Buttons arranged either side allow quick access to the assorted menus – climate, audio, map, etc – and the screens are clearly laid out and intuitive. The main principle at work here is of technology that’s transparent or simple to operate, and the touch-screen interface is the embodiment of that principle.
While the Lexus GS may be home to more gadgets than Tottenham Court Road, everything somehow just goes about its job without intervention.
Engaging reverse, for instance, automatically brings up the image from the rear view camera, complete with markings to help you judge whether the car and parking space are truly compatible. In addition, the front- and rear-mounted radar sensors combine with a steering angle sensor to warn the driver how close the vehicle is likely to get to nearby objects while parking, and can even suggest a corrective steering input to avoid swapping paint.
The satellite navigation covers the majority of Europe, and can even accept phone numbers to programme a destination. The points-of-interest database has been expanded, and linked to the voice command system – jab the steering wheel-mounted button and demand ‘Chinese restaurant’ and the system will oblige. You can even ring your order ahead at the touch of a button, a process made easier by the Bluetooth integration that pairs your mobile phone with the car’s built-in hands-free system.
As if that wasn’t enough, the navigation incorporates Electronic Traffic Avoidance, a system that uses information broadcast over the radio to stay abreast of delays on your chosen route. Should the GS detect an accident mid-journey, it’ll recalculate automatically to avoid it.
The climate system operates imperceptibly, too. Set your desired temperature (using the separate his ‘n’ hers controls), and leave the system to do the rest, monitoring not just temperature, but air quality and humidity, too. Further cockle-warming is offered by the front seats, which are both heated and ventilated.
Mounted below the touch-screen is the audio system, available in two flavours, both with a single-slot load mechanism for the in-dash six-disc changer. The standard hi-fi features ten speakers, including a 25cm subwoofer, while the custom-designed Mark Levinson system of the GS300 SE-L and GS430 adds a further four speakers to give a total of 350 watts. While we wouldn’t opt for the more powerful Mark Levinson system by choice, that’s more a measure of the standard unit’s competence than any deficiency of the more expensive set up.
With many of the rarely-used controls hidden away in a drop-down panel to the right of the steering wheel, there’s a sense that someone spent many hours obsessing over the interior details. Even the transmission lever and hi-fi volume control are relocated for right-hand drive markets. Our only gripe is the foot-operated parking brake, which works via a push-to-set/push-to-release mechanism that feels awkward at a time when many rivals (a la Jaguar S-Type) are switching to automatic parking brakes.
The Germans will no doubt be hoping that same attention to detail doesn’t extend as far as the driving experience. They’re in for a shock.
Engage drive on most automatic-equipped cars, and you’ll sense a jolt as the engine’s torque is transmitted through the drive-train. In the GS, this take up has been completely eliminated.
Out on the road, the new six-speed transmission blends one gear into the next virtually seamlessly. The ‘box is smart enough to hold on to ratios should the driver lift off the throttle quickly, perhaps while entering a fast corner, while a ‘Power’ mode indicates that the transmission should hold on to gears longer and venture nearer to the red line. In this mode, the system will also change down through the gears when braking, leading to a quick get away from roundabouts and junctions. In ‘Normal’ mode, though, the ‘box can be a little too interested in maintaining shift quality at the expense of rapid kick-down. Still, there’s a tiptronic function that allows enthusiastic drivers to sequentially select their own ratios and once a selection has made, the system will not change-up until you do, answering accusations of nannying normally levelled at these systems.
Both engines are super-smooth, the V8 having a slightly more refined and low-frequency warble versus the V6’s harder edged, almost supercharger-like whine that becomes evident higher up the rev range. During normal driving, there’s very little to indicate that either engine is actually running, particularly the V8, but despite their smoothness both power-plants are quick-acting and responsive.
While the 279bhp 4.3-litre V8 is carried over from the previous GS, the 245bhp 3.0-litre V6 is an all-new unit that deserves special mention for its frugality. Direct injection helps the GS300 to achieve 28.8mpg on the combined cycle, beating even the lighter and smaller-engined IS200 auto. During our tests, hitting 30+mpg wasn’t difficult, either.
Performance figures for both are on the interesting side of rapid, with the GS300 hitting 62mph in 7.2 seconds on its way to a 148mph top speed, while the GS430 executes the same test in 6.1 seconds with a slightly higher top end – 155mph.
The GS430 delivers its power like the proverbial velvet glove covering a steel fist. Mashing the pedal into the carpet creates very little in the way of fuss and bother, yet surprises with the rapidity with which the horizon arrives at the windscreen. Every gap in traffic becomes an overtaking opportunity, an exercise that sees you instantaneously swap places with the car in front, but without compressing your passengers into the crevices of the cabin.
There are, in fact, times when the power can almost overwhelm the experience. The chassis is quite capable of handling the engine’s output, and more, but somehow that kind of progress feels a little, well, ungentlemanly.
This theme continues into many of the 430’s other sensations, too. The brakes, while powerful, are a touch grabby at low speeds and difficult to modulate, making smooth pull-ups at traffic lights challenging.
The Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) system is equivalent to BMW’s Active Steering, and alters the steering gear ratio according to vehicle speed to reduce steering effort while parking or increase stability on the motorway. The Lexus’ system goes further, by actively applying steering corrections to assist the driver, for instance when the car detects understeer or to maintain a straight path in crosswinds.
However, as with the BMW system, the loss of a direct connection between wheels and helm robs the driver of some steering feel. There’s never any question as to whether the front wheels will obey their master’s voice, nor any indecision in the selection of a line through a corner, but somehow it’s just not as involving.
The GS300 feels better balanced overall. The brakes are easier to modulate and allow progressive braking to a standstill with no grabbiness, and the standard steering, untroubled by the 430’s VGRS system, is more direct.
Issues of the GS430 and 300’s varying degrees of driver involvement aside, both offer a spread of capabilities far wider than anything offered by the German competition. Both have extensive reserves of grip, with understeer so well controlled you may find yourself orbiting roundabouts for the sheer hell of it. The GS is a rear-wheel drive car, don’t forget, so power-on oversteer is available should a heavy right hoof request it. The various stability and traction control systems are happy to oblige, too, with the GS300’s VSC system allowing a respectable degree of sideways motion if provoked. The GS430 features the company’s new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), a complex system that couples the car’s various electronic systems together into a united silicon safety net. This system alone adds around £4,000 to the cost of the car, but the resulting safety benefit is indisputable, ensuring maximum traction even on wet or unmatched surfaces.
However, we found it dished out a more determined slap on the wrist when you finally overstepped the mark, by beeping furiously and retracting engine power. VDIM cannot be disabled, either.
Both models exude a quality of ride beyond that of the Germans. The compliance missing from the Audi A6’s suspension is clearly evident, as is the sporting intent that occasionally mars the BMW 5-series’ otherwise excellent composure. The GS430’s adaptive damping allows drivers to induce a slightly stiffer configuration, and it’s a change that’s distinctly noticeable, too. While either set-up may not be quite as focussed in any one particular direction, the Lexus manages to strike a more usable balance – supple and forgiving, yet controlled and roll-free.
The large-diameter wheels fail to corrupt the steering, a trait inflicted on the previous GS that would see it tramline and dart about disconcertingly over camber changes.
It’s all beginning to sound like a compelling package.
The GS range starts at £30,400 for the poverty-spec GS300 with fabric seats. The GS300 SE is likely to be the big seller – in return for 35,900 of your English pounds, you’ll receive 12 airbags, a whole swathe of electronic driver aids such as ECB, ABS, EBD, and VSC, a tyre pressure warning system, rain-sensitive wipers, automatic swivelling high-intensity discharge headlights with high-pressure wash, keyless entry, cruise control, electric heated and folding door mirrors (with a water-repellent coating), DVD-based satellite navigation with traffic avoidance, Bluetooth connectivity, rear-view camera, 10-speaker audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, electrically adjustable heated and ventilated driver and front passenger seats (both with memory), all-round one-touch electric windows, electric rear sunshade, soft-close bootlid, automatic climate control with clean air filter, and 17-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels. Despite the lack of an options list (apart from an electric sunroof at £850), you still have to stump up £375 for metallic paint, a stipulation we find bizarre given that every colour in the shade chart other than black is metallic.
Above that, the £38,000 SE-L model adds the 18″ alloy wheels of the GS430, a rear lip spoiler, electric sunroof and the Mark Levinson upgraded hi-fi.
The GS430 is available in only one model, priced at £46,755.
If we were in the market for the GS430, we’d find it hard to justify the additional £10,000 over and above the GS300 SE. Rather than any kind of indictment of the 430’s capabilities, that’s more a measure of the GS300’s well-balanced nature in all departments – it offers a better mix of driving abilities, more than adequate power and generous equipment levels.
Against the competition, it makes even more sense. The BMW 530i needs a £5,500 dabble in the options list to achieve a similar spec level, bringing the price to just over £41,000, while the Audi A6 3.2 needs an additional £9,500 and a £45,400 price tag!
Maintenance is set to be extremely competitive, with the life of many service items such as spark plugs and filters extended. Intervals are once a year or 10,000 miles for a ‘Health and Safety check’ with a service every two years or 20,000 miles. Service labour times have been reduced, with the 60,000 mile service down from 9.7 to 4.9 hours. Many other parts have been carefully designed so they can be replaced separately and cheaply in the event of an accident, leading to a group 16E rating for the boggo GS300 rising to 18E for the GS430.
Let’s not forget the issue of reliability. Lexus have recently topped the J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Survey for the fifth consecutive year. If security is more your bag, Lexus came top in the What Car? Security Supertest, again, for the fifth year running. And, if safety is what turns you on, the new Lexus GS achieved the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash test.
Despite having only been in existence for 15 years, Lexus are already challenging the likes of Mercedes-Benz, and they’ve had an 85 year head start. Yet, in 15% of the time, Lexus has managed to produce super-reliable, safe, secure, powerful, comfortable, luxurious and now, stylish cars, supplied and cared for by an enthusiastic dealer network.
It’s become a struggle to find reasons not to follow the example set by J.D. Power, What Car? and countless other studies, and award the new Lexus GS the full five stars. In the end, we felt that Lexus’ own yard-stick was the only worthy measure of success: the Pursuit of Perfection. Is the new GS perfect?
Well, no. It’s a handsome car, and muscular too, but not beautiful in the classical sense. The new L-Finesse design philosophy needs time to mature, and the slew of new models rapidly approaching our shores will no doubt give plenty of scope for just that. There’s no diesel option for Europe, and unlikely to be either, given the impending arrival of the petrol/electric hybrid GS450h in the next year or two. And, if we’re being really picky, the range of colours available is a little insipid.
Just the 4½ stars, then.
New L-Finesse design language gets its first outing in the new GS. It’s handsome, muscular even, but not necessarily beautiful from all angles. That aside, it’s a quality package, high on ergonomics, with a surprisingly competent chassis, good performance and quite incredible fuel economy from the GS300 for a car of its size. The GS300 is the better balanced of the two variants, with the SE model offering the best value for money. With outstanding reliability and a touchy-feely dealer network, you’d need a pathological dislike of Japanese cars to not put the new Lexus GS somewhere near the top of your list.