The Lexus GS has been chasing the BMW 5 Series for more than two decades. This year, it may have finally leapfrogged its benchmark prey.
Rewind your clock back to the late 1980s, when the midsize four-door sport sedan segment was dominated by BMW. The Bavarian automaker was selling rear-wheel-drive sedans (with manual transmissions, no less) that were every bit as powerful and agile as they were luxurious and comfortable – the best of both worlds, felt many buyers. Of course, it didn't take long for other automakers to get in on the action.
Lexus made its first legitimate attempt at the segment in 1998, with the introduction of its second-generation GS sedan. Despite many accolades, the sporty four-door arrived just in time to compete against BMW's E39, a 5 Series platform that was arguably one of its all-time best. Even after the third-generation GS (2006-2011) went head-to-head with BMW's Bangle-styled E60, the Lexus was still playing catch-up despite its strong performance and loads of new and innovative technology.
But today things are very different. There are now a handful of genuine players in the segment, including very capable sport sedans from Audi, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz. BMW recently released its sixth-generation F10 5 Series, but the applause has been notably muted. Will that automaker's arguable misstep allow the all-new third-generation Lexus GS to capture the lead? We spent a week with the Japanese sport sedan to find out.
After a slew of early teasers and leaks, Lexus officially introduced its all-new 2013 GS 350 at Pebble Beach in August of 2011. Its bold new appearance (complete with the automaker's new signature spindle grille) hid a sophisticated new platform even more rigid than its predecessor. The track was also widened and the suspension redesigned to further improve handling. While the V6 engine was only slightly massaged and the V8 was dropped completely, the clean-sheet interior would be almost unrecognizable to a previous-generation GS driver.
First out the gate at the Concourse event was the rear-wheel-drive GS 350, fitted with a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 306 horsepower. It was soon followed at the 2012 Frankfurt Motor Show by the GS 450h, a gasoline-electric hybrid with a total system power of 338 horsepower, and then came all-wheel-drive variants. Most interesting to us, however, were the enthusiast-tuned F Sport models that debuted the following month at SEMA.
The F Sport models, in the words of Lexus, are "designed to engage driving enthusiasts with factory engineering and the ability to take performance to an entirely new level." To accomplish this mechanically, GS F Sports are fitted with 19-inch alloy wheels with performance tires, F Sport-tuned Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), upgraded suspension bushings, thicker anti-roll bars and larger front brakes with high-performance brake pads. Rear-wheel-drive models also gain the automaker's Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS).
Cosmetically, the GS F Sport models are visually identified by their distinctive sport front bumper (with unique mesh grille inserts) and rear lower valance. There is also a rear lip spoiler on the trunk decklid and F Sport badging on each front quarter panel. Inside the cabin, the performance tuned models feature 16-way power driver's sport seats and other minor cosmetic upgrades, including available Cabernet Red leather.
Our test car, a 2013 Lexus GS 350 F Sport, was painted Liquid Platinum over black leather with Striated Aluminum trim. It arrived carrying a base MSRP of $46,900 and its costliest option was the F Sport package ($5,690), including 19-inch staggered alloy wheels, Adaptive Variable suspension (AVS), Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS), upsized brakes, F Sport driver's seat, black headliner, F Sport aerodynamic package and more. The Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio System ($1,380) added a 17-speaker, 835-watt sound package and the Navigation package ($1,735) introduced the 12.3-inch high-resolution split-screen display. Lastly, our car was fitted with Intuitive Park Assist ($500) and an Accessory package ($242) with trunk mat, cargo mat and locking wheel locks. Add in the destination fee ($875), and our total was $57,332. Sadly, our test car was missing the Lexus Dynamic Handling System, including its rear steering actuator that is capable of turning the wheels up to two degrees to improve handling.
It arrived carrying a base MSRP of $46,900 and its costliest option was the F Sport package ($5,690).
Its aggressive pricing structure places the Lexus right where it needs to be when pitted against the pricing sought for its sporty competitive set such as the Infiniti M37 (base price $48,200), Audi A6 3.0T ($50,400), Mercedes-Benz E350 ($51,000) and the BMW 535i ($53,100) – we don't need to remind anyone that there isn't a single poor choice on that list.
After more than a year, we have had plenty of time to get used to the GS's bold new look. Whether one approves of it or not, it is unquestionably aggressive and sporty from just about every angle. And, to the designer's credit, it has lost none of its trademark "Lexus" profile. The F-Sport enhancements integrate well with the design, serving to improve its overall appearance without looking forced, cheap or aftermarket. The staggered wheels (painted a hue that hides brake dust) are also attractive and the rear spoiler blends cleanly with lines of the trunk.
On paper, the new GS 350 F Sport reads like a midsize sport sedan champ – especially in specification.
The 3,795-pound sedan will still break the 60 mph benchmark in about 5.7 seconds.
Carried forward from last year with only a few tweaks is a naturally aspirated all-aluminum 3.5-liter V6. The four-valve engine takes advantage of the automaker's dual Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) to generate 303 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 274 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. A six-speed automatic transmission (Toyota's A760E) delivers power to the rear wheels in one of three electronically controlled modes (Eco, Normal and Sport). Despite a lack of launch control on the traditional torque converter gearbox, the 3,795-pound sedan will still break the 60 mph benchmark in about 5.7 seconds. Keep your right foot planted and the Lexus won't run out of steam until about 142 mph.
Underpinning the redesigned sport sedan is an all-new suspension engineered to improve cornering precision and respond better to irregularities in the road surface. Up front, the upper and lower control arms are cast in lightweight aluminum, while the rear multi-link setup (mounted in a completely redesigned subframe) uses the same alloy in its control arms. Even the oil within the dampers has been changed to a lower viscosity in an effort to improve its responsiveness. Standard on the F Sport is the AVS with driver-selectable shock absorber damping.
The front brakes utilize four-piston calipers over ventilated rotors and there are single-piston sliding calipers over ventilated rotors on the rear. The F Sport also wears upgraded 19x8-inch cast aluminum alloy wheels at all four corners. For grip, Lexus had configured our test vehicle with Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer tires (265/35YR19), but production rubber will also be supplied from Dunlop, Michelin and Yokohama.
Standard on the F Sport is the AVS with driver-selectable shock absorber damping.
Before pressing the 'Start/Stop' button, drivers should familiarize themselves with the four different driving configurations offered by the new Lexus Drive Mode Selector, which is located just behind the traditional console-mounted transmission lever (PRND+/-). In a nutshell, the engineers have incorporated a slew of electronically controlled performance settings into the vehicle that may be accessed through the puck-sized round dial.
By default, the system reverts to Normal mode (blue dash illumination, standard throttle mapping, comfort-oriented gearshifts, standard AVS damping and full power to all accessories) when the vehicle is started or the button is pushed straight down. Those seeking a bit more dance in their step will need to turn the dial to the right to activate Sport S mode (red dash illumination, quicker throttle mapping, firmer AVS damping and full power to all accessories).
If that doesn't get juices flowing, some models (including our high-end GS) also allow yet another turn to the right for enthusiast-tuned Sport S+ mode (red dash illumination, sport throttle mapping, sport AVS damping, sport steering effort, sport VSC logarithms and other powertrain enhancements), On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, a turn of the dial to the left will initiate ECO mode (blue dash illumination, slow throttle mapping, reduced seat heating and reduced climate control operation). Understandably, ECO mode is configured for those who are most concerned with reducing fuel consumption.
The truly massive 12-inch split-screen infotainment display is positively eye-opening.
Lexus has done a fine job with its GS passenger cabin as it is roomy for up to five passengers and very comfortable. Gone is any hint of wrap-around styling, but the 90-degree panel angles are fresh, stylish and well... youthful. The primary instrument cluster, with its two large Optitron analog dials (tachometer and speedometer) and a TFT multi-function display, remains familiar. Not so for the truly massive 12-inch split-screen infotainment display on the center console. It is positively eye-opening, and in a very good manner. Everyone marveled at the colorful and easy-to-read display, although it does take some time to become familiar with its joystick-like interface – now controlled via the current Lexus Remote Touch haptic joystick on the center console – and not everyone will like the amount of light pollution the large screen puts out at night, even on its dimmest setting.
A fine sport sedan is comfortable in the daily commute and luxurious on the open highway all while remaining competent in the canyons. We happily report that the 2013 Lexus GS 350 earns high marks in all three of those categories.
Our favorite drive mode, without question, was Sport S. Even though Normal mode felt plenty sporty (almost 'un-Lexus-like', truth be told), the Sport S setting provided much quicker steering response, better throttle feel and firm (but not abusive) shock damping. The ride was good, even in this aggressive setting, with cornering grip levels that were very high (the sticky tires wear a treadwear rating of just 140).
The steering on the Lexus (in Sport S or Sport S+ mode) feels damn near go-kart quick.
The GS 350 is considerably lighter than the BMW 535i (the German tips the scales at 4,090 pounds), and that pays dividends in the handling department. The BMW drives with a comparatively heavy feel while the Lexus comes across with a much more agile demeanor. Road feedback though the wheel isn't perfect, but effort and initial turn-in is spot-on. We'll go so far to say that the steering on the Lexus (in Sport S or Sport S+ mode) feels damn near go-kart quick. There was plenty to enjoy with the F Sport sedan, especially when zipping merrily through our favorite mountain roads.
To be perfectly honest, we were more than a bit wary about the GS's powertrain at first. As competitors move towards forced induction and seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions, the Lexus soldiers forward with an engine/gearbox combo that debuted in 2007. Our concerns were diffused after just minutes behind the wheel, as the gearbox responded brilliantly to our commands (with our right foot or with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters) to deliver a solid kick in the pants. The engine provided plenty of punch, and its throaty soundtrack just may be the best in its competitive segment (credit a new Helmholtz resonator and a retuned muffler). We never tired of hearing its full-throttle wail.
We're now wondering if this particular enthusiast-tuned GS is a better sport sedan than the benchmark BMW 535i.
After a week in the driver's seat, the 2013 Lexus GS 350 F Sport left us very impressed – so much so that we're now wondering if this particular enthusiast-tuned GS is a better sport sedan than the benchmark BMW 535i. Those are strong considerations, but the third-generation Japanese contender delivers quicker acceleration, more grip and a much more engaging driving experience. The BMW 5 Series is a fine automobile, but it appears that Lexus has finally managed to raise the all-important sport sedan bar just a bit higher.