Reporters like to claim utter impassivity toward their subjects. Like a cardiologist fixing clogged arteries, we reporters are without favor. We treat the topic carefully, thoughtfully, get the job done efficiently, but when the next story comes along we offer equal ardor, dispassion and our laser-like eye for key details.
And I slept at a Holiday Inn Express, too, so just lie back and relax while I scrape the rust off this scalpel.
The reality is that we journalists, and especially critics -- as a test-drive columnist I am a critic, not a correspondent, editor or astronaut--play favorites all the time. Face it: In your job, there are fun things you do, and there's the drudgery. Mostly it's the latter.
As a car scribbler, I can make no such complaint. I love cars. And I get to study them and the industry. Oh, and I get to drive new cars all the time, too. I'm spoiled rotten--and luckily after more than half a decade on this ticket I've acquired a fair bit of knowledge that I can happily and heartily share with you.
But I'm hardly without bias.
You just read about one of them: I love cars. Why else would I do this? Bias No. 2: I love balance. Whether it's a minivan or a sports car, the suspension and powertrain should be well-mated, so the handling and steering work in harmony. Inside, a great car at any price should be as uncluttered as possible. A restaurant you'd want to eat at weekly wouldn't look like the inside of a Faberge egg; ditto for the cabin of a car you'll occupy for several hours a week.
Bias No. 3?
I'm a sucker for any car that steers intuitively, has a great transmission (preferably manual, but I'm not doctrinaire about this), and handles turns without nosediving earthward at the apex of bends or squirming unduly in emergency maneuvers. That's not to say a rocket ship or a go-kart would be my preference. A car that's driveable every day, such as a Mini Cooper or a Mazda Miata or a BMW 3 series are all just superb by this critic's likes, but even Honda's Acura MDX is a good example of a vehicle that suits all of my aforementioned biases.
Why tell you all this?
Because it's only fair for you to know at the outset what I like and don't. For instance, restaurant critics are full of ticks and quirks they seldom reveal overtly. Shame on them. If a food critic hates Asian food and proceeds to spend two decades panning sushi joints, he should just fess up to his inklings.
Given all of that, and this reporter's biases, this next bit of news might come as a mild surprise: I adore Toyota Motor's latest minting of the $51,375 Lexus GS430. The old GS? All wrong. It had a cramped backseat, flighty steering, a snarling V-8 that should have been sexy but instead seemed icily engineered for output, not verve, and a suspension that delivered a flinty ride without the actual grip to dance on blacktop the way BMW's latest 5 series does. The same can be said about Nissan's superb new Infiniti M45, by the way.
Well, forget the prior GS. The 2006 Lexus GS430 is balanced, fast, fun and fluid over rough pavement. The cabin is elegant, the seats are firm but not too sporty, folks in the second row will be nearly as comfortable as those up front, and if you can afford it, the Mark Levinson audio system sounds nearly as good as what we've heard kicking through Bentleys.
This car is just splendid. Perfect? Nah. There are flaws.
From The Driver's Seat
In J.D. Power's most recent vehicle-dependability study, guess which brand ranked No. 1. You got it, Lexus.
Mercedes, BMW, Audi? Only BMW ranked above average.
What's stunning isn't that Lexus' run of ultrareliable cars continues, but that its cars just get more and more smoothly packaged while becoming ever-more sophisticated.
For example, the GS430 comes standard with electrochromatic gauges that appear to glow, rather than be lit; the numbering is incredibly legible in all ambient light. Then there are the touches you can't see, such as standard Bluetooth connectivity with your Palm Treo (or other Bluetooth toys), and another system that detects your presence when you're outside the car (provided you've got a key on you) and turns on the sideview mirror puddle lighting as you approach and unlocks the doors as well.
There's also a standard ten-way power driver and passenger front seat, again standard, and these perches are heated as well.
Yeah, all that stuff is standard, as is a cabin that's far roomier than that of the current BMW 5 series, and for $51,125, this Lexus comes with a 300 horsepower V-8. It'll cost you $58,095 to get a V-8 in that BMW.
And all of those standard goodies (not including the V-8, of course) are so seamlessly integrated into the cabin of this car that we wonder what the inventors of iDrive were thinking exactly. One simple lesson from Lexus: Fields of buttons are ugly. Hide them. In the GS430, a small "button drawer" to the left of the steering wheel extends when you need to do something like adjust the mirrors (or reset the odometer, or do a few other things) and retracts and disappears otherwise.
In general, inhabiting the GS430 is like hanging at your favorite club when your favorite barkeep is pulling a shift. You feel supremely coddled. You spend less time hunting and pecking for dials or knobs. Somehow, controls are right where you think they should be. How novel, how delightful. How unlike so very many luxury cars these days.
Delightful is also how we'd describe the driving experience. The V-8 is a silent partner when you're simply running errands in the neighborhood. The suspension, too, seems pliant, smooth, reasonably firm but not too blunt. Toss the car about with more abandon, tip the throttle deeper toward the floor, manually shift through the six forward gears (with the manumatic shifter), and the GS wakes up to its true calling, chasing down 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, accelerating absolutely cleanly but not numbly, and telling your rump just where the car is positioned on the pavement mid-turn.
Looking for a false note?
Here's one: Lexus' new VDIM "active control" system is designed to be an even more advanced stability control setup. Unfortunately, it's too advanced for its own good. You can drive this car very aggressively, but VDIM is always interpreting your actions. Brake too hard, and it thinks you're trying to avoid an accident and locks the brakes down harder. Set up the car to head sideways through a turn, and it keeps "correcting" your route.
Now, most people don't like to slide a car around a corner. That scares them, as it probably should. But if you're a little nuts, you know that a BMW (or an Audi) will let you play like this. Not Lexus. You can't completely shut VDIM off. Actually, you can, because there's a diagnostic tool for mechanics that allows the total disabling of VDIM, but the sequence of button pushing is so long and involved we can't imagine any buyer bothering.
And besides, given how supremely this car handles anyway, we're not sure who would miss BMW-like tire smoke.
Should You Buy This Car?
Here's another bias of this reviewer: Don't take only my advice when it comes to buying a car. It's a huge expenditure. Would you buy $50,000 of stock based on one guy's advice? I hope not. But unlike stock, when buying a car there's one person's opinion that matters more than that of the expert: yours.
So, don't you dare buy a GS, or the really great Acura RL or a BMW 530i, which we also dig wholeheartedly, without first TEST DRIVING them. I don't mean just sitting in a car at the dealer. Drive it. Would you pay the bill at a restaurant without eating? No. So why buy a car without driving it first? And yet millions of cars are sold each year in this country without a test drive. Don't be one of those people. Be smart, do your homework. That's the very best advice I can offer, even about a Lexus that's darned near perfect.