Should the BMW 5-Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class be worried by the all-new Lexus GS?
For the all-new Lexus GS, it's time to mix in business with pleasure. After being busy in recent years playing around with sportier models, including the LFA supercar, Lexus is looking for its new luxury sedan to get down to the serious task of performing better than its predecessor against mighty German opposition.
The range that must compete against the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class starts with the Lexus Lexus GS250 and Lexus GS350, which supersede the previous-generation models that failed to make a real dent in the segment.
Even though Lexus may not have the hundred plus years of history that the Germans so proudly boast, it has never lacked the determination to be the best. But what differs from the Lexus we've come to know and what we find in the new GS range, is attitude.
Lexus is renown for quite, comfortable and somewhat understated vehicles, something no one seems to have told the engineers of the new GS. Not only is the new Lexus GS range designed to be sporty, but long gone are the days where all you could hear in a Lexus was the sound of coins vibrating in your pocket.
With the introduction of the F sport range, Lexus IS-F V8 sedan and Lexus LFA supercar, Lexus is a brand determined to be sporty and comfortable. For example, the new GS250 and GS350 variants have had their exhaust note tuned so that it almost emulates the mechanical barks and growls of the IS-F.
From the outside the Lexus GS represents the company’s new look, incorporating the spindle grille we first saw on the CT200h. It’s well proportioned for its shape and signals the design direction the Japanese are headed in. In many ways the new GS is a step forward in Lexus’ traditionally conservative styling but it's not exactly an over-the-top design.
With the introduction of the new Lexus GS range comes a $10,000+ reduction in starting price. The entry model Lexus GS250 luxury (which replaces the GS300) retails for $77,900, positioning it head to head with the BMW 520i ($77,900), Mercedes-Benz E220 ($83,300), Audi A6 ($77,900) and the Jaguar XF 2.2 diesel ($78,900) while the GS350 (from $89,900) takes on the turbocharged 535i ($115,600) and E350 ($132,625).
Though Lexus may have changed its attitude in some ways, it’s still offering substantially more standard equipment than the Europeans. Even the entry model GS250 comes standard with a satellite navigation system working through an 8-inch LCD screen (with Bluetooth audio and telephone support), blind spot and tyre monitor systems, parking sensors and clearance sonar, reversing camera, bi xenon HID headlamps, 17 inch alloy wheels and 10-way electric front seats, just to name a few. You can read the list of standard features here.
Before the launch of the Lexus GS450h hybrid in May, the 2.5-litre GS250 and 3.5-litre GS350 will be the only two models available. There are currently no official plans for a Lexus GS-F performance variant but given the enormous investment Lexus has made into the LFA and F program in general, there is little reason to doubt that a GS-F is simply a matter of when, not if.
Nonetheless, we don’t have to wait for an F variant just to have a sporty car. Lexus has taken a page out of BMW's book of car design, engineering all GS variants with genuine sporty credentials. In fact, there are far more resemblances to the 5 series in terms of ride and handling than the E-class and the F-Sport model grades are a good match up to the M-packages on the 5 Series.
The GS250’s 2.5-litre engine coupled to a six-speed transmission (shared with the IS250 but with different gear ratios) outputs 154kW of power and 253Nm of torque, with a 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.6 seconds (9.3L/100km fuel usage). The notable aspect of this package is the sound.
Although the IS and GS250 both use the same engine, GS sounds like a completely different beast, thanks to the addition of a resonator and the removal of a muffler valve. Its integration is so vital that despite the average acceleration times, it simply feels faster because of the way it sounds.
The 3.5-litre V6 found in the GS350 is the one to pick if you’re shopping against an E350 or 535i. With 233kW of power and 378Nm of torque, the sporty Lexus dashes from 0-100km/h in a very respectable six seconds (9.7L/100km fuel usage). It also resonates a very meaty sound from its twin exhausts.
Given the company’s high level of confidence in the new GS’s driving dynamics, Lexus flew us to Albury to drive through a series of mountain ranges with an autocross program thrown in to demonstrate the GS350 F Sport’s integration of dynamic rear steering (DRS), adaptive variable suspension (AVS), variable gear ratio steering (VGRS) and electric power steering (EPS).
That’s a lot of acronyms for what is essentially a system that turns the rear wheels between zero to two degrees either in counter-steer or same-direction steer when speeds are above 80km/h. More on this later.
To understand the type of car the new Lexus GS is, it’s best to ask the person who was in charge of its development. We drove with the Lexus GS program's chief engineer, Yosihiko Kanamori, for a spirited drive up the mountain and quizzed him about the car's evolution.
He said that each time an iteration of the new GS prototype was complete, Akio Toyoda (the boss of Toyota, Lexus and the great grandson of the company's founder) would request further ride and handling improvements, until he was finally satisfied. It's a good sign when the boss of a company as large as Toyota and Lexus takes such a keen interest in a vehicle's driving dynamics, particularly when one of his favourite pass times is improving his lap record around the infamous Nurburgring race track in Germany.
We started our journey in a GS250 Sports Luxury ($99,900) and were instantly thrilled by the exhaust note and surprised by the upmarket interior. Although Lexus vehicles generally have good interiors, the Camry-like centre console of the old GS was never going to win any awards.
So it’s good to know that it’s now a thing of the past, replaced by the world’s largest multimedia screen, measuring a cool 12.3-inches (only standard on Sport Luxury variants, otherwise it’s an 8-inch screen), which is noticeably bigger than an iPad.
The big screen is controlled by a remote touch system that is akin to a computer mouse. You simply move the little joystick around the screen to select what you want and push down. It’s a little sensitive at first and can at times become frustrating but it’s something you get use to pretty quickly. It lacks the internet connectivity (via tethering of your smartphone) of BMW’s iDrive and Mercedes-Benz's Comand system, but that’s unlikely to be a feature that will be missed with its core demographic.
The 20-way adjustable front seats are an absolute treat, as is the air-conditioning system which sends out negatively charged microscopic nanoe ions that have about 1,000 times greater water content than regular air ions, to help prevent dry skin and hair (something the missus will easily get sold on). If that doesn’t tantilise your taste buds, what about the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system that is worth sitting in the car for even when there’s no journey at hand.
The Lexus GS250’s performance is more than adequate for a luxury large car and on par with entry model European luxury saloons. It’s easy to maneuver around town and fast enough to keep up with traffic.
The six-speed automatic is seamless and goes mostly unnoticed, unless you elect to shift gears manually using the standard paddle-shifters. There are three driving modes across the GS range: eco, normal and sport. Sport+ is available on all but the base model luxury variants. For everyday driving normal is the one to go for with Sport and Sport+ drastically changing the feel and drivability of the GS. Up through the mountain ranges we stuck it in Sport+, which not only changed the suspension but also improved steering feel.
Around the bends the GS feels just like a 5 Series. Stable, composed and determined. The main difference here is the rear steering system. The difference that a mere two degrees of turning angle for the rear wheels can make, is astounding. Lexus gave us the opportunity to drive the previous generation GS, a new GS with standard suspension, a new GS with variable suspension and the crème of the crop, a new GS with the lot, including rear steering, through an autocross course.
The result? Unbelievably better cornering feel with rear steering ticked. It initially feels as though the rear end is about to come loose to enter an oversteer situation, but it’s simply turning in. It feels like a totally different car, able to enter and exit corners at a much higher speed.
The Lexus GS350 is the one to go for if you have even the slightest bit of car enthusiast blood in you. It may be a tad slower than the equivalent 535i but push it hard and it feels just as surefooted. Lexus Australia says it bought a new BMW 535i and a Mercedes-Benz E350 to examine their strengths and weaknesses against the GS350.
The cost of the equivalent 535i (with all the appropriate options ticked) was $49,000 more whilst the E350 set you back an additional $30,000. Of course, the difference is hard to measure just on a feature list basis and technically the engine and transmission combo of the Germans is superior to that of Lexus.
Furthermore, Lexus has traditionally struggled to convince the euro-loving premium car buyers in Australia to its cause, regardless of the price and feature advantage.
However, it’s fair to point out that the new Lexus GS range is by and the large the best to date, offering excellent driving dynamics and unrivalled value for money against its European rivals.
The Audi A6, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class will at last have to look over their shoulder at a Lexus.
Luxury + Enhancement pack $81,900
F Sport $85,900
F Sport + Enhancement pack 1 $88,900
F Sport + Enhancement pack 2 $91,900
Sports Luxury $99,900
Luxury + Enhancement pack $95,900
F Sport $99,900
F Sport + Enhancement pack $102,900
Sports Luxury $109,900