While it might lack the full-blooded punch of the hard-core GS F we drive in Spain last year, the GS 350 F Sport feels reassuringly familiar from behind the wheel.
It’s hard to understand why Lexus has been so often overlooked by those in the market for a quality prestige drive, but with the launch of the latest Lexus GS 350 F Sport, the Japanese carmaker seems primed to put itself squarely back in the spotlight.
This is a car that surely deserves your undivided attention, with fresh styling, even more kit and vastly improved handling and ride performance.
Mind, steeping into the ring with the likes of Audi’s latest A6, BMW’s 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class and Jaguar’s XF was never going to be a walkover for the Japanese carmaker, even one in ‘pursuit of perfection’. To succeed against this formidable Euro onslaught, Lexus knew it had to punch well above its weight if it was to convince discerning buyers to make the switch.
Performance, styling, and most of all, cachet, have always belonged to the German and Brit marques – they’ve been honing those qualities for near on a century. Lexus, on the other hand, has been building cars for less than three decades.
Despite the relatively short run, Lexus has made remarkable progress and nowhere is this more evident than with the recently-refreshed GS model. It’s the culmination of 27 years of evolution in Lexus design and showcases the company’s bold new corporate face that looks to be every bit as striking, as it is polarising.
The centrepiece to this newfound identity is the latest rendition of Lexus’ so-called ‘spindle’ grille, which comes to life for the very first time on the new GS. It not only gives the car one of the most striking front-end designs in the brand’s current line-up, but in the entire luxury midsize segment.
That new face is further enhanced by swoosh-style DRLs (Daylight Running Lights), which not only provide the finishing touch, but also serve as a distinctive light signature amongst a set of exceptionally well-lit rivals.
Lexus seems to have found its mojo again, something it has struggled to rekindle ever since the company launched its groundbreaking LS 400 in 1989. There was a car that was universally praised for its quietness, refinement and superior build quality, although it was criticised by some for derivative styling.
There’s real character and desirability to this new look GS line, and if you’re anything like me it definitely grows on you, especially after a week behind the wheel. I truly believe Lexus is at a turning point with their design language, where it is able to mount a genuine challenge against the best Europe has to offer in the sports-sedan segment.
Adding even more flair to our GS 350 tester is the popular F-Sport package, which has already become the default trim choice across the entire Lexus model range.
Lexus claims over 60 per cent of all Lexus customers choose the performance-focused F Sport spec over the entry-level Luxury trim and top-shelf Sports Luxury versions, regardless of the model.
It’s an entirely understandable choice too, particularly with the GS, adding larger, more assertive 19-inch wheels (up from 18), unique exterior body kit including new front and rear bumpers, adaptive suspension, rear-wheel steering and variable ratio steering - all of which go hand-in-hand with the car’s deservedly sporty character.
Inside, Lexus has pulled off a similar coup. This is a genuinely exciting place to spend some time. Whether you’re carving up the corners, or just crawling along in traffic, there’s plenty to like.
Materials are mostly a cut above most of those in European luxury rivals. You’d be hard pressed to find more supple leather than that used to upholster the entire GS 350 F Sport cabin. The front buckets offer such extraordinary comfort as to rival your favourite TV armchair; such is the degree of padding and anatomical design invested in them.
Even the leather padding on the armrests of each door feels extra thick and comfy, while the floor mats resemble shag pile rather than the standard half-millimetre material used in other makes.
Like any Lexus, the GS 350 F-Sport is equipped with a huge array of electronic gadgetry, though highlights include a high-end 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, Head-Up Display (HUD) and a super-size 12.3-inch infotainment screen (now with full-screen navigation), which controls all of the car’s infotainment functions and Bluetooth telephony.
But the only way to move about the screen is via Lexus’ mouse-style Remote Touch Interface toggle, which despite various functional updates along the way, it remains an inherently fiddly device that’s far from ideal, especially if you’re on the move.
Although the 2016 GS will accommodate five, rear seat space is more suited to two adults of standard build and height. Taller folks will find rear leg and headroom less appealing. At around 520 litres capacity, boot space is on par with the segment, though the rear seats don’t fold forward in order to expand that space further.
Perhaps the biggest gains for the new GS, outside of the design and comfort aspects, have been made in the ride and handling department. It’s here where Lexus have finally produced a luxury sedan capable of putting a smile on your face, while matching its key competitors in the dynamic arena.
New to the 2016 Lexus GS range is the $75,000 entry-level GS 200t, which replaces V6-powered GS 250 and joins the updated GS 300h priced from $78,000, GS 350 from $94,000 and GS 450h priced from $106,000.
Whereas the new GS 200t uses the zesty new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine (from the NX, IS and RX) that produces 180kW and 350Nm of torque, the GS 350 F Sport sticks with Lexus’ decade-old, naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6, producing 232kW and 380Nm.
Despite its long service, it’s still a thoroughly modern engine with direct injection, quad cams and four valves per cylinder with variable valve timing. It’s also smooth, free revving and one of the most refined powertrains in the business, especially when mated to an intelligent eight-speed auto transmission.
Mind, peak torque doesn’t come on-song until 4800rpm, but it pulls well from around 3000rpm, though you’ll want to dial up Sport or Sport Plus modes for more potent engine response and quicker shift mapping.
Give it the beans from a standing start and it doesn’t hang about, claiming 6.0 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint. Top speed is 235km/h.
That said, drive it like a snail and you might achieve Lexus’ claim of 9.3L/100km for the GS 350 F-Sport, but drive it normally and you’re more likely to see 12.8L/100km, as I returned over a week.
Lexus has got the electric power steering just about right on the GS 350 F Sport. This is one EPAS system that doesn’t feel contrived. Combine this with adaptive suspension, active rear-wheel steering and superb weight balance and this is a car that rewards an enthusiastic driver with crisp, predictable handling.
The tightly damped body control means there’s no discernable body roll on turn-in, even when forcibly hurried. You can honestly feel that rear axle steering at work, as is dials in up to 2 per cent of opposing steering angle to the front wheels.
While it might lack the full-blooded punch of the hard-core V8-powered GS F we drove late last year in Spain, the GS 350 F-Sport feels reassuringly familiar.
This is a proper sports sedan capable of delivering the same level of dynamic reward as any of its euro rivals with only a small sacrifice in ride comfort.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Mitchell Oke.