As snow flurried over the windscreen and the road glistened with ice, I saw the back of the pick-up truck ahead of me shimmy as it lost traction – there was a good half a second of absolutely no grip for the driver of the vehicle.
Then a plume of white arose on the other side of the highway, and I looked over to see another rear-drive utility lose it, completing a 360-degree spin before sliding off the side of the road. A few hundred metres away was an old wagon, ploughed into the grass between the carriageways.
This was upstate New York in the midst of its first new-season wintery blast, as a snowstorm bore down upon the state. But I wasn’t concerned, because my 2016 Lexus GS AWD was up to dealing with the slippery conditions, and I knew that over our few-thousand kilometre road trip from New York city to Niagara Falls then down through Pennsylvania we'd be fine. Or I hoped we'd be fine...
We don’t get much snow or ice on the roads in Australia, and that’s the main reason the all-wheel-drive version of the 2016 Lexus GS350 isn’t sold locally. Instead, buyers who want AWD will probably go for a Lexus RX SUV. In fact, most buyers would probably choose the high-rider for other reasons, too.
Instead, Aussies get the rear-drive version of the Lexus GS350, which doesn’t come with all-wheel drive – or all-weather drive, as Lexus’ US likes to term it – that is capable of adjusting its torque depending on the conditions.
So, an Aussie GS will send all of its torque to the rear wheels, because it’s rear-drive. The GS350 AWD usually runs with 30 per cent of torque sent to the front wheels and 70 per cent to the rear, but can switch it up to 50/50 if the car senses the road conditions.
There’s also a snow mode for the drivetrain, which dulls throttle response and will also make the car start in second gear from a standstill to avoid wheel-spin. But Aussie cars get that button, too, for a little bit of peace of mind when/if you do venture to the white stuff.
Now I could give you a spiel about how you could definitely feel the all-wheel-drive system shuffling the torque about on the slippery surfaces, and that it felt considerably more assured through corners whether the road was slippery or not.
But in truth, there was something assuring about just knowing I had all-wheel-drive under me which meant I was less worried about driving in the icy conditions than I would have been in a rear-drive GS.
Thankfully, though, it wasn’t snowy the whole time, and I did get to push the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine – which churns out 233kW of power at 6400rpm and 378Nm of torque at 4800rpm – and it was even more rewarding thanks to the AWD system.
Lexus claims the 0-100km/h time of the GS350 we get in Australia as being pegged at 6.0 seconds flat, while the AWD version – because it can put its power down with more veracity – has a claimed sprint time of 5.8 seconds.
It definitely feels rapid when you push it, and there’s no shortage of traction, nor any interruption from the traction control system eating away at your progress.
The noise of the V6 engine was awesome, too, roaring under hard throttle in a muted yet muscular way. It wasn’t loud at all during regular running, though – in fact, you could barely hear it.
It’s not just the additional driveshafts at the front that differentiates the GS350 AWD from the rear-drive model. The AWD version gets a different automatic transmission with six gears rather than eight, though you still get paddle-shifters.
The auto 'box proved excellent during our testing, and while most of the time spent was on highways or back roads, it was well behaved in and around city centres in traffic. The vehicle was mainly run in Eco mode on the open road, and after a few thousand kilometres of driving we saw an impressive fuel consumption figure of 10.0 litres per 100 kilometres. The combined fuel use claim, according to Lexus US, is 10.6L/100km (or 22 MPG).
The GS isn’t perhaps as lively or involving as some competitor cars – a Jaguar XF or BMW 5 Series, for instance, has better steering – but it certainly isn’t boring to drive if you don't want it to be. There’s good accuracy at the wheel, and while it doesn’t feel strictly stiff through corners, the AWD system pulls you through tighter bends quite effortlessly.
The Michelin Primacy (235/45) all weather tyres wrapped around the 18-inch wheels of our car did a decent job, too, given the conditions. And the LED headlights offered crisp illumination of the road ahead, and the automated high-beam system – while not as clever as a matrix system that can shut off diode by diode – was reasonably well judged.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the GS350 AWD was its interior – or, more specifically, the comfort of the seats.
The sumptuous tan leather may not be to all tastes, but the quality of the material is excellent, and the bolstering and cushioning of the seat is nearly perfect for long distance driving – a little more adjustability of the lumbar would have pushed it that little bit further.
Indeed, the seats are well sorted for adjustment, and there are clever little touches like a small fabric section that links to the centre console to stop things falling down the gap, and the padded knee protection on the transmission tunnel to stop you from bashing your leg if you’re pushing hard. Nice.
The heated front seats got a bloody good run, too, as did the heated steering wheel, which was lovely when it was -6C outside. The bum-cooling seat fans not so much.
There’s soft material on the doors and some fake leather on the dash-top, and the instrumentation is mostly quite good. The driver info screen, however, lacks a digital speed readout, and if you have a warning come up – say, like the one that tells you your radar cruise control isn’t working due to snow build-up – it keeps flashing in front of your eyes, and you can’t make it disappear unless you get out of the car.
The infotainment, too, is annoying. The little joystick controller you use to navigate through the menus is fiddly and often hard to predict in terms of the amount of reaction you will get from each input. And while you can have the 12.3-inch screen laid out with three different functions displayed – the map, the turn instructions and the audio, for example – it can still be frustrating to jump between menus.
There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, either, but we made good use of the SiriusXM satellite radio system offered in the US: listening to stand-up comedy is a great way to pass the time when you’re covering plenty of miles. And on the occasions we preferred audio over asshattery, the Mark Levinson surround sound system proved punchy, clear and solid.
While it was only my partner and I on this trip, the back seat offers spacious accommodation if you need it. I plugged myself in behind my (six-foot) driving position and had ample knee, head and toe room. Three across the back may struggle for foot room, though, as the transmission tunnel is pretty large.
The boot was easily copious enough for our luggage, which was one large suitcase, one smaller carry-on, two backpacks and a large tote bag full of all the goodies we got from the outlet malls. There was still room for more – I reckon the trademark Lexus set of golf clubs would even have fit in amongst the stuff.
On the whole, the 2016 Lexus GS350 AWD was an ideal cruiser in the wintery weather of upstate New York, one that US buyers are lucky to have at the price they get it – from just US$50,740 before on-road and option costs.
Click the Photos tab above for more images from Matt's adventure in the 2016 Lexus GS350 AWD.
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