For a large sedan, the Lexus GS350 is surprisingly tossable.
The Lexus GS is a seriously interesting piece of machinery. Since its last major overhaul for the 2013 model year, this is a car that went from luxurious but rather boring, to being one of the most exciting cars in its segment. A factor that also plays to the GS’ advantage is that a leader in its class, the BMW 5-series, has gone soft with regards to driving dynamics, and Lexus has capitalized on this. The current GS is offered in regular and hybrid models, with a fire-breathing GS-F part of the upcoming 2016 refresh. I was assigned a 2015 Lexus GS350 F-Sport AWD with the F-Sport Series 2 package for a road test.
In a segment where the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6 are major players, the GS is easily my favourite car to look at. The muscular body, sexy LED front treatment and far-from-subtle ground effects on the F-Sport model help the car maintain an aggressive stance. The 235-series low profile tires on 19” wheels make for the perfect amount of wheel gap, and the sport suspension allows this GS350 to remain hunkered down and ready to pounce. Of course, I discovered that this love I have for its styling isn’t exactly universal – I discovered that some people think it’s trying too hard to be something it’s not, a sports sedan.
And then there’s the F-Sport badge; I stopped by a local Lexus owners’ gathering with the GS350 and I came across a few loyalists to the IS-F, complaining about how the F-Sport badge means nothing anymore. I don’t see the issue, because BMW puts the M-Sport nomenclature across their lineup; same goes for Audi’s S-Line and Mercedes-Benz with their AMG appearance kits. What each of these badges signifies to me is the addition of a manufacturer-installed sport package, which should include tweaks not only to the appearance but the interior, suspension, and wheels. F-Sport applies perfectly here, because this particular GS is sportier than regular GS350s with luxury packages that we’ve tested in the past.
What remains virtually unchanged is the motor. The GS350 F-Sport shares its heart with the regular model, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All iterations of the GS350 are powered by a 3.5L 24-valve V6 that’s a staple across both the Toyota and Lexus lineups. This engine sports 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, both of which were slightly increased for the 2013 redesign. Lexus’ drive mode selector toggles engine and transmission mapping between Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ settings. “Sport+” mode is only available on GS models optioned with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), which is capable of toggling the adaptive suspension and steering for maximum fun.
I consider myself to be a spirited driver. Though I know my limits, I will always enjoy a sporty car when all available electronic doodads are turned off and the vehicle is set up to its most aggressive settings. When the GS350 is kept in Sport+ mode, the car is an animal. The noise that it makes is identical to that of its cousin, the RC350, and it feels almost raw even though a lot of the sound is piped in through the intake. My choice would be to go with the GS350 F-Sport in rear-drive configuration, but as we’re in Canada, the vast majority of buyers will opt for this all-wheel-drive model to render it more livable for all four seasons.
Throttle response is quite good, and the steering is decently responsive. For a large sedan, the Lexus GS350 is surprisingly tossable. The steering is the closest this segment still has to BMW’s old hydraulic units. Though still electrically-assisted, the Lexus unit is heavier and feels less artificial than current competition from Audi and BMW. I found myself making plenty of excuses to go for a drive the entire week I had the car, and each and every kilometer was an enjoyable one. The 19” wheels do make for a pretty firm ride, though that’s to be expected from the sporty model. Regular GS models can be had with a less-aggressive 18” wheel/tire setup for cushier ride quality. The adaptive suspension is very good at keeping the GS sorted over road imperfections, but Audi’s dampers do a better job at maintaining composure.
Perhaps the only true downside to the Lexus GS’ powertrain setup is the transmission. The GS350 is the only vehicle in its segment that still makes do with a six-speed automatic transmission. BMW and Audi both use 8-speed units and Mercedes-Benz has a 7-speed. The Lexus shifts decently enough in both sport and comfort modes, and the paddle shifters are responsive, but I’d like to see the 8-speed unit available in the rear-drive IS350 and RC-F make an appearance here, at least on rear-drive models. It’s not that the transmission is outdated or even poor; it’s just essential to stay ahead of the curve within this segment.
The transmission’s two missing gears also contributes to the GS350’s overall fuel economy. We’ve found eight-speed models from Audi and BMW to demonstrate far superior fuel economy thanks to eighth gear holding engine RPMs low during longer highway runs. Through our weeklong evaluation with a healthy mix of city and highway driving, we averaged 10.9L/100km with the F-Sport. It’s important to note that this engine performs optimally on premium 91-octane fuel. Despite sharing some components with the 3.5L motor in certain Toyota applications, the Lexus unit is tuned differently and has higher compression.
Interior appointments are sublime; definitely on-par for the midsized luxury sedan class. As we’ve come to expect from Lexus, fit and finish is impeccable, with panel gaps being virtually unnoticeable and every surface soft to the touch. The cabin is lined in fine leathers, soft-touch plastics and subtle hints of piano black. Infotainment is provided via a large 12.3” screen and controlled by Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface. The seats are heated and ventilated, and the Garnet red upholstery is sensational. Lexus’ synthetic leatherette surfaces have made it nearly impossible for the naked eye (or hand) to tell apart from genuine leather.
The GS350 all-wheel-drive can be had for as little as $57,850, with rear-drive models being only slightly cheaper. Our car was optioned with the $8,800 F-Sport Series 2 package, which might sound steep until the list of upgrades included becomes more obvious. This option includes the Drive Mode Select with Sport+, F-Sport steering wheel, adaptive variable suspension, 19” wheels, 17-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, F-Sport grille and rear lip spoiler, power folding mirrors, aluminum pedals, F-Sport unique leather seats, radar-guided cruise control, and a series of driver aids including pre-collision assist. The F-Sport Series 2 package brings the sticker on our tester to $66,650 before freight and PDI.
Lexus’ collaboration with Mark Levinson for their sound systems is most excellent. As an audiophile, I found sound quality to exceed my expectations in every sense of the phrase, with clear bass, midrange, and treble notes throughout the spectrum. This was consistent through my exploration of various genres of music ranging from Top 40 to classical and even classic rap. The GS’ 17-speaker stereo gets my seal of approval, but the Lexus Remote Touch Interface does not. The system is interesting at first, but with BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s new MMI being state-of-the-art, the Japanese system is beginning to look dated. Screen size is great, but overall resolution and speed of operation lags behind the Germans.
RTI could also use the new touchpad-based system we’ve now seen in the Lexus NX crossover, though newer models such as the RX have been introduced without it. The touchpad system is easier to use and requires less effort than the mouse-based system in the current GS, which would inevitably lead to less distracted driving and more focus on the road itself. Thankfully, Lexus has not eliminated traditional buttons for major commands, so those who aren’t as tech-savvy won’t be left in the dark.
Frankly, the Lexus GS provides a fantastic value in the price point under $70,000. The model we sampled was loaded up with all of the niceties we have come to expect in this segment, and the only thing I missed was the availability of a panoramic sunroof. Neither the BMW 5-series nor the Audi A6 offer this, so it’s not like the Lexus is alone here. Both those German competitors cost considerably more when optioned similarly, especially with M-Sport and S-Line packages tacked on. The Lexus also offers build quality and long-term reliability that’s either on par or superior to the Germans, and I can safely say that with the upcoming refresh, it will reign this segment with confidence.