Advertisement2012 Lexus GS350 - Prototype DriveLexus gets serious about sportiness.BY TONY QUIROGA
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The GS is Lexus’s answer to the BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class, but it has never quite measured up to those two sedans in sales numbers. As the car enters its fourth generation, Lexus tells us the GS will be sportier and more focused on the driving experience.
That goes for the company, too. Content with more than 20 years of pursuing perfection, it will use the upcoming GS to lead a philosophical change, an outlook it describes as “joy and leading edge.” We’re told that means the brand is moving beyond the Spock-like purely rational and toward emotional connections with buyers. Driver enjoyment and engagement are vital to the new attitude. Aggression is in. Complete isolation is out. We’ve seen inklings of the shift in such cars as the IS-F and the LFA supercar, but the new GS is a volume product, not a limited-edition model. To give us a taste of its new way of thinking, Lexus invited us to drive two heavily camouflaged GS350 prototypes.
I Believe We’ve Met
Powering both prototypes is a warmed-over version of the GS350’s current 3.5-liter V-6. Lexus staffers wouldn’t get too specific about the changes to the engine, but they hinted at the possibility of a few more horsepower. We’ve never straight-line-tested a GS350, but we have no reason to doubt Lexus’s 0-to-60-mph estimate of 5.7 seconds. For those seeking more acceleration—as well as for fuel-conscious buyers—the GS hybrid will return. Running contrary to Lexus’s claims about newfound sportiness, the V-8–powered GS460 is dead.
Even with the cars covered in what look like garbage bags, it’s easy to tell this new GS is a break from those that have come before. From what we could see, the dashboard and the doors are wrapped in leather in a style that mimics the LFA’s interior. The Lexus “waterfall” center console is gone. In its place is a massive 12.3-inch screen that displays navigation and audio information, as well as a host of vehicle settings. Models without navigation will get a smaller screen. Sit down in the current GS, and it immediately feels stodgy and dated.
Our drive included two different GS models. One represented the mainstream GS350, and the other showed just how far the GS350 might take driver involvement. Standard on all upcoming GS sedans will be Lexus’s “drive mode select.” The drive-mode select knob allows the driver to put the car in eco, normal, sport S, or sport S+ modes. Eco dials back throttle response and upshifts the six-speed automatic transmission early to boost fuel economy. Switch to sport, and the transmission holds gears longer, downshifts under aggressive braking, and increases throttle sensitivity. Move the shifter into the manual gate and downshift with the shifter or the steering-wheel paddles, and the engine blips itself for rev-matched downshifts. Sport+ is only available on cars equipped with active shocks (as our two prototypes were). This setting stiffens the shocks and quickens the steering on models fitted with the variable-ratio system.
The sportier of the two prototypes available for our drive will be known as the GS F-Sport when it goes on sale in early 2012. Higher spring rates, a thicker anti-roll bar, firmer adaptive shocks, larger two-piece front brake rotors, four-wheel steering, a variable-ratio rack, and 19-inch wheels with summer tires (235/40-19 in front and 265/35-19 in back) give the F-Sport quick responses and plenty of grip. The chassis can easily handle more power than the 3.5-liter V-6 can deliver. Switch to Sport+, and the steering becomes quick (we measured 2.2 turns lock-to-lock) and the weighting increases. Accurate and spirited, the quick steering makes the GS feel like a smaller car. One gripe: The steering effort doesn’t increase in response to front-tire stress. Switch the stability control completely off, and the F-Sport proves playful. It’s possible to coax the GS to power oversteer, but the big sticky rubber in back and the four-wheel steering bring the rear end back in line with ease.
Riding on 18-inch wheels with 235/45-18 summer tires, the second prototype on hand proved to be a less-extreme machine. Compared with the F-Sport, the mainstream GS is softer and has more body roll. After driving the F-Sport equipped with variable steering, the nonvariable rack-and-pinion feels slower. Then we drove the current GS and found it to be even less secure-feeling, with a heavily intrusive stability-control system.
Say No to Growing Pains
The new GS will not be any larger than the current car. Wheelbase is unchanged at 112.2 inches; overall length increases from 190.0 inches to 190.9. Interior space is up, thanks to a 0.8-inch increase in width and a roof that’s higher by 1.2 inches. The latter provides a boost to rear-seat headroom. Through the use of high-strength steel and more laser welding, Lexus claims its new platform is more rigid and yet lighter than before. Unfortunately, any weight loss will be canceled out by more standard and optional equipment, and the GS’s curb weight will remain roughly where it is today.
Lexus will debut the GS on August 18. After that, the GS hybrid will turn up at the Frankfurt auto show in September, a few weeks before the GS F-Sport breaks cover at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. Lexus wouldn’t reveal the exact on-sale date, but we were told it would be sometime in early 2012. Snow sufferers should see an all-wheel-drive GS350 by the middle of next year.
We’ve driven only prototypes, so it’s a bit early to determine how the GS will stack up against the competition, but a legitimate sports sedan from Lexus might give BMW and Audi buyers something to consider.Specifications
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear and 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
ESTIMATED BASE PRICE: GS350, $48,000; GS hybrid, $55,000; GS F-Sport, $55,000
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 211 cu in, 3456 cc
Power (SAE net): 305 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 274 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 112.2 in Length: 190.9 in
Width: 72.4 in Height: 57.3 in
Curb weight (C/D EST): 3850 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 5.7 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 14.2 sec
Top speed: 145 mph
FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
EPA city/highway: 20/27 mpg
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