By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Lexus was originally — and for the most part has remained — a brand devoted primarily to luxury. To poshness, softness, quietude and comfort. ES, RX, LS. These have been the big-sellers, the money-makers.
Over the years, there have been a few stabs taken at purveying a passionate car. Examples include the original (2001-’05) IS 300 sedan, with its BMW-esque inline six, RWD and manual five-speed transmission. Unfortunately, it fizzled. Lexus went quiet (and posh and soft) again for awhile. Let BMW, et al, cater to the gloved-hand enthusiast driver crowd. We’ll handle the rest, thanks very much.
Now — once again — another stab at it. Several stabs, actually, There is the IS-F, with its 416 hp 5 liter V-8, RWD and 4.5 second to 60 timeslip.
And, of course, the LF A supercar.
There is also this new GS 350 F Sport — another direct shot across BMW, et al’s bow.
An ES, this ain’t. But is it enough of a not-ES to make sales inroads against the BMW 5, the Caddy CTS and other such like?
WHAT IT IS
The GS 350 is a mid-sized, mid-priced, luxury-sport sedan. It’s available in both RWD and AWD versions — with the RWD version starting at $47,700 and the AWD version starting at $49,950.
The F Sport ups the performance ante with a 19 inch, 35-series “summer” tire package (staggered sizes; the rear tires are larger) an Adaptive Variable Suspension with electronically controlled shocks, driver-selectable Sport S+ mode that dials in more aggressive throttle tip-in and shift points, high-capacity 14-inch, two-piece front brake rotors, racy sport buckets inside and a body kit on the outside.
The F Sport package can be added to either the RWD or the AWD GS, but the price is slightly different depending on which way you go. It’s $6,020 with the RWD GS or $5,585 if you select AWD.
Target competitors include RWD/AWD luxury-performance sedans like BMW 5, Caddy CT-S, Hyundai Genesis and the Infiniti Q70 (formerly the M37/M56).
RWD models get an eight-speed automatic (AWD models continue with the six-speed used last year) and the suite of electronics has been updated. Siri Eyes Free voice recognition is now available and the Heads-Up Display (HUD) system displays more information in more colors.
The formerly available infra-red night vision system has been dropped.
More than a little bit quicker than price-equivalent rivals like the BMW 528i, Cadillac CTS 2.0, V-6 Infiniti Q70 and V-6 powered Hyundai Genesis (and nearly as quick as V-8 Genesis R Spec and V-8 powered Q70).
Quicker still than some of the not price-equivalent competition (BMW 535i).
Rally car handling; Lexus ride.
Huge (12.3 inch) split screen GPS LCD display is very eye-friendly. Ergonomic mouse input is palm friendly, too.
Still posh, still quiet.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
F Sport doesn’t get more power under its hood than standard-issue GS.
AWD versions still use last year’s less-efficient six-speed automatic; gas mileage drops by about 3 MPG as a result.
Traction control can’t be turned off — unless you stop the car first.
Park Assist can be just as intrusive — assaulting you with beeps for daring to get within a foot of the car ahead of you at a red light.
UNDER THE HOOD
All versions, including the F Sport — come standard with a 3.5 liter, 306 hp V-6 and either an eight-speed automatic (RWD models) or a six-speed automatic (AWD).
Either way, you get to 60 in about 5.5-5.7 seconds (depending on the configuration, RWD or AWD). This is a pretty good run. A much better run, in fact, than the price-equivalent Caddy CTS ($45,100 and 0-60 in 6.4), the BMW 528i ($49,500 and 6.4 seconds to 60) and Infiniti Q70 V-6 ($49,500 and 5.9 seconds to 60). It’s also a few tenths ahead of the price not-equivalent BMW 535i ($55,100 to start and 5.9 seconds to 60).
It is definitely the sleeper of the bunch — especially since its rated power (306 hp) is only mid-pack (the ’14 Q’s V-6 is pegged at 330 hp; the Hyundai Genesis’ 333 hp V-6 sounds similarly strong). Lexus may even be under-rating the output of the F Sport’s version of the V-6. Apparently, the ’14’s exhaust is slightly less restrictive (new design mufflers) but the stats have not changed.
Regardless, the GS is strong runner — its power accentuated by an intake resonator system deliberately set up to increase the sound of power at WOT. You’ll swear it has an open-element aftermarket cone — but nope! The V-8 may be gone, but Lexus has tuned this V-6 to sound like one when you drop the hammer. It performs like one, too. The V-8 Genesis R-Spec (5.3 seconds to 60) and V-8 Q70 (5.2 seconds to 60) are quicker… but not all that much quicker. One wonders what an aftermarket exhaust and some minor tuning might do to narrow that rather small gap… .
F Sports also get a more aggressive Sport+ setting for the multi-mode transmission, which is similar in layout and function to the high-performance unit that first appeared in the high-performance IS-F sedan.
You decide which setting you’d like by rotating a knob on the center console — left for ECO (dash glows blue) right for Sport (dash glows red). Normal is the default setting. Push the rotary knob down to engage. There’s a smaller button for Snow mode (and second gear starts, to improve traction on slick surfaces) behind the main controller knob.
In Sport mode, you’ll get more aggressive shift quality — including rev-matching downshifts.
In ECO, it’s the opposite: the transmission changes its shift parameters — it upshifts sooner rather than later — to maximize fuel economy.
With the new eight-speed, the car is theoretically capable of 29 MPG on the highway. That’s absolutely excellent mileage for a high-powered V-6 sport sedan.
Speaking of which…
You may have noticed the V-8 that was formerly available in the GS no longer is. Just as BMW has nixed the six that used to be standard-issue in the 5 (and the 3), replacing it with a turbo (2.0 liter) four. The why can be spelled out in a single acronym – CAFE. The federal government recently upped the bare minimum average mileage that new cars must deliver by model year 2016 to 35.5 MPG. Ultimately, those that can’t make the cut will get cut — or be saddled with higher prices to offset the “gas guzzler” fines Washington will impose on their continued manufacture. Hence the bum’s rush to go smaller — and go turbo. Hence the forced retirement of the V-8 that was formerly available in the GS.
Be grateful Lexus is sticking with the V-6.
ON THE ROAD
As hinted at above, The F Sport’s chief offering relative to the standard GS is crisper/sharper feel — especially in the corners.
Even the standard GS feels more settled — more eager to be driven — than the previous-gen (2012) GS. But the F Sport amps this up with a noticeably firmer ride and much quicker reflexes — especially steering-wise, which is probably a function of the ultra-performance (and very short sidewall) 19 inch “summer” tire package.
There’s nil high-speed lean; the car holds the line stubbornly, right up to the point at which the tires begin to break traction — and even then, all you need to do is keep on the throttle to keep the car on track.
The gear-holding (and throttle-blipping) automatic is your new best friend in the apexes. Like other “smart” automatics, it has a learning algorithm that monitors your driving; the faster your pace, the more aggressive its shift characteristics become. There are manual F-1 style paddle shifters if you like to play that way — but it’s by no means needed to keep the car in the right gear for whatever situation.
The F Sport upgrades have made the GS much more competitive as a luxury-sport sedan with models like the standard-bearing BMW 5. And arguably, superior to it — at least when you factor in what’s under the hood for the money. The $47,700 GS 350 has 60 more hp than the four-cylinder-powered (240 hp) and also $49,500 BMW 528i. That extra 60 hp means faster corner exits — and quicker, safer passing maneuvers, too.
The Lexus is more athletic another way as well — its BMI.
Curb weight is 3,795 lbs. — vs. 3,814 for the four-cylinder BMW 528i. And — check this one out — 4,234 lbs. for the V-8 Hyundai Genesis. Now you know why, despite its 429 hp and 5 liters of V-8, the Hyundai only just barely manages to out-accelerate the 306 hp, six-cylinder Lexus.
AT THE CURB
The overall exterior proportions of the 2014 are about the same as the previous-gen. GS: 190.7 inches end to end vs. 190 even.
But inside, there’s a bit more front seat headroom (38 inches now vs. 37.8 before), backseat legroom (36.8 inches vs. 36.4 inches) and — the big one — noticeably more shoulder, or side-to-side room: 57.3 inches up front and 55.7 inches in the second row vs. 56.3 inches up front and 55.1 inches in the second row previously.
Looks-wise, the current car has edges where the old model had curves. The front clip, especially. It has an angular chin with inward-canted grille openings that might have been inspired by the menacing mug of a Cylon centurion from Battlestar Galactica.
No insult intended — it does look mean.
Dual “wind sweeps” shoot backward over the hood from either side of the big Lexus badge — accentuating the car’s speedy nature. But as a Lexus ought to be, the overall package is still pretty low-profile. It does not call as much attention to itself as something along the lines of a BMW 5 or an Infiniti Q — which is a quality Lexus buyers (good on them) seem to desire.
Not making an issue of what your car is capable of means you can use its capability with greater impunity. I’ll drink to that.
The Lexus mouse controller is — in my opinion, having tried them all — the best in the business. The design is brilliantly ergonomic. There’s a padded palm rest on the console, with the mouse right at your fingertips. Up or down, left or right — then push to select what you want. There’s just enough drag built in to give you precise control of the pointer, even when the car is moving.
Ease of use is further improved by the oversized (and recessed, to cut down on sun glare) LCD display for the GPS and infotainment.
Normally, I am not a big fan of this kind of equipment — because using it often takes away from the act of driving the car. Not in this case, though. For once, the technology helps you operate the car’s systems more effectively — less awkwardly — which means you’re more able to effectively drive the car.
A lengthy suit of high-tech options is also available — everything from a heads-up display (HUD) to automatic self-parking. There is also Lexus’ Enform concierge technology, which works with and through your Smartphone.
Small stuff, mostly.
The GS350’s traction/stability control is pretty peremptorily nannyish. You’re not allowed to turn it off while you’re moving. To turn the traction/stability control off — and keep it off — you have to stop the car first. This is true across the board — it afflicts all current Toyota-Lexus vehicles.
But look here, guys. The F Sport is marketed specifically at enthusiast drivers — and the default assumption ought to be that they know how to drive. And should be left free to do so, as they please.
The Park Assist system can be similarly over-protective. It beeps at you when you get close to anything. This can be annoying. Examples include the drive-through window at the bank. Narrow lanes, you’re forced to get pretty close to the building or the little kiosk that houses the vacuum tube delivery system for your deposit slip. The car beeps frantically even though you’re in zero danger of striking anything. You are, after all, stationary. And there it goes again, when you roll up too close (for the computer’s comfort) behind the car ahead at a light.
The system can be adjusted for distance but seems to want a grandmotherly several feet of clearance between you and whatever. Now you know why you can’t get to the left turn lanes anymore. The air gaps between cars waiting at lights are increasing such that six cars in line now take up space that could (and should) accommodate eight without anyone’s bumpers actually touching.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Those two gripes aside — and probably, easily remedied — this F Sport GS is my new favorite in this segment. It boxes the BMW 5 about the ears — and embarrasses the Caddy CTS (on a dollar-for-performance basis). I like that it’s a relative unknown, too. No gaudy rep precedes it. Which should mean you’ll have a better chance of getting away with it.
And that’s ultimately what a car such as this is all about.