The seedlings of the Lexus brand may have been nurtured in Toyota soil, but today the independence of the nameplate is beyond doubt, while its products express their premium status with ever-increasing conviction. The all-new Lexus GS range is a good case in point. By DEON SCHOEMAN
Drive past a Lexus showroom these days, and you’re confronted by a monolithic structure and a monochromatic theme that looks more designer home than car dealership. It’s perhaps the most telling symbol of how far the Lexus brand has progressed down the luxury brand path.
Of course, it takes more than posh dealerships and smooth-talking sales folk to build a brand. The real ambassadors of any nameplate are the cars themselves. And it has to be said that today’s Lexus models are worthy of the status their stylised brand and slick marketing promise.
Take the all-new GS range, launched locally only two weeks ago. For those unfamiliar with the Lexus hierarchy, the GS fits neatly between the volume-selling IS line-up and the flagship LS limousine.
This new-generation GS also happens to feature an edgier, more progressive design, matched to refined technology and a healthy dollop of horsepower. But, is it good enough to tackle Europe’s premium contenders?
The answer depends, in the first instance, on brand perception. While there’s no longer any doubt that Lexus belongs to the luxury car club, it lacks the history and the heritage of a Mercedes-Benz or a Jaguar, for instance.
Not that tradition is everybody’s cup of Darjeeling. For others, it’s the motoring experience that matters most: the ability of the car to involve and enchant. The new GS range certainly places a stronger emphasis on dynamic capability, with both grip and gusto in abundance.
Consider also that top-end brands are expected to excel in the quality and technology stakes if they are to cut it in the luxury stakes. In the case of the GS, those elements are convincingly addressed by the fastidious attention to fit and finish, and by the sophistication under the skin.
But nothing sways opinion more than the styling and the presence of a car. We can’t help but be enchanted by beauty, and to react emotively, rather than rationally, by an object of desire.
Admittedly, styling is a matter of personal preference, but I’m sure most people will agree that the new Lexus GS has a much more assertive presence than its rather dumpy predecessor. The lines are more streamlined and more aggressively executed, creating a shape that exudes athletic appeal.
Part of the reason is the car’s use of sharper, cleaner, more contemporary lines that boldly express a more self-assured identity. The sheet metal seems tautly stretched over a rigidly constructed frame, while the short front overhang and muscular haunches signal both agility and power.
Those big alloy rims are clad with low-profile, fat-footprint performance rubber, while the steeply raked windscreen, smoothly sloped rear and short, high deck suggest wind-cheating efficiency. Full colour coding, a body kit with hungry apertures and a deep rear apron hosting large exhaust surrounds complete a look that’s smart and streamlined.
Despite external dimensions very similar to those of the outgoing model, this GS offers a significantly roomier cabin, with enhanced legroom and headroom, front and rear. More intuitive ergonomics, and a huge 31cm widescreen display, are among the highlights.
That display provides the core source of vehicle information and system control – nothing unusual in luxury car terms. But what is unusual is the mouse-type pointing device provided to select on-screen options, or to scroll through electronic menus.
The concept sounds clever (after all, who can’t manipulate a mouse in this age of computers?), but the execution here is a let-down. The device’s sensitive action takes some getting used to and, even then, selecting the correct option requires the fine motor skills of an orthodontist.
On a more positive note, the comprehensive level of standard specification comes as a welcome surprise – especially since many premium brands will provide no more than basic amenities for those insisting on paying no more than the list price. For once, much of what is attractive – and desirable – is included in the deal.
The latest GS range comes with a choice of three drivetrains: a 2.5-litre V6, a 3.5-litre V6 and a hybrid powertrain linking the 3.5-litre V6 to an electric motor and a battery pack. Under scrutiny here is the midrange GS350, powered by that lusty, rorty 3.5-litre V6, good for 233kW and 378Nm. Drive to the rear wheels is via a six-speed auto gearbox.
The V6 is eager and boisterous, first growling and then roaring its appreciation when exercised with enthusiasm. Twin cams per cylinder bank, sophisticated fuel injection and variable valve timing all contribute to impressive response when you floor the loud pedal.
Traction is good off the mark, and acceleration insistent, allowing a frisky zero to 100km/h sprint time of 6.3sec – not half bad for a large and heavy car. Top speed is limited to 235km/h, which will be of academic interest to most.
In-gear response is admirable, and in sport mode, the shift paddles allow full manual override, with gear changes that are snappy enough to keep petrol heads smiling.
Choosing your own shift points is a prerequisite for any car purporting to offer a measure of driving enjoyment and, in this case, it’s only one aspect of a surprisingly dynamic performance.
Let’s not forget that this is a big and weighty D-segment sedan. And yet, it displays a talent for sparkle and agility that makes getting behind the wheel an engaging prospect. Don’t expect the uncompromising rigidity of a sports car, nor the raw-edged kick of a muscle sedan: this is a classier act.
The Lexus displays impeccable road manners, retaining a neutral stance even when pressing on, and never showing any tendency towards sudden, sphincter-contracting oversteer, or frustrating understeer. Instead, it toes the chosen line with balanced tenacity.
For a luxury car, the chassis feedback is reassuringly unambiguous, making it easy to explore the car’s limits. The combination of a double wishbone front suspension and a multilink rear allows ample damping and good comfort levels without turning the car into a marshmallow machine.
Straight-line stability allows for unruffled progress, even at speed, and noise levels are well contained, making the GS350 an effortless long-distance runner.
That said, there’s enough athletic intent in the way the big sedan rides the bumps and dips of a country road with reassuring glee, and in the joyous roar emanating from those twin exhausts when you give it stick, to keep more enterprising drivers entertained.
For all its talents, the GS350 won’t have it easy in the cut-throat world of luxury motoring. It
finds itself squaring up against some of the toughest competitors in the field. Think Mercedes-Benz E350, for instance, or the latest BMW 530i, for that matter. Let’s not forget the Audi A6 3.0 TFSI either.
But in this league, aspects such as individuality and exclusivity often count for more than performance, quality or standard specification when it comes to making a purchasing decision. In other words, why stick with convention when a more adventurous alternative beckons?
Though the Lexus GS350 is hardly a left–of-centre choice, it represents a more individual option in the premium league, while living up to all the luxury, convenience and dynamic promises buyers in this segment demand. DM
ENGINE – 3 ,456cc V6
GEARBOX – 6-speed automatic
POWER – 233kW @ 6,400rpm
TORQUE – 378Nm @ 4,800rpm
0 – 100KM/H – 6,3 sec
TOP SPEED – 270 km/h (governed)
FUEL CONSUMPTION – 9.4-litres/100km
CO2 EMISSIONS – 223g/km
RETAIL PRICE – R564,900
Photo: The new Lexus GS350
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