Like first-timers at a key party or a cheesehead's trek to Lambeau, Lexus is on a quest for passion and it couldn't come at a more critical time.
Toyota's luxury division lost the title of America's bestselling luxury brand in 2011 for the first time in 11 years. Lexus rightly blames Japan's earthquake and tsunami and their effect on supply chains, but have you driven the company's product line recently? A $400,000 supercar notwithstanding, my daily bowl of Grape-Nuts is more exciting.
Which brings us to the 2013 Lexus GS 350 sedan.
With it, and the dramatic LF-LC concept car shown at the Detroit auto show, the company is finally looking to appeal to a buyer's passions more strongly. The hope is, a little more danger and a little more leg might just result in a little more luck with sales numbers.
When viewed in this context, the new GS gets both a gold star and a demerit. From a pure driving standpoint, this Lexus absolutely moves the emotion needle. This is no easy task given the milquetoast version that preceded it and a roster of competitors that includes BMW's 5-Series, Audi's A6 and Infiniti's M.
Sadly, the new design is a missed opportunity. Like a 12-year-old scotch in a dollar-store thermos, it falls short of matching the car's performance and its maker's ambitions.
The GS' aesthetics start out nicely in the front. More demure in person than in photos, the nose of the car features what Lexus calls its spindle grille, a design feature that literally and figuratively leads the way for the future of Lexus' vehicles. Complementing the angles this grille introduces is a bowed bumper and lower fascia that's one brush stroke shy of over-styled.
Move past the front end and you've moved past all the style worth mentioning. The rear end is plain and unadorned; the chrome-tipped tailpipes are the only element that hint at passion or originality. The rest is a near carbon copy of Lexus' lesser IS sedan, or if I may be so crass to say so in a luxury car review, a Hyundai Sonata.
Fortunately, this dearth of aesthetic moxie doesn't seep into the GS cabin. It's handsomely designed with a horizontally oriented layout, the centerpiece of which is a massive 12.3-inch, high-resolution screen. It's yours for $1,735, though nearly every new GS will come with it (my test car went for $50,910).
Two-thirds of the display is generally for navigation purposes, with the other third for either audio, climate control or trip data. The system is controlled by what looks and feels like a computer mouse glued to your center console. It uses a joystick-like knob to input commands, and once you get used to it, it's more functional than the traditional dial.
Below the extra-wide screen is an analog clock surrounded by attractive brushed metal trim and redundant buttons for the climate control. The rest of the cabin has bits of similar metal throughout and can be paired with several different matte wood trim options. The always-welcoming seats can be ordered with treated leather; leather also covers the interior panels, the steering wheel and the shift knob. Space is about the same as the previous GS, though the trunk grows by 11/2 cubic feet.
Other features include LED cabin lighting and a text-to-speech feature that will read your incoming emails to you and allow you to respond with predetermined answers like "I'm running late," "See you in five minutes" and, if your 14-year-old daughter steals your car and the cops email her, "LOL."'
Available options include a night-vision system, a heads-up display, radar cruise control, lane keeping assist and a 17-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson sound system.
The whole effect is a civilized balance between old-world luxury culled from cows and trees, and the modern, tech-heavy menu appreciated by the demographic Lexus is hoping to pull into the GS.
Powering this confluence is a 3.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 that's largely a carry-over from the previous GS 350. In this generation, it makes 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, gains of three each. This mill moves the rear wheels (all-wheel drive is a $2,550 option) via a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting and paddle shifters. Lexus says the rear-wheel drive version is good for a 5.7-second zero-to-60 acceleration time.
The GS 350 is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway. In almost 400 miles of testing, I averaged 21 mpg.
On the road, the GS 350 is finally a Lexus that can dance. The steering is quick and responsive, and it provides good feedback to the driver. The car itself is nicely balanced and poised, even under dramatic circumstances. It moves with a dynamic confidence that earns the moniker "sport sedan," rather than abusing the term as a platitude. Agility is favored over raw power, though the GS could use a little more of the latter.
In straight lines and freeway cruising, the transmission shifts are subtle and smooth, while acceleration is uniform and measured. The engine emits into the cabin a soft purr by way of something called an "intake sound generator." When I was a kid, the engines made the sound, but with layers of sound dampening to keep out road and wind noise (which this GS does quite well), this is what we're reduced to.
If the generic GS 350 isn't enough sugar for your coffee, consider one of two variants. A GS F Sport adds to the GS 350 items such as larger wheels and front brakes, a re-tuned suspension, variable-ratio steering and a more aggressive front bumper and mesh grille. Look for it to be the promotional darling of Lexus advertisements. The GS 450h hybrid (no V-8 will be offered) makes 338 horsepower, and it is rated at 29 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway.
Returning to our main course, the GS 350 is best judged from the driver's seat, or anywhere else in the excellent cabin. Lexus should be commended for its latest contribution to the sports sedan ethos. Yet step outside and view the car, and that coherence dissolves. Passion involves focus and risk, both of which the GS needs more of. But it's better than Grape-Nuts.