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A Lovely New Lexus--Va-va-va-Vroom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s a sedan that slips its moorings and coasts from rest with the silence of an electric vehicle.

Such eerie quiet. Could be a Lexus.

Here’s the same car unleashed in Fontana, growling along the front straight at the California Speedway at 120 mph with much more underfoot. But Turn 1 is ahead. It is tricky, has two apexes and is quick to punish the mentally loose attempting high entry speeds in a passenger car shod with street tires.

But what volatile pace! It is a Lexus!

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As a nimble clap of thunder (more of an elegant explosion, really), look to this 1998 GS400 luxury four-door to blitz Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class and BMW’s 5-Series, while bringing passion to a previously insipid class of Lexus.

Everything about this pudgy javelin--from short decks for stability and thin-spoked wheels stuffed tight into corners, from a flat underbody reducing aerodynamic drag to electronic shifting by thumb and finger buttons on the steering wheel--seems poised to do damage to something.

The engine is a 4.0-liter, 300-horsepower V-8 transplanted from the lusty Lexus LS400, and 10% more powerful than BMW’s 540i and Mercedes’ E420. Variable valve timing--a first for any four-cam V-8--means power comes on early and is still punching hard in passing lanes. The GS400 accelerates to 60 mph quicker than a Mustang GT, and its electronically governed top speed of 149 mph (no, we have not the foggiest why engineers did not round it out to an even 150) is within whiskers of a Jaguar XK8.

This car is also a cuddler.

California walnut trim (Rolls-Royce uses the same wood these days) brings warmth to all doors and the center console. There’s the coziness of leather seats and headrests; the convenience of dual and automatic air-conditioning with rear-seat vents; and the luxury of rear passenger reading lights, cell phone storage and a carpeted trunk, should anybody want to travel back there.

Above all, it has Lexus’ lovin’ feeling: Everything seems tight and made to work with its related parts, and one senses that throughout production, a supreme ganger was monitoring every weld and seam to make sure you got all the durable precision you were paying for.

“In every family there is one member who seems to create havoc everywhere he goes, yet charms all who meet him.” That is how Lexus General Manager Jim Press explains the pace-and-grace duality of the GS400. “This is the wicked Lexus. Refined. Good-looking. But ready to rumble at a moment’s notice.”

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The wicked one goes on sale this month, and along with adding much spunk to our lives, it will rebuild Lexus’ mid-priced GS class--which went into hibernation on the very day in 1989 when it was born.

It was a lineup of one sandwiched between the ES300--first rung on the Lexus sedan ladder--and the mighty, flag-wagging LS400. The car just wasn’t a natural and certainly didn’t have enough mechanical stuff to trouble BMW, Mercedes and the comparable J30 from Infiniti.

Worse, the GS300 wasn’t noticeably quicker than the ES300, which was quieter and $15,000 cheaper. So the GS300 became a showroom layabout that rarely went out the door at or above dealer invoice.

But for next year, the GS lineup is doubled and virtually rebuilt from scratch and bright ideas. There’s a rounder, more powerful GS300 with a 225-horsepower V-6. And its GS400 stablemate with as much brawn as brains.

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Prices have not been set. But figure $37,000 for the GS300, adding $3,000 for an intermediate inventory of toys. The GS400 should be stickered at $45,000 but shouldn’t pierce the $50,00 ceiling even if options included a microwave oven and grandfather clock.

Lexus has taken the bullish competition by the horns with a longer wheelbase on a shorter car that outperforms BMW and Mercedes and underprices both.

Both cars are handsome lookers with the GS400 appearing tauter and sportier because of its thin-spoked wheels and a rear deck spoiler that--bearing in mind the car’s agility and performance numbers--isn’t there for decoration.

The four-eyed, inboard-outboard headlight arrangement is borrowed from the very capable SC coupe series, as is the rear-light layout.

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The interior of the car suggests “GS” could stand for many things. Glorious. Satisfying. Gratifying. Serene. And the whole is a tribute to Lexus’ sense of ingenuity and attention to minutiae. Three primary dials show black needles and numbers on snowy grounds that are backlighted and adjust themselves to ambient brightness. Power windows lower and raise at one touch, and they stop moving if they sense Grandma’s fingers or Fido’s head in the way. The key fob is a miniature computer with remote controls for doors, trunk, windows and moon roof and a panic button for addressing approaching Godzillas.

There isn’t a knob, dial, lever, button, wand, latch or switch that isn’t precisely where departments of ergonomics and human factors decreed it should be, after lengthy nights and long weekends of deep pondering. The car is roomier than its BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals, and trunk space is a spare bedroom.

And should journeys come to an abrupt end, there are front and side air bags with new, weaker propellants. Also energy-absorbing foot pedals and lap and shoulder belts that tighten on impact, then give a smidge to reduce body shocks.

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Performance and handling are a rage, because Lexus cuts no corners when it comes to multi-link suspensions and highly capable, 12-inch, anti-lock disc brakes. With standard traction controls. With an anti-skid system that reads understeer and oversteer and adjusts brakes and throttle accordingly.

We tried an infield road course at the California Speedway with traction controls on and functioning. The car held surface and circuit much better than Amtrak.

Same course, same pace but with controls shut down, the car mostly went sideways and once backward into the weeds.

A 5-speed automatic is the only transmission for the GS series. With the GS400, you also get finger and thumb shifting, up and down, by steering wheel buttons. Just like Formula One.

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It’s instantaneous, precise, thoroughly convenient and a useful toy for those who really don’t like their shift points--ergo driving personalities--controlled by unseen forces. It’s also quite brainless, yet intelligent enough to block downshifts into second gear at 110 mph.

You’ll be used to it in two blocks.

In three, you’ll be Jacques Villeneuve.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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1998 Lexus GS400

The Good: Astounding performance and handling from a five-passenger sedan for the family--the Andretti family, that is. Styling that breaks molds, technology that busts convention. Luxury and quality that now are a Lexus norm.

The Bad: A little pricey.

The Ugly: Frowns at BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

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1998 Lexus GS400

Cost

* Base: $45,000, estimated (includes automatic transmission with button shifting, automatic air with rear vents, front and side air bags with subdued deployment, thin-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels, seven-speaker sound system, leather seats, walnut trim, power seats with memory, moon roof and alarm system).

* As tested, $50,000 (adds 17-inch wheels with Z-rated tires, high-intensity headlights, in-dash CD changer).

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Engine

* 4.0-liter, 32-valve, four-cam V-8 developing 300 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, rear-drive, five-passenger luxury performance sedan.

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Performance

* 0-60 mph, as tested, 6.1 seconds.

* Top speed, track tested, 149 mph.

* Fuel consumption, estimated city and highway average, 22 mpg.

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Curb Weight

* 3,690 pounds.


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