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Piling on the perks

Considering the precarious state of world oil supplies and the increasing misery at the pump, it might seem any company hawking a pair of new luxury sport sedans is as out of touch as a Russian street vendor selling Romanov trading cards in 1918.

We may find our way out of this wilderness but it won’t be at the wheel of rubber-boiling nouveau-riche rockets like the 2006 Lexus GS sedans. And yet ...

Last week, at the New York International Auto Show, Lexus unveiled a hybrid gas-electric version of its GS sedan. Due in spring 2006, the GS450h is the world’s first hybrid luxury sedan and, like the Lexus RX400h written about here a few weeks ago, uses a rear-mounted permanent-magnet motor to help drive the rear wheels (previous hybrids have been front-drive only). Under the hybrid’s hood is a new, direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 that conspires with the electric motor to: A, spit the car to 60 mph in less than six seconds and, B, return fuel mileage comparable to the thriftiest of hair-shirt econo-boxes.

But with a sticker price expected to be well into the $60,000 range, there will be nothing inconspicuous about the GS450h’s consumption. It is certainly arguable whether Lexus’ plans to hybridize all its offerings -- from the leviathan LX-series SUVs to its IS sedans -- will save appreciable amounts of gasoline.

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However, buried deep in the fact sheets of the GS-series is evidence of another fuel-saving strategy that could be at least as important. With the GS, Lexus has incentivized the smaller engine.

Typically, when companies offer engine options, the models with the smaller displacements are deprived of some of the most desirable features even as cost-extra options -- things such as navigation and park-assist systems, high-line audio, high-performance headlamps and other luxuries that have nothing to do with performance. The domestics are notorious for this, and the motive is obvious: to encourage buyers to step up to the more expensive car, even if they don’t need the bigger engine.

But what if -- and there’s no “if” about it -- the more covetable car is less fuel-efficient?

The GS is available with two engines: The GS300 comes with the new V-6 (the previous six-banger was an inline model) good for 245 hp; the GS430 motivator is the more familiar 4.3-liter V-8 (300 hp). The smaller engine returns EPA fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway and propels the car to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds -- a rate of acceleration that only a few years ago would have had Camaro owners bursting buttons. The GS430 gets 18/25 city/highway mileage and shaves a second off its sibling’s 0-60 mph pace (5.7 seconds, says Lexus).

Lexus barely differentiates between the GS300 ($42,900) and the GS430 ($51,125) models. Both are equipped with a slew of gorgeous standard features, including six-speed automatic transmission; leather and wood; 10-way power driver and passenger seats; keyless-entry and push-button start; rain-sensing wipers; tire-pressure monitoring; a full complement of airbags, including knee bolster airbags for front occupants. Optional for both cars: moonroof, navigation system, adaptive headlamps, rear backup camera and the stupendous Mark Levinson surround-sound system with its 14 speakers and kajillion watts of power.

Exclusive to the GS430 are two major features: the adaptive/variable suspension and the new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system. VDIM brings all the car’s handling systems -- anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, brake-force distribution and assist -- as well as the car’s electronic throttle, e-brake and e-steering under a holistic regime of seamless integration, smoothly coordinated with one another in a computer-mediated colloquy.

However, only the GS300 is available as an all-wheel-drive model ($44,850). And if I have the choice between all-wheel drive and some gizmonic handling package that includes variable-gear e-steering (which I find e-nnoying) I’ll take AWD every time, and consider better fuel economy as a net-plus.

The GS300 AWD model loses only a tenth in the 60-mph sprint (6.9 seconds) and returns still creditable fuel mileage of 21/27 mpg city/highway.

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With acceleration like that, no one is going to step out of the GS300 thinking it’s a punk. The engine deploys the latest in internal-combustion niftiness to wring power out of every drop of gas. It uses direct injection, as contrasted to port injection, for a more finely metered fuel-air charge. It also uses a “swirl-control valve” in the intake manifold that increases turbulence in the fuel-air charge for more thorough combustion. Combined with variable-valve timing and lift, low-friction and low-mass bits and pieces in the cylinder heads, and other motor massaging, the V-6 offers serious thump (245 hp at 6,200 rpm and 230 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm) while attaining Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) ratings. Stitched to the close-ratio six-speed tranny, the engine feels effortlessly ready and rich with torque at all speeds and throttle positions.

In terms of dynamics, both GS300 and GS430 models have that liquid-steel feeling that Lexus has patented -- stout, stable, at ease, but not truly toss-able and lively. These are big, heavy cars (the GS430 weighs in at 3,745 pounds), and the VDIM e-handling regime gives the performance-minded GS430 a remote, astringent quality, a highly synthesized version of road feel. I suppose one day I’ll get used to e-steering and e-brakes, and I acknowledge the advantages, but I still long for gears and hydraulics at my hands and feet.

One page of my notes has “GRABBY BRAKES!” in oversized letters. The 13-inch discs in the GS430 are really aggressive, and it’s a surprise, in a car with so much tactile syrup poured over the controls, that the brakes come on like a race car’s.

The GS exterior design is restrained and well considered, almost to a fault. The greenhouse, the glassy part of the car around the cabin, and the rear roof pillar have been pulled back into a mock fastback shape reminiscent of the Nissan Maxima/Altima. This is a nice-looking car but not quite irresistible. Somebody should give these guys Pininfarina’s phone number.

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The GS cars’ interiors have some fun features, including electro-chromatic glass over the instruments that automatically adjusts depending on outside lighting levels. The car’s nighttime ambience is interlaced with more key lights and pin spots than a Vanity Fair photo shoot; LED-sourced pools of light well up and evaporate as the doors open and close.

The parking impaired will love the GS cars. A rear-view camera is an option with the navigation system; also available is the new Lexus Intuitive Parking Assist system that proffers advice on steering when the system detects an obstacle at close range. Wouldn’t you know it: Even with all these parking aids, my wife managed to scrape the GS430 on a high curb. Oops. Sorry, Lexus.

Seal-sleek and masterfully constructed, the Lexus GS sedans are handsome, high-tech cars, but that in itself is no surprise. What is unexpected is a price structure that makes the more fuel efficient, less powerful car every bit as tempting as the one with the big honking V-8.

It would be nice to think that it’s the beginning of a trend, that soon carmakers will de-couple luxury from extravagance.

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Automotive critic Dan Neil

can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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2006 Lexus GS300/GS300 AWD/GS430

Prices: $42,900 (GS300);$44,850 (GS300 AWD); $51,125 (GS430), plus $650 delivery

Powertrain: GS300 -- 3.5-liter direct-injection 24-valve V-6, variable-valve timing and lift, electronic throttle, six-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive; GS430 -- 4.3-liter, sequential- multi-port fuel injected, 48-valve V-8, variable-valve timing and lift, electronic throttle, six-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 245 at 6,200 rpm (GS300); 300 at 5,600 rpm (GS430)

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Torque: 230 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm (GS300); 325 pound-feet at 3,400 rpm (GS430)

Curb weight: 3,536 pounds (GS300); 3,760 pounds (GS300 AWD); 3,745 pounds (GS430)

0-60 mph: 6.8 seconds (GS300); 6.9 seconds (GS300 AWD); 5.7 seconds (GS430)

Wheelbase: 112.2 inches

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Overall length: 190.1 inches

EPA mileage: 22 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway (GS300); 21/27 (GS300 AWD); 18/25 (GS430)

Final thoughts: Small is beautiful


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