B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
While driving a brand-new Lexus GS300 southbound on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, something strange occurred to our driver. Somewhere near Rancho Palos Verdes, he realized that he didn't have the indulgent sense of well being that usually accompanies one of his spins in a high-buck luxury sedan. All the ingredients were in place for a seriously narcissistic ego trip: Ahead of him lay an impressive destination at the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, promising a few days of much-needed relaxation. His chariot for the journey was a staple among the SoCal glitteratti, loaded to the gills with leather, do-dads and Lexus panache. The music selection loaded into the in-dash CD changer was one that almost guaranteed a sunny disposition. All in all, he should have been happier than a movie mogul with a pocketful of Prozac and the rights to "Titanic: The Sequel."
But he wasn't happy. Driving the GS300 was not proving to be as satisfying as our driver would have liked; certainly not as enjoyable as would be a trip in a Mercedes-Benz E320 or a BMW 528i--cars equal to the Lexus in size, price, performance and style.
Was the powertrain the culprit? Not likely. The GS300 comes with a DOHC inline six-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that makes 225 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque. A smooth, five-speed automatic transmission and 4.27 axle ratio help the Lexus put this power to the rear wheels and allows the GS to go from a dead stop to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds; just as fast as the lighter, smaller BMW. This highly responsive engine and transmission work equally well around town and on the freeway. A quick goose of the long, skinny pedal results in a smooth downshift and subsequent rush of power as the revs build and the valve timing optimizes engine breathing, giving drivers prodigious acceleration and passing capabilities. Our driver couldn't hold the GS300's interior designers responsible for his feeling of malaise, either. The Lexus's roomy cabin provides the driver and front-seat occupant with excellent visibility and room to stretch out. An impressive 44 inches of legroom and 58 inches of shoulder room accommodates the long-limbed and broad-shouldered in the front seat. Rear-seat passengers don't fare as well, however, and only get 34.3 inches of legroom, making it more suitable for children and short adults.
Luxury-sedan buyers demand a long standard-equipment list in addition to comfortable five-passenger seating, and the GS300 obliges in this area as well. Antilock brakes, vehicle skid control and side airbags are standard safety items on the GS. Luxury touches include standard dual-zone climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels with V-rated tires, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and all of the other power goodies typically found on luxury cars.
The GS300 also has a short option list that includes the type of equipment discriminating buyers would choose to round out a luxury sport sedan. Our test model came with the reasonably priced Premium Package that includes sumptuous leather upholstery, auto-dimming electrochromic sideview mirrors, one-touch-open moonroof, and a fantastic in-dash CD changer with sound quality that renders the optional Nakamichi unit (and its $2,000 price hike) a moot point. Thus equipped, our Lexus was quite comfortable and managed to slip in under $43,000: a considerable chunk of change, but not exorbitant in the luxury category.
So, we liked the engine, interior and long list of equipment, but we're still not won over by the GS300. Why? In our opinion, the GS300 lacks a few vital components necessary to be a true luxury sport sedan--something that Lexus fully intends the GS300 to be. On the more challenging section of our road course, the GS300 pitched, rolled, slipped and slid all over the place. After 45 minutes of demanding driving, we walked away feeling that the steering was numb and over-assisted, the suspension was wallowy, and the tires gave up traction too quickly. Part of the GS-Series raison d'tre is to provide more excitement when the road gets twisty than the Camry-derived, front-wheel-drive ES300 and the conservative executive-cruiser LS400. Our initial impression is that while the GS400 may be up to task, the GS300 is not. We don't think Lexus aficionados should have to fork over an additional $8,200 to get the performance promised by the GS model line, but only delivered by the V8-equipped '400.
We're also tiring of the GS's styling: the front end is too derivative of the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the rear end looks too contrived (particularly the busy taillight cluster). It doesn't help that their huge popularity has rendered the GS more common than Camrys in many neighborhoods near our corporate headquarters.
Our driver might have been right when he complained that the GS300 didn't make him feel special, that it didn't appeal to his vanity. The car's overall performance does not meet our sport-sedan expectations and its styling does not please our eyes. When we're plopping down 40K for a car, we expect it to be an extension of us, and a damn appealing one at that. In our minds, the GS300 gives up too much to satisfy our desires. When you have this much money to spend, there are plenty of choices. Make sure your choice fits before slapping down the green.
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