BMW and Benz Better Look Over Their Shoulders
Creation of the 2013 Lexus GS 350 began in the summer of 2007. In Germany. On the unrestricted Autobahn.
Lexus engineers and product planners needed to rethink the GS, which had been getting its taillights kicked by the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class since the mid-1990s. So they did the right thing; they gathered in the homeland of Benz and BMW and they drove fast.
They brought along 10 cars to flog, including multiple versions of the 5 and the E. They brought diesels, V8s, even an M5. They also brought along a Porsche Cayman as a steering benchmark and a 2006 Euro-spec Lexus GS.
"I'll probably get in trouble for telling you this," says Ben J. Mitchell, who participated in the gathering. "But our GS was all done at 110 mph."
He hesitates. We're sitting in a dimly lit steak house in Pasadena, California, and the Lexus product planning manager isn't sure he should say anymore. But he does. "It would have gone faster," he says of the 2006 GS, "but you didn't want to drive it any faster. The sedan's structure wasn't up to it. The doors started moving in their frames and the car just stopped being fun to drive."
Mitchell drops his knife and fork and grips an imaginary steering wheel in the 9 and 3 positions. "The Mercedes felt best," he says, pretending to steer a car delicately. "It was still easy to drive at 150."
That triple-digit-speed field trip taught Mitchell and the Lexus engineers exactly what the next Lexus GS should be. "More fun to drive became a top vehicle priority," says the sedan's Deputy Chief Engineer Koji Sato. "The next GS had to have a more engaging driving experience."
Duh. The Lexus GS has always had the personality of a supermodel. As in none.
Six years after that brilliant revelation, I'm driving a 2013 Lexus GS wearing more zippers and black leather than The Gimp. (Not me, the car. I'm wearing chinos and a button-down.) And I'm driving it on the Angeles Crest Highway, a fantastic driver's road just northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Slow at first. The last thing I want to do is scuff up the sedan's kinky leather mask, which will finally be removed at the Pebble Beach Concours next month. Trust me when I tell you that it looks very much like the LF-Gh Concept that Lexus showed at the New York auto show last spring.
The first thing I notice is that I can hear the engine. And I mean hear it. Really hear it. And it sounds good. There's even a little gear whine. Amazing. Then I notice how perfect the seat is. It's no longer dead flat and Buick-like. It has bolsters. It has bolsters that adjust. And it's sized for adults. This is no hard and silly race seat that can only fit anorexic metrosexuals named Josh; it's a proper sport sedan seat with an endless combination of power adjustments and just the right amount of size and shape.
And the driving position is a revelation. Sato lowered the driver's hip point half an inch. It doesn't sound like much, but it changes the entire character of the car. Now you sit in the GS, not on it. Hey Lexus, don't change a thing.
That goes for the steering, too. The ratio is spot-on and the feedback from the front tires is...is...dare I say it, BMW-like.
This car is fun. And the more comfortable I get with the machine, the faster I go. After a few miles at a safe seven-tenths I turn it up a notch and the new GS hangs in there, responding to trail braking and midcorner corrections like...like...dare I say it, like a BMW. It turns in well and takes a nice set in long corners. Plenty of grip.
At an extreme pace the 2013 Lexus GS will push its front tires mildly, and in the grand Toyota/Lexus tradition, its stability control system intervenes just when things are about to get really fun. Too early, if you ask me. But you can shut all that off and drive this car as well, or as poorly, or as far off the road backward, as you wish.
They may have let me drive the car, but Sato and Mitchell won't tell me much about it. I do know there will be three models offered when Lexus hits the on-sale button early next year. There will be the GS 350, which will be shown at Pebble; a hybrid model, which will be shown at the Frankfurt auto show in September; and the more performance-oriented F Sport, which will debut at SEMA in November.
All three will be rear-wheel drive and powered by a tweaked version of the 3.5-liter all-aluminum V6 and six-speed automatic transmission. But horsepower and torque ratings are still a mystery. Today that engine is rated at 303 hp and 274 pound-feet in the Lexus GS. Expect more, but not much more. Maybe 315 ponies to topple the rating of the BMW 535i.
Basically the hybrid takes over for the big displacement of a V8 model, but the door is still open for a BMW M5-fighting GS F, which would be powered by the 5.0-liter V8 and eight-speed transmission used in the Lexus IS F. When asked about this model, Lexus folk get all coy and sheepish. Trust us, it's coming. Probably early 2013.
So the GS's drivetrain isn't new, but the rest of the sedan is fresh. The chassis is new and it's stiffer thanks to increased spot and laser welding on the firewall, in the rear partition area and around the door openings. Lexus also added more structure under and behind the rear seat and larger-gauge material to the engine cradle and the transmission crossmember.
This is also a larger car than before. Sort of. The wheelbase remains at 112.2 inches and the overall length is still 190.9 inches, but the packaging is different. The front overhang has shrunk by 0.4 inch and the rear overhang has grown by the same amount. That has increased trunk space to the point of fitting four golf bags instead of just two. The car is also 1.2 inches taller, which has increased headroom front and rear, and when measured at the mirrors it's 0.8 inch wider.
Lexus actually let me drive two prototypes: standard and F Sport. The differences are minor but significant. The most obvious are the wheels and tires. The standard car rolls on Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 rubber measuring 235/45R18 all around. The F Sport gets larger and stickier Bridgestone Potenza RE 050A tires measuring 235/40R19 in front and 265/35R19 in back. It also gets larger front brake rotors, but Lexus would give me no brake dimensions to share.
For years, Sato and his engineering team worked on the GS's front suspension, which is basically the same design as before, but with new geometry and some new hardware. The team switched to aluminum upper and lower control arms and an aluminum knuckle to save 4.4 pounds. They also increased the caster trail for improved stability and steering feel. To further improve the ride and reduce harshness, Sato increased the size of the lower number-two bushing and the shock absorber inclination angle.
Some of the same technology also went into the rear suspension, which now uses a lighter cast-aluminum carrier and lower arm, as well as a rear-mounted toe link for additional stability.
But the most significant change to the GS's suspension is its width. Lexus has increased the GS's track 1.6 inches in the front and 2 inches in the rear. That's a huge change and it's a big part of the sedan's newfound agility and stability.
Suspension tuning is unique for each model. The F Sport is tuned more firmly than the standard car, but it's still very comfortable around town. The standard car also has plenty of feel built in, but it is on the softer side once the suspension gets into its travel.
Both prototypes I sampled were equipped with a new system Lexus is calling Lexus Drive Mode Select. It's controlled by a large knob behind the shifter, and offers four settings to tune the car to the driver's liking. Eco for the greenies, Normal, which is the default setting, Sport, which tightens up the initial throttle response and amps up the transmission and Sport+, which also adds more effort to the steering and more damping to the suspension.
It's a system similar to BMW's Dynamic Drive Control and Audi Drive Select. And it works, even if such systems still seem unnecessary. I drove both cars in all four settings and I prefer the standard GS in Sport+ mode to eliminate that slight bit of float built into its suspension, and I prefer the F Sport in the Normal setting, which is an exceptional combination of sport and luxury.
My only real dynamic gripe about the 2013 Lexus GS 350 is with its transmission. Although it matches revs very well when you manually ask for a downshift, it only matches revs if the shifter is over in the M position. Otherwise the paddle shifters are still active but the rev-matching is not.
The transmission also insists on upshifting at redline, even when the M position is selected. In other words, Lexus never lets you touch the V6's rev limiter. This is a problem in the mountains. More than once it upshifted to 3rd gear a split-second before I jumped on the brakes and entered a corner. Not good.
Better Than the IS F
Lexus should be proud of this car. It's still a Lexus as it should be. Smooth. Comfortable. But it's the best-driving Lexus sedan yet. It's refined, but it doesn't feel synthetic or computer controlled, which isn't something that can be said about another Lexus four-door, even the monster-motored IS F.
Although it was covered with quite a bit of duct tape in these prototypes, the GS's new interior should also strike a pleasing combination of sport and luxury. French stitching is abundant, the buttery leather used is of typical Lexus quality and the new extra-large display screen in the dash center is plucked right from BMW's playbook.
Of course, until we see the 2013 Lexus GS in the flesh and drive the finished production version, we can't really form a complete opinion about the sedan. But I did come away from my drive very impressed. Lexus may have finally figured out the sport sedan.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.