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Published: 03/13/2001 - by Liz Kim, Contributor
Some people use the term vanilla pejoratively, in reference to something bland. It is also subject to such neologisms as "vanillified" or "vanilla-esque," for something that's been toned down, stripped of its zing. And of course, Gumby-haired Vanilla Ice ruined it for all of us 'nilla mavens.
Personally, I like vanilla, especially in ice cream form. It's a fine flavor on its own, and even without accoutrements such as nuts and hot sauces, it's a satisfying dessert. It may lack the complexity of a convoluted, overwrought, multilayered deal, but for all those nights of watching Walker, Texas Ranger in sweatpants and no makeup, give me a pint of plain ol' Haagen-Dazs any day.
And besides, who hates vanilla ice cream? We can't find anyone who wholly dislikes it. It's just a matter of degrees of preference.
Think of the GS 430 as a plate of delicious vanilla ice cream. It's good in itself. No one will be averse to it. But many will prefer fancier desserts.
When the GS was first introduced in 1993, it was intended as a splash of scarlet in Lexus' khaki-hued sedan lineup composed of the ES and LS. The GS was supposed to be Japan's bad-ass answer to German sport sedans, and its original silhouette (only by coincidence, we're sure) evoked that of the BMW 5 Series. GS received a new platform for the 1998 model year, as well as the choice of a V8. We thought it nifty enough in our 1998 luxury sport sedan test to place second, and it also received numerous awards from the automotive community.
Since then, Lexus has also introduced the "Robin Williams on meth" IS 300, as well as injected some personality into the new LS 430. So, where does this leave the GS, especially with other excellent midsize V8 imports as its competitors?
It certainly still has its appeal. Hustling the GS 430 is Lexus' new sweetheart of a V8, with increased displacement from 4.0 to 4.3 liters. There's no increase in horsepower, which peaks out at 300, but there is an increase of 15 foot-pounds of torque to 325 in a broader range of revs. And boy, the GS moves. Lexus posts 0 to 60 acceleration times of 5.8 seconds, especially impressive in light of the fact that the engine meets Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) status and that we averaged an impressive 22 miles to the gallon. Due to inclement weather conditions, we were unable to test the vehicle for acceleration, braking and slalom numbers as we usually do, but judging by takeoffs from drives around town, the numbers are credible. It beats the time set by BMW's 4.4-liter engine mated to an automatic and bests Audi's 4.2-liter powerplant by one second. Variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) delivers the copious juice in a velvety-smooth manner, and the engine is near silent at idle and finishes with a creamy top note when approaching high rpms.
While it holds its revs nicely during takeoffs from dead stops, the five-speed transmission of the GS is a bit reluctant to downshift. The GS 430 could benefit from an automanual tranny, which is standard on the GS 300. Although the E-Shift system is far from perfect, we balefully noted its absence, as it deteriorates the fun factor in canyon runs: As you accelerate after exiting a curve, the transmission hesitates a bit before deciding on a gear. It usually lands in the correct one, but it just has to pause and collect its thoughts before execution. We called Lexus to inquire as to the wherefores of the automanual's demise. Turns out that none of the company's 4.3-liter engines are attached to one. Lexus felt that it would compromise the quality of the engine and the tranny. Lexus does provide you with a winter mode for second-gear starts for more traction under slippery conditions.
The steering wheel transmits a small amount of feedback from the road. Aside from a rather sizeable on-center dead spot, the speed-sensitive progressive rack-and-pinion system is direct and provides a tight turning radius. Several drivers critiqued the overboosted steering, however, which was as slippery as Clinton through a grand jury indictment, as slick as an ice cube coated with Pam. But drivers who equate "goodness" with "smoothness" will be pleased by the almost effortless turning action, arms akimbo in a fandango of near-frictionless hand-over-hand rotation.
Our testers found the brakes to be less well calibrated than most Lexus models we've come to know, and believe that stopping distance, as well as pedal travel, isn't as short or intuitive as one would come to expect in a Lexus. Not only was the four-disc setup unusually uncooperative upon our pushing the pedal, but when it was released, it did so with a cheap, disquieting "click" that further deepened our conjecture that all was not as it should be in this particular car. Again, we were unable to test it at the track to confirm whether or not that was an anomaly, but we have a suspicion that this is unique to this particular test vehicle. Based on Lexus' stellar reputation, we were more than willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt.
On the open road, headed toward the otherworldly landscape of Joshua Tree National Monument with family members on board is where the GS 430 truly sparkles. Its silent cabin, expurgated of any noise, harshness or vibration, is a portrait of tranquility. The GS 430 isolates you from any inconsistencies in the road. The four-wheel independent double wishbone suspension is configured to favor a supple, smooth ride over a taut, sporty one, which is great for the passengers, but a tad stultifying for the driver. Yet body roll was kept down to a reasonable amount, to our pleasant surprise.
To reiterate, some drivers prefer to keep driving exuberance to a minimum, and for long hauls, we would have to agree. However, a safety argument could be made against extremely smooth cars. When you feel disconnected from the road, you tend to go faster, which, in this car, is effortless to do. When the car doesn't communicate with the driver, he's not apprised of the car's limits or his own; it may be easy to inadvertently get in over his head.
The Lexus doesn't leave you totally unprotected, however. The GS provides drivers with active safety features that would mitigate the chance of an accident. Brake Assist determines if you need a little help in engaging the ABS, and the Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) gently corrects understeer or oversteer in adverse driving conditions. Of course, a car can't defy the laws of physics, and should you get into trouble, the dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags for the driver and front passenger should hopefully prevent any real damage to the occupants in all but the most serious of collisions.
The GS 430 certainly keeps up with any of its competitors. We merely feel that its German counterparts elicit a certain amount of hootin' and hollerin', while the driver of the GS can smile smugly as he steadily keeps up with the competitors. And therein lies the problem: The GS doesn't inspire much passion. It lacks the seductive urgency of German motors, the yearning pull of the chassis begging to be driven.
But some people prefer it that way. And for those, the $50,000-plus spent on this car will get them a virtual laundry list of luxurious doodads to while away the time. The cabin is outfitted with gleaming California walnut wood trim and handsome light-sensitive gauges housed in chrome-ringed pods. Considerate touches such as steering wheel-mounted stereo controls and one-touch up and down controls for all four windows make the commute bearable, and the xenon headlamps, newly standard on the 430 for the 2001 model year, provide amazing illumination.
The driver seat is utterly comfortable, even after a five-hour stint, thanks to the 10-way power adjustment including lumbar support. The lightly ruched, buttery-soft leather added flair, and a wide, well-padded dual-tiered center armrest coddled our weary elbows. Fit-and-finish for both the interior and exterior is, as per Lexus standard, beyond reproach.
The Mark Levinson stereo package encompassed the silent cabin with its excellent sound; our stereo evaluator called it the best he's ever experienced. However, the six-CD cartridge is rather ignominiously crammed into the glove box; a system this remarkable and costly should have an in-dash changer. Furthermore, the stereo as well as climate controls are integrated into the smudge-prone navigation screen, and while it was easy to use (other editors commented that it was impossible to find the radio preset button; the sillies; all you have to do is press the screen for two seconds, much like with regular buttons), we shudder at the thought of the day when the screen breaks down.
The DVD-based navigation system itself, however, was the best that this reporter has used so far, both in ease of operation and expedited computation. Functions like a "Back" button are greatly appreciated. It never faltered, even on remote, isolated back roads, and the voice of the woman articulating the directions is so courteous and polite that you feel like thanking her when she completes a set of instructions.
Rear seat passengers make do with 34.3 inches of legroom, which is average for cars in this class. We should mention, however, that the Audi A6 offers 3 more inches of rear legroom. While the fold-down armrest provides two cupholders in a slide-out tray, we would have appreciated a console built into the armrest. Two passengers will have a much more pleasant time riding in the rear than three, but even the third person sitting in the middle gets a three-point seatbelt and a height-adjustable headrest.
Exterior design conveys clear intentions of evoking the German uber-cars, but seems a bit dated. While the short overhangs evoke speediness, its overall silhouette isn't terribly svelte, and drivers were less than charmed with the shape of the taillights with separate inboard brake lights. We distrust shapes whose names we don't know, so let's just term them amoeba-like. Rear visibility is hampered not only by the tall rear deck but the spoiler, which, in our opinion, doesn't quite jibe with the lines of this car.
The trunk is flawed in many ways. First, it's rather shallow, and it's sectioned into an upside-down T. While it can accommodate long (but not too long; the rear seats don't fold forward), narrow objects, you couldn't fit a large poster frame in there. Second, the floor isn't flat, so it'll require some creative loading, and the fastidious will take care not to place heavy or wet items on the navigation DVD player, as it is floor-mounted. Lastly, outdated hinges may crush your valuables; strut-types would be more fitting for a car of this class.
The GS 430 doesn't beg to be driven, but will handle any job with equanimity. Again, it comes down to a matter of personal preference. If what you require in a car is solidness, luxury and peace of mind, the GS 430 will serve you well. And, if treated with due deference, it'll last just about forever. The majority of buyers will be enchanted with their purchase, but judging by last year's sales figures of a little more than 6,000 units (in comparison, 18,500 GS 300s were purchased, BMW sold close to 40,000 units of the 5 Series and 50,000 of you chose the E-Class), most of you want more.
It's just that there are so many excellent luxury cars in this price range that are, well, more. If you prefer a Lexus with attitude, there's the IS 300 for a lot less money. If you want a top-of-the-line, loaded-to-the-gills, no-holds-barred-luxurious Lexus, fork over a paltry $6,000 (and in this lofty price range, we daresay that it would be fair to call six grand paltry; this is also the price of the Mark Levinson sound system), and the LS 430 is quite within grasp. If you prefer a midsize sedan, there's the BMW 540i and the Audi A6 4.2 that fully encompass both a luxurious ride and an athletic one. Plus, the Audi has standard quattro all-wheel drive. The first-rate Mercedes E430 offers nonpareil brand-name cachet, save for the fact that two Jaguar sedans, the S-Type and even the XJ8, reside in this price range.
So where does this leave the GS 430? It's still a great car, but with increasingly limited appeal. Those who want a Japanese luxury nameplate, desire the finest factory-installed audio system, and covet a car with midsize proclivities and a smidgen of sporting attitude that mostly gets lost in favor of luxuriousness, will have no choice but to get the GS.
Hey, we're hearing about price adjustments that amount to around 5,000 smackeroos. That's a lot of ice cream.
System Score: 9.25
Components: Audiophiles will probably complain that I didn't give this one a 10 (or, to extend the old Spinal Tap joke, an 11). But I have my reasons. Keep reading.
Anyway, let me start by saying this is the best OEM sound system I've ever heard, bar none. It is simply fabulous. If sound quality is your main criterion, and you've got the bucks, run out and buy this car and be done with it. It's that good.
The system consists of a touchscreen display, coupled with some basic manual controls in a standard head unit positioned immediately below the screen. The touchscreen also doubles as a navigation display, so you have to play with it a little to get it to do what you want. Presets and most of the tone adjustments are made through the touchscreen display, while the radio below houses a cassette player, the volume control and a few other minor controls. Buttons are logically positioned and well spaced. The glove box holds a six-disc CD changer.
The system offers 11 different speaker positions. These include a fabulous 8-inch subwoofer along the back deck, as well as speakers positioned in all four doors (tweeters in the front doors), plus a wonderful center fill speaker on top of the dash. The center fill speaker fires upward into the windshield and adds a lot of staging presence to the system.
According to Lexus, the system is powered by a seven-channel amplifier/processor delivering 240 watts of power over all channels at .01 percent Total Harmonic Distortion (THD). The amp/processor also includes discrete output devices (normally not found in OEM car applications), digital-to-analog conversion circuitry, and a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) platform that manages the whole thing. Believe me, folks, this is not the kind of stuff found in a typical factory system.
Performance: Well, what can I say it sounds stunning. All those fancy gadgets wouldn't mean much if the system sounded like crapola, but this one really sings. Bass is superb deep, rich, luscious and, depending on what kind of music you listen to, thunderous. Likewise with drums and percussion, which have great attack and incredible dynamics. Vocals and horns are lively and well defined, with intricate detail, smoothness and real warmth. You can actually hear the "woodenness" in acoustic strings, a rarity in any sound system and especially welcome in this car. The soundstage is excellent, with great depth and right-to-left imaging. Unless you're going to build your own system from scratch, it doesn't get much better than this.
Best Feature: Incredible sound quality.
Worst Feature: Funky CD changer cartridge.
Conclusion: This system came really close to getting a 10, but it was marred by a horribly inconvenient CD changer. Specifically, the six-disc changer's cartridge has removable trays that fall out in your lap when you're trying to change CDs. Really annoying! I spoke to one of my fellow editors about this (he used to be a service advisor at a dealership), and he thought Lexus may have chosen this system for reliability reasons, since OEM CD changers have a high failure rate. Whatever the reason, this is one funky CD changer.
We also had some problems figuring out how to preset stations on the touchscreen display. A fellow editor a very bright guy spent a half hour trying to figure it out and couldn't. I was called in as a last resort and inadvertently hit the correct button, and that's how we figured it out. A total accident! Anyway, some of the controls in this system aren't as intuitive as they might be, and that's why I took points off.
But if you like great sound, this is one for the record books. Scott Memmer
Features Editor Miles Cook says:
I must admit I was truly excited to spend an evening gallivanting around in the hard-hitting (on paper anyway) GS 430, supposedly the quickest and fastest Japanese sport sedan. Before I was ever given the chance to drive and write about new cars for a living, this car was one of the machines I fantasized about driving, along with other cars such as a Corvette Z06, a Mustang Cobra R, a BMW M5, a Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 and several others.
Problem is that after driving the GS 430, it's no longer on my car lust list with the above-mentioned models. Sure, the new 4.3-liter V8 makes serious power, the car wraps its driver in shameless luxury, and it's got enough gadgets to keep those who like that kind of stuff happy. But there's no spirit. No soul. And although I've not yet driven an LS 430, I don't feel the GS is different enough from the LS for me to consider it a serious sport sedan (serious in terms of an E430 or 540i, anyway). I used to think of the Lexus GS in the same frame of mind as a Benz or a BMW (or even a Lincoln LS), but now I don't. And when I looked at the sticker price of well over 50 grand, that quashed the GS for me even more. For a tad more money (or even the same or less for a used one that's maybe a year old) I'll take a 540i six-speed basically the best sport sedan you can get at any price.
Senior Editor Brent Romans says:
I drove our GS 430 test car. Or at least I think I did. Big sedan, sand-colored paint, green gauges, right? Yes, that's the one. Sorry, my memory is rather hazy, leading to the conclusion that the car didn't leave a big impression on me. I did appreciate the new 4.3-liter V8 engine. Three hundred horsepower and ULEV certification? That's something even Ralph Nader would have a hard time putting down. I also liked the large LCD screen and detailed navigation system; both put the COMAND system in the Mercedes-Benz E430 to shame.
But shift away from the details to the big picture, and the GS 430 loses its focus. What's the purpose of the car? It is somewhat sporty, but certainly not as sporty as the smaller IS 300. Is it luxurious? Well, yes, but not as much as the LS 430. So what's the point, then? I think much of this problem would be solved with a lower price; as it stands, a more prestigious LS 430 could be obtained for about the same amount as our test car. I see from Edmunds.com's TMV price, GS 430 transactions are going for considerably less than MSRP. Grind the dealer to get a price near invoice, and the GS makes a lot more sense.
Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw says:
Nearly three years ago, when we compared the Lexus GS to a BMW 540i and a Cadillac Seville STS, the Lexus placed a solid second behind the BMW.
Today, if that test were repeated, I'm certain the results would be the same. The GS is intended to be a sporting Lexus, less an isolation chamber and more communicative with driver and passengers. It succeeds at this mission, but ultimately represents a compromise between cushy boulevard cruiser and competent back road carver.
Quality and refinement are Lexus calling cards, and the GS exudes both. The main exception pertains to the brake pedal. Not only does it lack natural, progressive travel, but also when released, it thuds audibly with a high-toned, flimsy sound. So quiet and vibration-free is the power train that, though plenty quick, the GS quells engine and exhaust roar to the point that rapid acceleration is rather dull.
Inside, quality and finish are the names of the game, but there are oddities. Some controls are shared with Toyota products, cheapening the cabin. The navigation system touchscreen must be used to reference certain climate control and stereo functions, which is dangerous, frustrating and ergonomically inferior. I never did figure out how to preset radio stations (there wasn't a manual in the car). At least the navigation system is simple to program and operate. Also, such a fine sounding audio system deserves better than an in-dash cassette player. The CD changer is stuffed inconveniently into the glove box.
Finally, the thick hindquarters, excessive rear overhang and oddly shaped lighting just don't do it for me. The GS is a great car, certain to satisfy undemanding owners, but for me it is unexciting. All I want to do with it is listen to the stereo.
I had an unpleasant learning experience today. Took my new GS 430 on snowy/icy road conditions thinking that little 'snow' button would make driving a breeze. This is without a doubt the worst handling car I have EVER driven on icy road conditions. Absolutely no traction and the traction control system only added to the problem. Is there any remedy to this problem (other than leaving my Lexus at home and hopping in the 4x4 on bad snow days)???" sham609, "Lexus GS Part Four," #375 of 421, Jan. 17, 2001
Editor's Note: A GS 400 owner responds to the previous post (#375).
"What tires are you using? I hope not the 17-inch summer tires; if that's the case, you are going nowhere. If you have the 16-inch rims, then I recommend a change in tires. I have Michelin Pilot XGT H4 225/55R16 on 16-inch rims for the winter on my GS 400, and it has handled well from my past experience with my former car. My previous car was a Q45, and I had Blizzaks on that thing, but it was a nightmare. The GS 400, with the tires I have, has been nothing but a pleasant surprise with the traction it gives me in the snow, [and] this from a rear-wheel-drive car. The tires, coupled with VSC and Traction Control, keep me straight and give me peace of mind on snowy streets. The only downside to the Michelins is the road noise at highway speeds very loud but I will deal with it since it's only for the winter. Another alternative would be Dunlops, which the dealer recommended, but I decided to try the Michelins instead." uofmiami, "Lexus GS Part Four," #377 of 421, Jan. 17, 2001
1998-2000 GS 400 Owners
Editor's Note: A 2000 GS 400 owner offers driving impressions of the GS 430 and the 540i.
"GS 430 with stock suspension is no match in handling for a 540i with sport package. Performance (power) is very close. GS is quicker than 540i with auto, but slower than 540i with a stick. The 540i has a nice aggressive exhaust note when using a heavy foot, while the GS is smooth and quiet. Putting aside performance and handling, I think the GS interior ergonomics are quite a bit superior (the 540i *still* requires a CD changer in the trunk I believe, for example). Another I noticed recently when driving my neighbor's 540i is that its steering wheel is bigger than the GS's. While you could get used to either, I find the smaller GS wheel sportier. Sport seats are better in the 540i, but rear seat room is better in the GS. Overall dimensions of both are very similar. The bigger win on the GS is price about $5K less similarly equipped. For that $5K, you can spend $1K on L-Tuned springs/shocks/ECU and installation and be impressed with its handling. Hope that helps. The E430 isn't in the same league, in my opinion. Looks like the car equivalent of a camel (horse designed by committee), and you pay for the three-point star. Very nice car though, but doesn't have the handling, performance or sporty styling of the other two." bitkahuna, "Lexus GS Part Four," #341 of 421, Jan. 8, 2001
"I'm a long-time BMW driver (1984), but left them late '98 owing to absolutely horrific service from our sole BMW dealer here in town. We bought a 2000 GS 400 in late July 2000 and performed the factory L-tune spring, shock and steering ECU upgrades together w/ a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) strut brace. While I'd ordered twice as thick sway bars, they had not arrived before my accident, which is prompting the sale of our GS when it is repaired. With that preface, I decided to go out Monday and drive BMW 540s. I drove one with the Sport package (suspension primarily) and one without. My GS 400 handled as well as the 540 (non-sport) after my modifications. The 540 Sport was absolutely no contest. I'm just so pissed that I will have to deal with these clowns in the BMW service department, [but] I just don't see how we cannot replace the GS with the 540 Sport. Also, I think the 540 rides better (over bumps) than our GS did, and they both had 17-inch wheels. Incidentally, the 540 sport stickers for about what a GS 430 with the factory suspension upgrades does. Granted, the brakes are better in the GS they sure do not feel like it. While they stop terrifically, they still feel Japanese (cheapy) and don't recover nearly as nicely. IOW, a couple hard brakings later, they don't feel as tight again as they did before the hard braking (they don't seem to recover again until a new brake job is completed). Further, the acceleration on our GS was pretty darn nice stock and was 5.5 seconds from 0 to 60 after a couple of minor upgrades, which tears up the 540 automatic. That said, the handling on the 540 Sport is just so darn much better than the GS that I agree with Edmunds as to where the value lies. I don't think there is another manufacturer [that] offers more car for the money. To spite this, my '01 Carrera Cab is coming late next week, as I won't wait for the M3 cab and the 911 is good enough (almost identical IMO to the 'new' M3 in all areas). That said, the GS is not close enough for me to the 540 Sport. Of course, you must remember this opinion is written by someone who places performance over luxury in the perf/lux balance act. Lexus is also much more dependable and [their cars] necessitate fewer visits to the dealership where Lexus treats its customers like gold." benkea, "Lexus GS Part Four," #96 of 421, Oct. 27, 2000
" I was reassured by several co-workers who own Lexus [vehicles] that I could not find a higher quality car. They gave great advice! Personally, I don't think I could ever go back to Mercedes considering that their S-class cars have been pretty problematic. The GS 400 is by far faster than the Audi A6 2.7T, and I much prefer the smoothness and even power delivery of the V8 with VVT-i over a turbocharged V6 engine. And I have never really had a problem driving my previous RWD cars (without traction control) in hilly or snowy climates. So I could really not see the advantage that AWD would provide for a combined 2 to 3 weeks out of the year versus the disadvantages that AWD provides over the other 11 months out of the year." p_source, "Serious Sedans - The Sequel: 540i, E430, GS 400, STS & A6," #74 of 257, Sept. 20, 2000
Editor's Note: More from the previous participant (p_source) on his 1999 GS 400.
" I did not mean smooth as in power delivery, but rather smoothness as in the inherent smoothness that a V8 provides over a V6 or inline six. I doubt there is any V6 that is as smooth as the Lexus V8. For that matter a lot of other V8's are not as smooth as the Lexus V8 . I'm sure the Audi A6 2.7T is fast, but I picked the GS 400 for reasons other than just price and straight-line speed. Those factors I stated above. Among those factors, Lexus was highly recommended by co-workers (some of whom own Lexus models), its long-term dependability ratings, quality ratings and so on. Audi does not come close to Lexus in quality or reliability. And like most Lexus models, the GS 400 is holding its value well. That makes it worth the $4,000 or so extra for the GS 400. I have seen many times before that first year production cars are far from perfect, and that is partially why I waited for the 1999 model. Mine is a 1999 model, and it has been basically perfect from day one . I don't see the need for AWD. I live in Pennsylvania most of the year and mostly during the winter months. Even in the Poconos, in winter, I have never really had a problem getting my old 420SEL around during ski season and so on. During one winter with the GS 400, I can say the GS 400 is even better because of traction control and VSC. Overall, I don't see the need for AWD for 2 to 3 combined weeks of snow that we get up here in the winter. My basic problems with AWD are 1) its complexity, 2) weight penalty, 3) because of #1, there is a greater chance of needing repairs at some point in the future. Since I purchased the car and intend to own it until it reaches well over 100,000 miles, I don't want to deal with the complexity and possible expensive repair costs for the gain I am going to receive from an AWD system for, possibly, one month out of the year." p_source, "Serious Sedans - The Sequel: 540i, E430, GS 400, STS & A6," #82 of 257, Sept. 21, 2000
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