Don't waste much sympathy on Toyota, since it sits atop this industry's loftiest mountain of cash. But the global auto giant still faces a challenge when trying to inject a little more adrenaline into its Lexus products.
In cooking up the 2006 GS 300 (and the V8-powered GS 430), Lexus wanted a little more moxie, a little more swagger. And yet the principles of smoothness, silence, refinement and general conservatism that define the Lexus brand could not be violated.
"With this all-new GS," asserts Denny Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager, "we will change the perception of what a performance sedan is all about."
How did the carmaker do? As GS 300 reviews roll in, we're confident the consensus will be that Lexus' midrange luxury sport sedan has been energized without being misdirected.
Sharpening the Edge Some hint of the previous GS shape carries over to the new car, especially in the face. But most of the former ovoid proportions are replaced by taut surfaces and crisp creases. The long, sloping roofline and very short deck create a pronounced fastback effect. Overall the car is a hair shorter, narrower and longer than a 5 Series.
Inside, a Lexus is a Lexus is a Lexus. Fine materials, tasteful design and that impeccable touch the company does so well are still here. We might pick nits and suggest that the large, unadorned expanse of dash in front of the passenger looks a little stark. But the GS cabin will feel entirely familiar to a Lexus fan, and comfortingly polished to most anyone. Previous GS owners will recognize the gated shifter and three-pod gauge cluster.
But it's in the performance arena that Lexus really wants to differentiate this new car. The sprinter is the GS 430, using the same 300-horsepower, 4.3-liter V8 it has relied upon since 2001. With a new six-speed automatic transmission, this car is good for a claimed 0-60-mph time of 5.7 seconds and a governed top speed of 149 — the fastest Lexus ever. The GS 430 starts at $51,125, and we will have one in a full comparison test shortly.
The volume seller, though, will be the $42,900 GS 300, which makes use of an all-new ultrasmooth 24-valve double-overhead cam V6 engine. For improved efficiency, it features direct fuel injection and a variable valve timing system, which now adjusts both intake and exhaust cams. Plus, its engine block is cast in aluminum (the old straight-six it replaces was iron), which helps the '06 GS 300 shed approximately 100 pounds overall.
Peak power is up by 20 hp, from 225 to 245, and the V6 also benefits from the slick new six-speed automatic, so performance clearly improves, even in this "base" car. The last GS 300 we tested (1999) gave 7.5 seconds to 60. We expect the new one to be in the high-6-second range.
Everything but the Kitchen Sink Tech junkies and acronym lovers have lots to swoon over in the new GS line. The 430 gets a new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM) that works with Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), BrakeAssist (BA), antilock brake system (ABS), Electronic Throttle Control with intelligence (ECT-i), electric power steering (EPS), Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) and electronically controlled brakes (ECB).
The GS 300 gets along without some of the new-generation trickery (VDIM, VGRS and ECB), but we noticed no dynamic problems that called for additional techno-fizz, even during hard driving. We also weren't distracted by the overt intervention of electronic nannies, which is good.
Among the decisions GS 300 buyers now get to make is whether all-wheel drive suits their style. Lexus has ambitious hopes for the $44,850 all-wheel-drive version, which weighs 224 pounds more and trades slightly busier road feedback for the added traction. (Also, a GS 450h hybrid will roll out in about a year.)
The other big choice (not really a choice at all) concerns the spectacular Mark Levinson premium sound option. It's a true surround system, delivering discrete 5.1 multichannel playback, utilizing no less than 330 watts of amplifier power and 14 speakers.
The Big Secret Obviously, the GS 300 will not hog the performance spotlight the way the GS 430 will, but you know what? The lighter, better-balanced GS 300 gave us a driving experience we might judge more pleasant all around. With less mass in the nose, the V6 car is quicker on its feet and more poised. It doesn't pull as hard as the V8, naturally, but unless you drive them back-to-back, you might not care.
However you spec out a 2006 Lexus GS, you'll find a spirited, sophisticated, elegant automobile that hits both the "luxury" and "sport" targets Toyota aimed for in this modern luxury sport sedan.