For its 2013 model year, Lexus gave the GS 350 a fierce look and performance options that make it one of the best-handling Lexus models, and let it begin to approach the sport levels achieved by the German competition. Catching the eye first of all, however, is the tremendous 12.3-inch LCD sitting in the dashboard.
Beyond the main menu screen, this whopping display shows its information in a perpetual split, using about two-thirds of the area for maps, destination input, audio selection, and phone calls. The other third shows current audio, phone, climate control, and fuel economy.
Lexus launched its mouselike controller for in-cabin electronics a few years ago, and this system was refined for the GS 350. Where before it felt like a joystick, now it slides around more like a mouse. Previously, the pointer could move anywhere on the screen, but now it more securely snaps to the onscreen buttons, making it easier to use while driving.
Lexus also took away the Enter buttons, previously mounted on either side of the controller, replacing that function with a push down on the controller. I found the controller a little too sensitive, as it too easily jumped to a different button when I tried to press down. Looking into the settings, there was no way to reduce the sensitivity, but it was possible to raise the level of haptic response, so the controller would be less likely to skip off a selected button. The controller also felt too much like a cheap, plastic mouse; I would expect more heft for switchgear in a luxury car.
Along with the controller upgrade, Lexus improved its voice command. Pressing the voice command gave me a lot of top-level options for navigation, phone, and audio. I could place a call by saying the name of a person in my phone's contact list, or request music from an attached iPod or USB drive by saying the artist name or album. Entering a destination still required saying the city, street name, and number individually, instead of as one string.
Despite the large screen, Lexus' navigation remains unchanged from that of prior model years. Maps, stored on a hard drive, only offer 2D views. The system uses traffic data from satellite to avoid jams, but does not offer text-to-speech for route guidance. The system offers quite a few ways to enter addresses, including the new eDestination feature, which lets you send destinations from a PC through the Lexus telematics system.
More impressive is the system's integration with Lexus' Enform apps system. Enform is very much like the Toyota Entune system. It requires either an Android phone or iPhone running the Enform app. Android phones can connect over Bluetooth, but the iPhone must be plugged into the USB port. And as I have found with recent Toyota cars, my iPhone 3GS would only connect to the system sporadically, although the iPhone 4 and 4S seem to connect consistently.
In the GS 350, the Enform apps complement the data brought in through satellite radio. Along with the aforementioned traffic information, satellite radio provides weather forecasts, gas prices, stock prices, and sports scores. Enform offers well-known apps such as Bing search, OpenTable, and Yelp. Lexus could do a better job of putting these different apps into a uniform interface, as a driver doesn't really need to differentiate between apps powered by satellite and ones that get data over a connected smartphone.
Of the Enform apps, I found Yelp the most useful. The navigation system's own stored database of restaurants and other points of interest came up short on a couple of occasions. Yelp does a very good job of noting when a restaurant or other listing has closed, and it provides much more information about each listing than the point-of-interest database. Best of all, the system let me input the address of any listing as a destination in the navigation system, directly from its Yelp page.
Enform also includes Pandora and iHeartRadio, two apps that work as audio sources for the stereo. They complement an already robust set of audio sources that includes a USB port for iPods and thumbdrives, and satellite and HD Radio. I was impressed by how the system analyzed the MP3 tracks on my 8GB thumbdrive, letting me browse by artist and album.
CNET's car came with the standard audio system, using 12 speakers and 5.1 surround processing for very good sound quality. This system is well-balanced, producing distinct sound with good depth. I was pleased with its production of background percussion instruments on some tracks, and vocals came through with a pleasant richness. Better would have been the optional Mark Levinson audio system, which uses an 835-watt amp and 17 Green Edge speakers. Toyota started deploying these premium speakers in cars last year; they're supposed to consume less power than speakers of equivalent quality.
The stereo gets some competition from the engine, which makes a delightfully loud purr with the gas pedal floored. The 3.5-liter V-6 in the GS 350 is the same as what Lexus put in the IS 350, and uses an interesting mix of port and direct injection. At low speeds, the engine uses its port-injection system, less efficient but quieter, while at higher acceleration it switches to the direct injectors, delivering more power. The extra noise of the direct injection gets swamped by the overall road noise at higher speed. Or so the thinking goes.
Other automakers are increasingly going to direct-injection engines for the increased efficiency, and dealing well with the extra engine noise. Lexus should lose the complexity of this system and just go to straight direct injection.