Every year at the Western Automotive Journalists' annual Media Days at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, there's at least one large sedan that surprises me with its on-track poise. Last year, that car was the, but this year it was the 2013 Lexus GS 350 F-Sport that left me scratching my head.
2013 GS 350 F-Sport
The last time I found myself behind the wheel of a Lexus GS, it was back in 2008 when a GS 450h hybrid surprised me with its straight-line performance and understated, muscular stying. The newest 2013 Lexus GS is anything but understated, particularly in its F-Sport trim, which takes the already double-take-inducing front end of the standard GS and further weirds it up with larger, more aggressive front air intakes, massive chrome exhaust tips, and other body kit bits that make the sedan look a bit like a flexed muscle.
The body is suspended atop a 19-inch alloy wheel and sport brake package via an adaptive suspension system that receives a unique F-Sport tune at this trim level. The vehicle I drove was as all-wheel-drive model, but the 350 F-Sport is also available in a rear-drive configuration with staggered wheel sizes and even better 14-inch performance brakes with four-piston front calipers. The F-Sport also features a unique traction control tune that can be dialed back to allow for zestier driving before the electronics interfere.
The GS 350 F-Sport's 3.5-liter engine outputs 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission regardless of whether you opt for the AWD or RWD configuration. While I've not driven the RWD model, Lexus assures me that it's the more hard-core of the two--"hard-core," of course, being a relative term when you're talking about a 3,900-pound sedan.
On the track, the GS F-Sport's engine makes good use of all 306 of those ponies thanks in part to a drive mode selector that gives the driver access to two levels of Sport S and S+ performance tweaks. In S+, the traction control system takes a chill pill, the throttle response is made more aggressive, the engine is instructed to give it all she's got, and the adaptive suspension system flexes its electronically controlled damping for a more controlled ride.
With the all-wheel-drive system shuffling power fore and aft, the GS 350 was able to power out of turns with remarkably little drama and surprising speed. And thanks to the adaptive suspension system it rounded those same bends with only minor body roll and, most importantly, lots of predictability. Rather than fiddle with the paddle shifters, I decided to see what Lexus' engineers thought a sport mode should feel like and left the gearbox in its automatic mode. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. The six-speed automatic did a good job of staying out of its own way, downshifting as I braked for turns and hanging on to gears long enough to maximize power while accelerating.
While all of this was happening on the outside, inside the cabin I was about as comfortable as could be expected. The GS 350 F-Sport is trimmed with dark aluminum bits all around and black upholstery for the headliner and floor. The driver's seat is swapped for a unique F-Sport bucket with power-adjustable side bolsters. I didn't power on the Mark Levinson premium audio system, but was able to carry on a conversation about the car with a passenger without too much shouting over the occasional tire squeals.
GS 450h hybrid
While the 350 F-Sport is about as aggressive as the GS sedan comes, it's not necessarily the top of the line. It's not even the most powerful. That accolade belongs to the GS 450h hybrid model, which pairs its Atkinson-cycle V-6 engine with Toyota/Lexus' Hybrid Synergy Drive electrification system for a total output of 338 horsepower (32 more than the F-Sport). Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA at 29 city mpg, 34 highway mpg, and 31 mpg combined.
The hybrid power train offers the same four drive modes that the F-Sport does (Eco, Normal, Sport S, and Sport S+) but its Sport S+ isn't as aggressive as the 350's. Additionally, the 450h features an EV mode that attempts to keep the hybrid system in a fully electric mode at low speeds. Let the speedometer climb too high, push too hard on the accelerator, or let the battery level drop too low and EV mode will be automatically disabled.
However, while the GS 450h hybrid is faster to 60 mph than the F-Sport (5.6s versus 5.8s) it's not necessarily faster through your favorite canyon course. Partially, that's because the hybrid lacks the F-Sport's grippier wheel and tire combo and stiffer F-Sport-tuned suspension damping.
However, the most important difference between the 350 and 450h is the hybrid's ECVT transmission. While that transmission is great for smooth acceleration and even smoother transition between electric and gasoline power, it's not very good for quickly changing ratios for responsive driving. Rolling onto the throttle post-apex was met with what felt like a full second of hesitation before the transmission would shift and the drive-by-wire system would give me the acceleration I was asking for. Placing the transmission in its faux-manual shifting mode didn't help much as the HSD system would still drop its revs immediately upon lifting off of the throttle. So it's straight-line fast, but it's not real-world fast. That's fine. Judging the 450h on a scale on which it was never meant to compete is a bit unfair.
Where the GS 450h most impressed me was in its cabin. The GS hybrid makes use of matte-finish bamboo (which is one of the most environmentally friendly types of wood) for its dashboard, center console, and steering wheel. Mixed in with the bamboo are soft leathers, metallic-finish plastics, and real metal bits. The result is either pleasing to the eye or a visual mishmash depending on your aesthetic bent. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.
Like every 2013 GS sedan, the 450h comes standard with a massive 12.3-inch color screen that is commanded by Lexus' Remote Touch controller, which is a sort of joystick/trackball combo that features haptic feedback and absolute positioning. The screen is so large that it can be split to display two infotainment functions (such as a full map and the current audio source) without cramping either of them. There's also standard Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, USB and iPod/iPhone connectivity, and Lexus' Enform suite of app integration and connected services--essentially a rebranded version of the Toyota Entune suite we tested on the new.
The 2013 Lexus GS 450h is available now starting at 58,950. The Lexus GS 350 F-Sport starts at $55,330 for the RWD model and $57,880 for the AWD model.