LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.--After years of hearing that its cars are smooth and tech-rich while lacking the passion and fun that appeal to devoted drivers, Lexus might be getting it.
To prove it's headed in a new direction branded by "emotion" and "passion," Lexus gathered journalists at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel along the Pacific coastline between Los Angeles and San Diego to test-drive the 2013 Lexus GS on a route across the SoCal freeways, along the coast, and over mountain roads. The six-cylinder midrange luxury sedan will greet showrooms in three primary setups--the standard 350, the 450h hybrid version, and a tuned F Sport for the biggest performance fans.
Lexus has never been interested in the fins, vents, and flashy exhaust pipes of some performance cars, so much of the 2013 GS body design remains simple and easily identified as a conservative Lexus. But, taking a page from its ridiculous king of the line, the, the GS greets you with a dual, up/down grille--with its underneath layer sporting three angled scoops.
The interior features include that familiar Lexus mix of leather and wood trim. The hybrid model throws in that little extra piece of "green" flair by accenting its doors panels and dash with bamboo. But it's technology that really dominates the experience of sitting in a GS. Lexus introduced a center console mouse/joystick device in its 2011 models, allowing drivers or passengers to guide a cursor through onscreen menus while the car is in motion--though some attention-rich functions are suspended when the wheels are in motion.
Previous models set the joystick where the shifter stick would be "on the floor" of most car designs, with a click button on both the right and left side of its pedestal. The 2013 GS removes those buttons and allows a simple downward push of the joystick to click onscreen selections.
Another big debut is the center dashboard's 12.3-inch-wide screen, the industry's largest such display. The extra visual space allows Lexus to combine elements that other screens can't handle, such as a guidance map and complete menus or a directions list and audio options. To take advantage of the size increase, Lexus also improved and enriched its map software, providing finer route guidance details, more destination names, and clearer dimension highlighting to help guide your eye en route.
Once the GS was set free along the various Lexus-approved driving routes, its 2013 improvements came to the foreground.
By focusing on a mix of lighter refined materials, engineers increased body rigidity by a reported 14 percent without adding an ounce to the vehicle's overall weight of 3,800 pounds. Add that tightened stiffness to a new multilink rear suspension creating four-wheel-steering, improved traction control, and optional all-wheel drive, and you have a standard-issue V6 GS that confidently goes where you point its nose. The 350 power plant is a 3.5-liter, 306-hp engine harnessed by a six-speed automatic, serving up fuel economy of 19/28 mpg.
The hybrid GS 450h combines the V6 with an electric motor to produce 338 hp with a maxed-out mpg of 29/34. That electric motor is mounted above the back axle for weight distribution, so the GS 450h models are available in rear-drive exclusively.
However, for an eager driver, the F Sport setup is the most attractive. Stylized with the now-familiar F badge and including 19-inch wheels, it also has huge 14-inch front brake rotors, tightened-up suspension, and a variable gear ratio steering system. The F Sport is the only model in the line to include the Lexus Dynamic Handling System, which turns the rear wheels slightly to improve bite and reduce understeer.
As Lexus executives there stayed on message by stressing themes of newly found "passion," the F Sport proved the most worthy recipient of that expressive noun. On its multiple laps around a test track set up at the former El Torro Marine Base (current home of the U.S. variant of "Top Gear") the F Sport provided more raw excitement than either the 2011 Mercedes Benz C350 or the 2011 BMW 535i on hand for direction comparison. It's not often a Lexus will let you drive hot enough to leave a smell of simmering rubber as you de-car, but the GS F Sport had all sniffing happily as they hopped out of the driver's seat.
The final take on the 2013 GS reports a much improved driving experience and easily the third best performing car in the Lexus line--behind the IS F and the celestial LFA. If designers wanted to introduce more "emotion" and enjoyment into this car, mission accomplished. But, a little more outward flair and cosmetic design spicing might further distinguish the model for drivers reconsidering the performance capabilities of Lexus.