2006 Lexus GS 430
The 2006 GS series is Lexus's first all-new car since 2001 and goes squarely after the BMW 5 Series but with a heavy technology accent more like that of its Japanese competitors. We drove the top-of-the-line 2006 Lexus GS 430, equipped with GPS navigation and a Mark Levinson sound system but without satellite radio (a dealer-installed option), all adding up to $58,124. The Lexus GS presents the compelling technology package you'd expect from Lexus but not without omissions and annoyances.
The GS series uses a wireless key to unlock the door as you approach the car. This slick extra is becoming common on luxury cars, but we wish this car included a place to store the thing--you end up tossing the key fob in the cup holder or the ashtray, which seems sloppy in an otherwise precisely thought-out car.
The first thing you're likely to notice in any high-tech car is the LCD, and the Lexus GS's display screen is a seven-inch model mounted high in the center console. Unfortunately, the very next thing you notice on the GS's display is its pixelation. The screen shows grainy text and mottled maps, complete with blocky picture elements. And that's not the only LCD problem; on our test-drives, the LCD seemed uncannily well angled to catch light from the sunroof as well as the side and rear windows, making the display look washed out. In an era when even affordable cell phones have smooth, high-resolution color screens, a $58,000 car needs to do better.
A widely reported feature of the 2006 Lexus GS is its drop-down control panel to the left of the steering column. I agree with hiding what Lexus tucks away in the panel--mirror adjustment controls, a trunk-latch button, an instrument dimmer, and so on--but it's difficult to see what button you're pressing since the rim of steering wheel sits right in the way, and you end up craning your neck to look way over to the left. Worse, if you forget to put the thing up when you're done, woe to your knee during the ensuing collision.
Setting up the Bluetooth hands-free link between the car and the PalmOne Treo 650 took less than 15 seconds in our tests, but debugging required about 15 minutes. It turns out that there's a well-known problem with the GS Bluetooth firmware that keeps it from recognizing a Treo 650, even after you go through all the specified steps. A few minutes on Google brought a simple workaround, and the Treo finally interacted with the GS. We found the performance of the hands-free system generally good, though we noticed a lag of a second or two when putting a call up on the audio system. Net result: You may miss the first couple of syllables of each hands-free call. In any event, check to see if your Bluetooth phone is compatible with the GS 430's Bluetooth hardware by trying your mobile during a test-drive or talking to the service department at the dealership.
Entering a destination in the navigation system is a joy; just press the Dest button, and type on the touch-screen keyboard, which is arranged alphabetically, not in the traditional QWERTY layout. The system is about as smart as any on the road today, which is to say almost smart enough. Getting a car nav system to understand CNET's 235 Second Street address, for example, is always an adventure since you never quite know if the DVD map database wants to see it spelled 2nd St. or Second St. But the Lexus computer recognized other destinations quickly with its fast-moving, predictive text engine.
The GS 430 offers no integrated connection for an iPod or other MP3 player, so you'll have to supply your own connection device such as an FM transmitter or a cassette adapter. The car comes prewired for XM Radio, though it's a dealer-installed option. The Mark Levinson 7.1 audio system handles 5.1 DVD-Audio discs and plays DVD movies on the dashboard screen--but only if the car is parked, of course. The system sounds as good as you'd expect of the vaunted Mark Levinson brand, with the exception of AM radio, which came through muddy in spite of all the tone adjustments we made.
How it drives
While entering a navigation destination is easy on the 2006 Lexus GS 430, finding time to do so is not. The GS 430 does not allow destination entry while the car is moving. While this is a safety policy, it keeps the passenger from helping navigate. We wish Lexus had connected the navigation system to the passenger seat sensor that enables the passenger air bag; that way, seated passengers could pitch in.
Once you pull over to enter a destination, the GS 430 does a stellar job showing you the way. A split-screen mode gives two different zoom levels at once: one showing generally where you are, the other detailing what's ahead. The system rapidly adjusts the route if you go a different way than it suggests, rather than trying to force you back to the original route. Voice prompts are well integrated into the overall audio mix; we never felt jarred by a sudden or too-quiet announcement. The navigation system can be controlled via voice, but voice recognition ends there and cannot be used to control audio or climate functions of the car. Unfortunately, Lexus vehicles don't yet offer NavTraffic, which reports traffic information in the navigation system. Although only Acura and Cadillac come with NavTraffic so far, we think it should be a standard component all around.
When the Map mode is active onscreen, there's no way to see what radio station you're listening to without switching to Audio mode--slightly annoying, as you may want to remind yourself what station is on or see what song is playing. The GS 430 could benefit from a helper display as found on the Acura RL, which offers persistent radio information even while a map is on the screen.
Helping you get to your destination quickly is the Lexus GS 430's 300-horspower, 4.3-liter V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic with a manual mode. In full automatic mode, the car adopts more sedate shift points that suit the luxury-oriented Lexus buyer well. Working the console shifter on the manual side of the gate allows performance-oriented drivers to extract more violent levels of torque and acceleration.
The GS 430's backup camera launches whenever you put the car in reverse, and the LCD automatically converts to a rearview video monitor via a small camera mounted on the trunk lid. Its angle is wide and useful, and the system has excellent photo latitude so that it provides a useful color image in bright sunlight or during dimly lit night parking. Intelligently, Lexus has mounted the camera so that the bottom of the image corresponds precisely with the back edge of the car. Not all carmakers adjust their camera this well.
One of the most subtle features of the GS series is the use of small, aimed LED cabin lights. You almost don't even notice they're on. Instead, you just take for granted that there's always just enough light wherever you look in the cabin.
Support for the GS series includes a free home page for your car, which you can register on the Lexus.com Web site. Your page offers online access to your owner manual, a communication page to contact Lexus, and a place to log your mileage and receive maintenance reminders, among other services. The basic warranty on the GS is 48 months/50,000 miles, with power train coverage extended to 72 months/70,000 miles--on a par with or better than that of the other cars in this class.