By Roger Boylan
It was no hardship driving a V8-powered 2011 Lexus GS460 for a week. The hardship was watching it being driven away. That brought it home that it wasn’t mine—and, at a starting price of $55K, probably never would be.
Actually, my test version topped out at $62K, with all kinds of sumptuous goodies thrown in, including a $3K+ Mark Levinson audio system, which is very nice, but not $3K-worth of nice. I’d dispense with it in the interests of saving some green if I were buying one of these beauties. Of course, buying a Lexus isn’t the most intuitive way of penny-pinching. But there are far stupider ways of spending your money. These cars hold their value well, so at the very least you know you can turn around and sell it for a fair price, if the bottom drops out of your household economy (again). Of course, first you want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth, so you take a good hard look at the competition.
In the case of the GS 460, that would be the likes of the Mercedes-Benz E-550 (MSRP $59,790), BMW 5-series V-8 ($61,000), Jaguar XF ($53,000), and Infiniti M56 ($59,000): the GS 460 sits right in the middle, just ahead of the XF, but behind the Infiniti, and way behind the Germans. So it’s really not that jaw-dropping an entry fee, considering the league you’re playing in. Optional add-ons like the Mark Levinson can, of course, inflate the price of entry to absurd proportions, but the GS has the virtue of coming in a single trim level, so if you just go for the “base” model, you won’t exactly be getting a stripper with AM radio and crank-up windows, you’ll have a fully equipped midsize luxury sports sedan with a reputation for drop-dead reliability, which not all its rivals can claim.
I appreciated the GS right from the start. It’s a fine-looking car, for starters, with a long, low, sporty profile, extended hood, and short rear deck, an overall composition is reminiscent of the Jaguar XF (of which I remember saying, when it first came out, “They’ve gone and designed a Jag to look like a Lexus!”). Mine was black, or “obsidian” in Lexus-speak; it looked great, even after a rainstorm. The interior calls to mind an elegant club on Pall Mall: a discreet medley of polished red walnut and soft black leather, with brushed-metal accents here and there. Headroom is a bit low, but I sat down behind the steering wheel and adjusted it up and down, in and out, and did the same to the power-activated seat, and soon found the ideal height for ease of entry and exit, as well as the best seating position for my less-than-svelte form. It took about ten seconds.
The (heated and cooled) front seats are superbly comfortable, and both have 10-way power controls with driver memory and lumbar adjustment. The outboard rear seats are equally comfortable, and rear seat room is adequate, although anyone much over 6’ 2” might find headroom a bit tight. There’s a pass-through from the trunk, but no fold-flat feature, which would increase the car’s versatility. The trunk, with 12.7 cu. ft., is sufficiently capacious for a week’s worth of groceries, or three big suitcases plus backpacks, but not much more.
Once I’d refined my seat controls to my satisfaction, I scanned the instrument cluster and found everything clear and concise, with electroluminescent instrument needles and discreet backlighting to enhance the visibility of the speedometer and tach, which are well protected from glare under deep cowlings. I even found the display screen and its visual controls easy to take. Anyway, if I got tired of the thing staring at me, all I had to do was call up “Display” and hit “Screen Off” for a soothing curtain of black to descend. Bingo: No distraction, but concert-quality music, courtesy of XM Sirius satellite radio and Mr. Levinson’s fine $3K audio works.
The car was loaded down with other goodies, too: 18-inch 5-spoke bright-alloy wheels, adaptive variable suspension, automatic xenon headlights plus adjacent foglights, a power sunroof, power trunk closer and opener, swift and silent automatic wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt-and-telescoping wood-and-leather steering wheel, a Navigation System package with real-time traffic and weather (when tested, it got the right address three times in a row), a rearview backup camera, and, of course, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity and USB/iPod interface.
Safety is attended to by Safety Connect emergency telematics (the setup that alerts the world that you’ve just driven into a tree), as well as the features we’ve come to expect: antilock brakes with brake assist, traction and stability control, front and rear side-impact, front-knee, and side-curtain airbags, and active front head restraints. The optional adaptive cruise control, which my tester had, includes a pre-collision system that detects a collision about to happen and responds by pre-tensioning the seatbelts and activating the brake assist. All this has earned the GS 460 a “Good” from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, their rave rating.
Under the hood of the GS 460 is a de-tuned version of the powerplant that moves its big brother, the LS: a 342-hp V8 with 339 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed to the rear wheels via an eight-speed auto tranny with manual override, a seamless process unless you need an urgent kickdown on a country road to get past Farmer John in his rusted pickup. That’s the only time you become aware that the car even possesses such a thing as a transmission–never mind a great big V8 that can transport you to 60 m.p.h. from a standing start in just a hair over 5 seconds, according to my trusty old Omega. Lexus claims 5.4 sec.: that sounds about right, and that’s fast. Top speed is a claimed 149 m.p.h. Funny, I didn’t have the chance to put that claim to the test, but the gods of law enforcement were mercifully elsewhere when I suddenly found myself well on the way there. With all that speed and power, you’d expect this thing to have a raging thirst for fuel, but it doesn’t, not really. In fact, the GS 460 scores slightly above average for its class: EPA estimates are 17 mpg city, 24 highway, 20 combined, all on premium of course. (For purposes of comparison, the figures for the Mercedes E550 are 15/23/18; for the BMW 550i, 17/25/20.)
Wherever you’re going, it’s fun getting there in this car. Not only does it offer a very comfortable ride, the GS also reacts to driver input as a sports sedan should, not exactly with the razor-sharp responsiveness of one of its German rivals–steering is a little numb on-center, for one thing—but, ultimately, feedback is adequate, and handling is good in tight corners, especially for a large car. The brakes seemed grabby at first, but not after I’d grown accustomed to the precise degree of pressure to exert; after that, they responded very well, with no hint of fade. I was a little disappointed to note that road noise on certain surfaces tended to invade the trademark tomb-like Lexus hush inside, but this was because the car was fitted with Dunlop run-flat tires with stiff sidewalls that rumble a bit on rough asphalt. On reflection, I was reconciled to the noise. Run-flats are still in their infancy, but I’m all for them. I’m all for anything that makes life easier. After all, you might have a quieter ride with standard tires, but you might also find yourself down on your aging hunkers, wrestling with spare tire and jack in a rainstorm in the seamier suburbs of East Stumptooth, Texas. (Let’s make that “after dark,” too, for maximum effect.) Whereas the run-flats give you a good 50 miles’ worth of maneuver, usually sufficient time to find a service station or friendly driveway.
The GS 460′s drawbacks are minor: a little less headroom than one might be used to, not too much storage space, and those occasionally noisy run-flats. That’s about it. For your average driver, especially your average driver on the downward slope of 55, with little interest in playing Michael Schumacher, these defects are negligible, since this Lexus excels in so many other ways, and is such an easy car to live with. And if the price tag still seems too high, there’s the appealing alternative of the V6-powered GS 350, which is identical in appearance and comfort but rolls in at a base price of $46K, a cool $9K less than its V8-powered sibling, with performance figures that are almost as good, and better fuel economy. But I haven’t made the acquaintance of that one, so we’ll leave it for another day and another drive. Then there’s the all-new 2012 GS, which will drop the V8 option entirely in favor of hybrid and non-hybird V6 offerings. If you want a GS and want a V8, this may be your last chance to get a new one.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.