Lexus automobiles have a [deserved] reputation for being tuned for comfort and isolation than for performance, sport, or even fun. They are typically among the quietest on the road, and they’re able to gobble up mile after mile of highway driving, coddling their driver and passengers in buttery-soft leather, numb steering, and soft brakes. There are many people for whom that description holds appeal.
For the subset of the general population repulsed at the idea of experiencing complete isolation in one’s luxury automobile, Lexus has begun to branch out a bit from its softness. There’s the IS-F (a car we love), IS 350 F Sport, LFA supercar, and now the GS 350 F Sport.
While at first glance it might be tempting to dismiss the F Sport line as little more than an appearance package, the changes made to the GS 350 to transform it from a boulevardier to a competent sports sedan are more than skin deep. And good thing, too, because aside from a much more aggressive nose (which we like), ground effects, blacked out wheels, and a tasteful lip spoiler at the corner of the decklid, the rest of the car is as unremarkable from a design standpoint as the regular GS 350. Profile-wise, there’s not much to catch your eye; aside from a Lexus-specific rear door shape (where the rearmost windows strangely protrude well past the plane of the doors’ shape), it could be mistaken for almost any car
As noted, the front end is the GS’s best angle. Setting the tone for the new Lexus front end design language, the hourglass grille manages to be fashionably large (as Audi started years ago with its big-mouthed A8) while offering a different take from its competitors’ efforts. LED daytime running lights underscore the headlight lenses (thanks another trend started by Audi, now mimicked even by the likes of the Kia Sportage), and the dark gray (nearly black) wheels look aggressive with the Liquid Platinum (aka silver) paint – plus, they do a great job of hiding brake dust. I didn’t even have to wash the wheels after a week of driving, despite the F Sport having high-friction brake pads and larger front rotors, both of which contribute to a lot of brake dust.
Inside, there’s nearly the same level of comfort as in the more luxury-oriented variants of the GS, but in place of wood, there is striated aluminum interior trim (textured gray metallic-looking inserts) across the face of the dash. Center air vents and audio controls are surrounded by the same real aluminum as in other GS variants, but the interior’s focal point is the giant high-resolution color display front-and-center at the top of the dash. Frankly, it looks fantastic: super-sharp graphics, fonts consistent across the car (i.e. gauges, trip computer, even owner’s manual) and vivid colors. I loved the interior color combination of the saddle-colored seats and black dash/headliner. The console has “leather” wrap on its upper sides, and portions of the dash are also wrapped in what appears to be hand-sewn leather (portions not covered by the “leather” are soft to the touch, naturally).
The display is about as wide as a typical laptop computer’s display, but half as tall, and much brighter. Since it’s tucked into a little hooded area, I never encountered sun glare, despite always leaving the sunroof’s shade open. Lexus splits the screen roughly two-thirds/one-third, with the left side typically displaying the navigation map and the right side supplemental data such as audio information, climate information, or fuel consumption information. As in other Lexus models, the display is operated via the Remote Touch input device on the center console, which combines a computer mouse-like joystick with haptic feedback so that you can actually “feel” the buttons as the cursor moves across them. It’s kind of neat, but touchscreens are still a much more efficient input method than “mousing” from one letter to the next. (However, the Lexus system is easier for destination entry than BMW’s iDrive knob).
We found the seats to be super comfortable, and the power side bolsters were awesome at hugging me snugly. The power thigh support extends forward by rolling, which eliminates the crumb/dust catching habits that side-forward system such as in the Cadillac CTS-V’s Recaros and in many BMW models. There are also two locations of inflatable back supports (one at the lumbar area and one below, by the base of your spine), and the headrests can be manually adjusted to a few different fore/aft positions as well as up/down.
The GS 350 F Sport does not have any drivetrain modifications per se, living with the base 3.5 liter V6 (306 horsepower/277 lb-ft of torque). But turning the Lexus Drive Mode Selector knob on the console from Normal to Sport +, the personality of the car changes. Where throttle response and shift points were somewhat lethargic in Normal (and especially in Economy), Sport + allows the car to stay in gears longer before upshifting. (Of note, the GS 350 F Sport will upshift even in manual mode; it will not bounce off the rev limiter). I was particularly impressed that it executed rev-matching downshifts on its own in Sport + with just a stab of the brake, and held the gear. Doing this naturally burned more premium unleaded, but it was almost worth it. In Sport mode (which resides between Normal and Sport +), only the shift mapping changes. Sport + firms the suspension as well, but also sharpens the steering response. Dramatically so. It feels great at speed, but it’s almost ridiculously quick at parking lot speeds. Lexus accomplishes this via VGRS (variable gear ratio steering), which is also electrically-assisted. Road feel still is not great with it, but everything I’ve said in the past about Toyota’s numb steering does not apply at all to this car’s setup.
Though our test car was not so equipped, you can equip a GS 350 F Sport with a sophisticated four-wheel steering system. The GS 350 F Sport is also available with all wheel drive, but our tester was RWD only. (Rear wheel drive GS 350 F Sports get staggered 235/40/19 front and 265/35/19 rear summer tires, which happen to be the widest rear tires ever fitted to a Lexus sedan; all wheel drive F Sports get the all-season 235/40/19s all around).
The GS 350 starts at $46,900. Our tester had the $500 blind spot monitor system, the $5,690 F Sport package (rain sensing wipers, heated/ventilated front seats, rear sunshade, 19″ split-five-spoke wheels w/ dark graphite finish, staggered fitment summer tires, F Sport-tuned adaptive variable suspension, variable gear-ratio power steering, two-piece front brake rotors with four-piston calipers, 16-way F Sport power driver’s seat, striated aluminum interior trim (in place of wood), and F Sport front and rear bumpers), $1,735 12.3″ HDD split-screen navigation with Lexus Enform and Sirius XM Satellite Radio, $500 intuitive park assist, $2,000 pre-collision system and dynamic radar cruise, $1,700 Lexus Dynamic Handling System, and $242 trunk mat/cargo net/wheel locks kit. Tack on an $875 destination charge (the GS is built in Japan), and you get an MSRP of $60,142. Not cheap, but there’s a hell of a lot of performance and technology in this car at that price.
The collision avoidance system in the GS 350 uses the sensors for the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control to determine whether the GS’s closing speed to a car in front of it is too fast, then provides a visual and audio warning. But the system goes further by using an infrared camera mounted on the steering column to monitor the driver’s eyes. If the driver does is not looking forward when a collision appears imminent, the system will give an earlier warning. If the driver still does not respond, the system will initiate braking prior to impact to lessen the severity of the collision. The downside is that the IR camera blocks one’s view of the odometer.
The F Sport is excellent to drive in nearly all scenarios. On the highway, puttering along at 70 miles per hour and roughly 2000 RPM, it’s quiet and sedate. The large tires and wheels do not transmit much road noise into the cabin, and the engine’s sound is muted. However, thanks to a resonator tube specifically designed to deliver engine sounds into the cabin, when you step on the gas, it very dramatically breaks the silence. Though it’s obviously a V6 sound, it almost seems like it has a familial relationship to the IS-F’s 5.0 liter V8, as crazy as that might sound. Want to hear it for yourself? Click on the embedded video below, starring Autosavant’s Managing Editor and Technical Director, Kevin Gordon. Especially at the end of the video, you can really get a feel for what it sounds like inside the cabin during aggressive throttle application.
I observed fuel economy of about 21.5 mpg in mixed driving, at least until Kevin spent some time in the car and knocked that down to the high-teens. Considering how both of us were driving the car, that’s not bad. The EPA rates it at 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg combined, so that 21.5 falls almost right between the city and combined numbers.
Though the V6 is strong, and it’s easy to see why Lexus didn’t bother reincarnating the GS 460 for this generation, given the V8′s marginal refinement and performance benefits, plus poorer fuel economy. Yet I was occasionally left wanting for more power, particularly in the midrange. An extra two gear ratios would help (the IS-F and the larger LS models get 8-speed automatics, vs. the GS’s 6-speed unit). Though the GS 350 jumps off the line, it doesn’t rev very high (its redline is 6500 RPM and it shifts a bit before that – a typical Lexus move to improve engine longevity), so you get the sensation that it’s leaving a little on the table, had it been allowed to rev to 7000 RPM. My perception of a midrange power deficit could be easily solved with just a few ECU tweaks; nothing wholesale is needed, but another 25-50 horsepower would make a good engine even better.
After a week with the GS 350 F Sport, I found it to be a supremely capable, superbly comfortable sport sedan. My wife and kids (often the harshest critics of various cars I force them to ride around in over weekends) even liked the car; my four and six year old sons actually loved pretending to “drive” the GS in the driveway, despite not being able to see over the steering wheel. They didn’t even do that with a Corvette a few weeks ago.
It’s a little expensive in F Sport trim, yet – just as with the former LS 460 Sport that I reviewed in 2010 – the sport model is the only way I’d want to buy this car. It looks better and drives dramatically better than the base car and nearly on par with the 5 series, while undercutting the latter by thousands of dollars. In-car technology is state-of-the-art and excellent. Aside from the weird-feeling steering and being slightly down on power from some of its competitors, there’s not much that I would change about this car. Having been jaded by over 100 car reviews, that’s actually a pretty strong endorsement.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.