The new Sports Exec.
Although quite well admired internationally Lexus has for a long time been little more than a cheaper alternative to the Germans. That’s the problem with having only been around since 1989 – there aren’t rich and heady back tales to the brand of legendary rallying or racing successes or having been a major builder of aircraft engines in World War II. And that sort of thing, the stuff of legend, always helps your image.
Instead the Japanese company has had to make do with being a practical but still quite stylish second choice as it were. But perhaps not anymore. The new GS is an altogether sharper and more aggressive effort suggesting it could well be time that Lexus step up a few notches on the ladder of automotive status. And all it has taken to give them this surge of confidence, has been a couple of mad cars.
You see Lexus never really did sporty until just a couple of years ago. The SC models were called sportscars but they were really just big, expensive au natural hairdryers. And don’t even get me started on the “performance hybrids”. They did do understated but handsome, very well-built, well-priced and extensively equipped humdrum saloons in a variety of sizes, and some similarly uninspiring SUVs a bit later in their gestation. But mad wasn’t really a trait associated with the brand.
Then suddenly the company decided it needed a halo model, something to do for Lexus what M has done for BMW, and AMG for Mercedes. And so was born the Lexus F car, starting with the IS-F. A simple but unhinged recipe of a company taking their smallest saloon and cramming an enormous V8 under the hood. No it never was quite the M3 eater Lexus fans may have hoped, but it was still pretty special.
The LFA on the other hand is on a whole other level, several large leaps above merely special. It’s precisely what a supercar should be, utterly mesmerising, but in a uniquely Japanese flavour. Simple, trad front-engined RWD sports coupe with a fabulously engineered V10 howling orders to a carbonfibre and aluminium honeycomb structure…
What both of these really not at all sensible models clearly taught Lexus is that it’s OK to just have some fun now and then, to be passionate about your product and let that passion shine to the fore. To create something which is simply the very best of a genre that you can create, even if you aren’t going to make very much profit (or any profit at all) on the result.
Although with the new GS range, you’re not likely to spot the newly unhinged Lexus stepping out in full stereoscopic colour straight away. It’s a more modern overall design than the previous generation, and this GS 350 sports a pretty aggressive front end in particular. But it’s still quite subtle and understated, as is fitting of the medium-sized executive saloon segment of course. It wouldn’t draw the wrong kind of attention in the corporate HQ parking lot, let’s just say.
Only the eagle-eyed petrolhead might spot the big, flattened twin pipes beneath the rear bumper. These exhausts run straight beneath the car to a surprisingly healthy 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6 under the hood. Although it might be the same motor that shoves US-spec Camrys up the road, it’s also pretty much the same unit which can be found mounted midships in the modern-classic Lotus Evora. Yup.
Yes the Evora is a lot lighter and immeasurably more focussed, and yet Lexus actually seem to have gone to pains to maintain at least a hint of the sportiness this association might imply. The voice, for instance, is just one of the most characterful modern V6 barks I’ve heard in a very long time, and even more gob-smackingly the insulation isolating driver from engine noise inside the cabin seems to have been toned down several notches, so that now the keen driver can really enjoy the melody even with the windows rolled up.
This is not something you expect of a Lexus. But then nor is the intoxicating way in which this car gathers speed. It’s not savage or NASCAR-muscular, no, but the engine picks the weighty body up with ease and flings it somewhat considerately up the road, accompanied by a wide repertoire of tasty engine noises along the way which morph as the revs rise and fall in an entirely natural and animalistic way. It’s a car which, and it might be the first time in a non-F car from Lexus in fact, thoroughly enjoys being driven with spirit, and rewards the driver in kind.
Inside it’s still exactly as you’d expect. Generously specced, as luxurious as Japan knows how to do, and built to very nearly VW quality standards. They’ve even improved the switchgear since the last one, and although you can still see shared Toyota parts they’ve at least gone to the trouble of ensuring all the fonts on the buttons actually match perfectly. And as usual, it’s got all the features you could expect even of a car of this lofty pedigree, all included in the listed price and not hidden in an overcomplicated diary of expensive optional extras.
But you’d have known all of that before reading this test. No the only real surprise in this new GS package is the enthusiasm it has for the more dynamic aspects of driving. Even the handling works when you’re seeking some entertainment. It’s a heavy saloon with comfort-tuned springing, and you feel the weight when you’re pushing on, but nevertheless the chassis tries gamely with its specifically limited capabilities to keep pace. The nose tucks in keenly enough although the heavy engine does make it push on a bit sometimes, and the tail will even sharpen your line if you pussyfoot on the throttle through a bend. Not worryingly, in fact even with the ESC off this car is actually quite difficult to get into real trouble in, just satisfyingly enough that you actually feel like you’re driving the thing.
Although they might not play in quite the same mind-space, this GS 350 and the new BMW 328i I had on test at the same time inevitably squared-off against one another. Predominantly because they are competitive on price – the BMW can be had for almost R100K less in base spec, but if you added all the options the GS comes with as standard it would definitely sweep past the R564 900 marker the Lexus places in the sand.
While the BMW is undoubtedly the technically superior, marginally faster in a straight line but substantially more composed through the bends, it doesn’t leave the GS enough for dead that I’d be able to overlook all the charisma in this car in favour of the soulless new German. The GS 350 does a 0-100km/h sprint in 6.3s, but more importantly will stretch your face in a smile every single time the automatic gearbox kicks down and that gem of a power plant is allowed to sing freely. It’s a trick the new 328i has forgotten entirely, and the GS steps smartly into the barely-vacated gap with this model.
And as for sheer comfort, the GS trounces anything short of the almost-magical new 5-Series on this front, with passengers being pampered with plushness their entire journey even if the driver should feel the need to burn what’s probably an unnecessary amount of unleaded just for the sake of some fun.
I didn’t expect that at all, particularly from a company who, apart from a couple of loony moments, seemed more interested in building those heartless hybrids than soulful sporting saloons.
The new GS 350 is one of those cars that is easily worth the asking price. And of course if your budget simply can’t stretch beyond stock 328i prices, the Lexus IS 350 has this same engine, and if you chose the 4-cylinder turbocharged German over it, well, you’d have to be pretty soulless, at least in the eyes of a self-confessed motoring nutjob.
It’s some faint relief to find the spirit of performance motoring still simmering with some life, even if you have to go to the darnedest of places for this glimpse these days. The traditional hotheads have all scrambled from their posts to adopt the new banners of efficiency and greenery, and ironically enough these vacancies are being filled by a company which has been flying the efficiency flag for a good few years already.
Fun Value: 17/20
Smart, sober new aggression.
Brilliantly characterful engine package.
No rear diff, so no slidy fun.
Pricing: R564 900
Engine: 3456cc V6 petrol
Power: 233kW @ 6400rpm
Torque: 378Nm @ 4800rpm
Top speed: 235km/h
Transmission: 6-speed E CVT Automatic