Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Lexus GS350

Regular readers know that Lexus is not exactly my favorite brand. Honestly the only thing that enticed me to even give the 4th generation GS a look was the presence of some insane lease deals that had the GS costing less than comparable cars in the class. Even the slow-selling Acura RLX could not be had as well-equipped for as little cash. So wanting to see if there was some sort of horrible disfigurement or problem that would justify the low price, aside from the low fuel economy and predator grille. I headed to my local Lexus dealer to see if I could scrounge up some quality time with this mid-size contender.

Luckily for me, the local dealer had a car with exactly the right option packages that I would have selected for myself. Without the F-Sport package, I realized this car would not be the sportiest and would not have the 19-inch wheels that give this car an incredibly aggressive stance. Even so, the stock 18-inch wheels look surprisingly good when paired with the standard body and the toned down version of the predator grille, complemented here with a still aggressive, but not over the top bumper treatment, actually seems to work. The body lines are simple and, honestly, the profile is a touch plain, but the rear matches the front well and sets the entire car up to look classy without feeling overdone.

Open the door, however, and the interior is a very different story. There is absolutely no confusionas there is with the exterior. Where the outside offers mixed messages, the interior is downright exceptional. Even in a class where manufacturers have been looking for ways to cut down on costs, the visible surfaces in the GS all look fantastic. Everything within arms reach is covered in fragrant leather, soft touch plastic, or matte finish wood. Trim pieces that look like metal even feel like them too. Lexus has done such an amazing job with this interior as far as the overall appearance and material quality. Where I have a few quibbles are primarily with ergonomics. For one, as gorgeous as the 12.3-inch display is, the decision to split the screen into two parts and offer limited functionality on each was a questionable one at best. Couple that with a somewhat clunky to use Remote Touch controller and the need to remove your eyes from the road to use the display and this quickly became one of my least favorite features of the car. Of course, if this was the extent of my displeasure, you can imagine that there is plenty more to like about the GS.

Fire up the V6 that resides under the car's long hood and a pleasant rumble pierces the quiet of the cabin for a moment before settling back to near total silence. Lexus has a reputation for keeping unwanted noise out and this car is no exception. The GS was so quiet at times, I had to double-check the tachometer just to make sure the engine was actually running even though the car does not have an auto start/stop feature. Easing the big sedan out onto the streets, I got to enjoy the smooth power delivery that is backed up by nearly seamless shifting from the 8-speed automatic transmission. Switch the dial in the center console over to "ECO" and the gauges light up a soothing blue while the pedals offer less responsiveness and the transmission makes every effort to keep the car under 1,500 rpm. Twist the dial in the other direction and the gauges morph into an angry red while the throttle response sharpens and even the shifts become more noticeable. The intake and exhaust tract also seems to open up because now when I stomped the accelerator, a mechanical symphony fills the cabin with all manners of pleasant sounds.

In tandem with the super smooth, but capable motor, the suspension delivers an absolutely faultless ride. Without the F-Sport package, the taller tire side walls and softer suspension tuning offer a planted, but not wallowy level of comfort while still giving the car reasonably good balance in the corners. That extra suspension softness allows mid-corner bumps to be absorbed without incident and manages not to upset the car even when chucked into a corner hard. To be clear, this is no sport suspension, but without sacrificing any comfort it is able to provide an accessible level of performance for the majority of its likely buyers. That said, for the driver who is looking for serious handling chops, this car is going to feel too big and too soft without the F-Sport suspension's stiffer springs and tauter dampers. Still, the way Lexus has chosen to tune the stock suspension offers just the right balance for someone who is going to daily drive this big executive sedan.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the steering, which while well weighted, offers a rather muted sense of control. It is noticeably precise and does seem to allow the driver a way to point the car in the general direction that is desired, but the overwhelming sensation is one of distance, as if the process of directing the car was being done by remote. The impact on the driving enjoyment is quite tremendous as it seems to dull the senses, which work well for this car in many other ways, just not this one. Still, despite the rather bashful nature of the steering, the entire experience is one that coalesces well for this car. Pushing the car through a series of rather ungentlemanly maneuvers and making a concerted effort to upset its demeanor only served to highlight just how composed and unflappable this chassis is. It may not be the most responsive or sporty, but as a daily driver, this could be a totally pleasant experience after a long day at the cube farm.

Bringing the car back to the dealer, I was genuinely impressed with the car. Lexus does not normally make my list of brands to consider when shopping for a new ride, but this smartly dressed and seriously composed executive sedan could be the right car to win over a lot of fans. It is surprising that it is not more popular given that the qualities it exhibits are easily able to rival the Mercedes E-Class at a not insignificant discount. Add to that the fact that Lexus reliability is absolutely top notch, and I am more perplexed that I do not see more of these on the road. Sure it is not perfect, with a few ergonomic foibles that might be hard to swallow for some buyers, but my overall impression was a tremendously positive one and if I were in a market for a comfortable road trip car for a family of four, this car would likely find itself, with the luxury, premium, and navigation packages, contending for the top spot.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, this car is simply unable to offer the same kind of cachet that the three-pointed star does. Still, for those who can overlook the brand, the aggressive styling is definitely unique and the interior appointments are downright impeccable. Those who seek comfort, convenience, and reliability over all else simply should not pass up the opportunity to try out this car. For others looking to add a dose of sport, the opportunity is there to locate one with the F-Sport package.

Hey, at least Lexus is trying to provide options, which is more than I can say for its Japanese luxury brand rivals.