Extended Drive

A few extra details for the mechanically minded folks.

Upon discovering I would be joining Lexus on a trip to test the all new GS, I have to say I was rather excited, but also terribly nervous. Lexus, in my mind, used to be a car company with a penchant for incredibly heavy cars and safe looks, but in recent years the image has completely changed, as all their new cars look fantastic and haven’t always been huge leviathans (you need only look at the IS-F and LFA to understand what I’m on about). As I said, I was nervous, not because I was afraid of the car but because I wasn’t sure if the GS would be as good as the more recent Lexus creations, or if it would mark the return to the cars from a decade ago.

Arriving at Munich airport, though, and I quickly realised that this certainly wasn’t going to be a dull experience. It looks brilliant, there’s no getting around it. For sure, I heard some say that the back is a bit fiddly and from the side it looks too like the previous three generations of GS, but in my opinion it looks really good – the front is certainly better than the face of any current BMW or Mercedes, especially with the LED daytime running lights.

My only disappointment with the exterior was the exhausts. On the V8 ISF that was launched a few years ago (the one that was built to rival the likes of the Audi RS4, Mercedes C63 AMG, and the BMW M5 and M3) there was an exhaust on each side that was made of two stacked pipes, and while they looked amazing, they were in fact completely useless and utterly fake. Similarly, the exhausts you can see on the back of the GS 250 are just chrome attachments bolted to the back of the car, and aren’t in any way in contact with the actual pipes, and on the GS 450h there aren’t any visible pipes at all, until you lie down behind the car and look underneath to see a pipe hidden away that looks like it’s been borrowed from a Morris Minor. It’s a minor (pardon the pun) criticism that really doesn’t matter too much, but one which may irritate people.

Opening the door, I was greeted with a glorious combination of brushed aluminium, polished wood, a ‘piano black’ centre console, and copious amounts leather – I have no idea how many cows sacrificed their lives for the interior, but it’s bound to be at least 10,000. Everything feels very well put together and very premium – no matter where you sit, the car is comfortable and attractive. And in the press pack, Lexus refer to the interior as a ‘cockpit’ rather than a cabin, saying both driver and passenger feel ‘cocooned’.

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the GS’ interior without mentioning the air conditioning. Normally, you can be fanned to your heart’s content but still leave the cabin with smelly arm pits. Unlikely, I know, but entirely possible. In the new GS, however, you can rest assured that the interior will not smell no matter how much your shirt is rotting, as the system has ‘nanoe technology’, which basically absorbs all the nasty smells and moisturises the air. (Excellent, but put deodorant on anyway.)

A final word on the interior is the sound system. Normally, a sound system is something to mention very briefly, but Lexus made it very clear this audio system was special, so it deserves some attention. Looking through the press pack, I see that the standard system is one which has 12 speakers and creates next to no distortion in the sound quality, but the Mark Levinson Premium Audio system is the one which was showcased. Apparently, the system “creates sound based on the concepts of Effortless Dynamics and Effortless Transient Response, offering sound quality equivalent to a live concert performance”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Total system power is 835 Watts, and it is quoted as using only 6.5 Amps, less than a quarter of the figure the standard system uses. All I know is the sound quality was very good, even at nearly full volume – my ears would have exploded long before the system was challenged. And in fact, my ears did explode later on in the day at the hotel in Kitzbuhel, Austria, as a team from Mark Levinson demonstrated not only the car’s system but a $100,000 stereo system. It really was brilliant, right up until the moment when I realised my lungs had collapsed, and my head imploded – a very good system indeed.

Like the Toyota Yaris Hybrid I tested last week, the dials on the dash of the GS are attractive, and actively encourage you to take your time and relax when driving the car. For example, because I’m a hoon and enjoy revving engines like an idiot, the car let me know I was an idiot by illuminating the dash in a red glow when the revs were high. And like the Yaris, there was a dial that said ‘Charge’, ‘Eco’ and ‘Power’ (although unlike the Yaris which had analogue dials, these were being shown electronically, and so would disappear to be replaced by a rev counter when the car was in ‘Sport +’ mode.)

Interestingly, Lexus have added a Rolls Royce type feature by installing an aluminium clock face in the centre of the dash. Unnecessary, as you can see the time on the satnav (the biggest satnav screen on any production car at more than 12 inches), but it made everything feel so much more premium than the interior of the old GS. Jon Williams, boss of Toyota and Lexus GB, said that it reminded him of the aluminium construction of Mac Books, as it has been milled from a single piece of solid aluminium.

Two final words on the interior. The satnav screen was clear and ‘customisable’ (though it took an hour to link up my iPod, but that was probably best as when I did link it up the only song I wanted to play was the title music from The Great Escape) but the little computer mouse like object on the centre console that controlled the system was sometimes a bit vague, and the various drive modes really did make a difference. ‘Eco’ improved fuel economy, ‘Comfort’ kept me as relaxed as it is humanly possible to do, ‘Sport’ encouraged me to get a move on, and ‘Sport +’ noticeably made the whole car stiffer – the change was instantaneous; One minute, you are cushioned from the bumps, the next you can feel the steering get heavier, the throttle become more responsive, and the ride start jiggling about. A good system.

Comparing the size of the new car to the old, things are almost the same, but Lexus is adamant that the small changes make a real difference. Length is the same at 4,848mm, but the front overhang is 10mm less, the height has been increased by 30mm, the rear track by 50mm and the front track by 40mm (the body is only 20mm wider).

Before I go any further, I must explain the way in which the cars are named. BMW opts to tell you the ‘Series’ of the car, then the size of the engine, and then the type of powertrain. So if it’s a 116d you know it’s a 1 Series with a 1.6 litre diesel  engine, and if it’s a 650i you know it’s a 6 Series with a 5.0 litre V8 petrol. But with Lexus, things are quite different. At first, I thought I would be testing a GS with a 2.5 litre engine and another with a 4.5 litre V8 engine, but ooh no. While the GS 250 is a 2.5 litre V6, the GS 450h has a 3.5 litre V6 hybrid system. Confusing.

Anyway, the cars. After being driven around all morning, we pulled over to take some photographs, after which I decided I’d give it a quick burst on camera before handing it back to my co-driver Phil. So I jumped behind the wheel for the first time, put the car in Sport + and stood on the throttle. Initially, there’s a delay as the computers worked out that it wasn’t a time to run on electric power only and the gearbox put the power to the rear wheels, but after that things were strange. The GS450 has 341 bhp and a fuel efficiency figure of 46.3 mpg, and gets from 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds. When I considered the original Lamborghini Gallardo gets to 60 in about 4 seconds, I expected the GS to feel mighty quick, but it didn’t. It wasn’t slow by any means, it was just a different sort of quick – think Rolls Royce or Bentley in terms of the way it effortlessly gathers pace. Only when I looked at the head up display did I realise “120, 130, 140… CORNER, I NEED TO BRAKE”.

Similarly, in the GS250 I drove round the mountains later in the afternoon, the noise comes and you expect to hurt your neck, but instead it just gently glides onwards up to speed. The 250 is slower, with a 0-60 mph time of 8.9 seconds, but I found it a bit more fun, entirely because it has a six-speed semi-automatic with paddle shifters, so I had a whale of a time changing down completely unnecessarily. Every time there was a family of walkers at the side of the road, I’d change down to second gear just a few feet away from them before roaring off. (In my mind I looked like a driving God with an intensely cool car, but in their minds I probably looked like a bit of a berk.)

The brakes are impressive. Again, I can’t say how they’d fare after they’ve done a few thousand miles, as the cars we had to drive were brand new, but they seemed very powerful and didn’t seem too daunted by repeated hard use. The first time I braked, as I said, was after taking some photos, and I because I was left foot braking in a car I’d never braked in before, I jammed on the ABS and literally pulled my face off. The 334 by 30mm vented front discs and solid 310 by 18mm steel discs really were strong, but then they need to be, as the GS weighs 1900kg.

For outright pace, though, the 250 can’t keep up with the 450. While the 250 was great for blipping the throttle in tunnels, the 450 felt completely at ease at speed on the Autobahn, and I do mean at speed. I spend most of the next day doing 130 mph, and we discovered the car would very quickly get to its electronic limit of 155. It’s a shame, because a real punch in the face for Audi, BMW or Mercedes would have been to de-restrict the car to 156, or better still 180-something.

But I must mention I think it odd that, of the two cars that would be the better (faster) driver’s car, the 450, it has a hybrid engine with a CVT gearbox, so you don’t have a choice of gear (as a CVT is effectively one gear that can do any revs and any speed) and you can’t rev it when it’s stationary. It’s probably just something that affects me as I’m an ape with lead feet, and I can see that it’s been done so you can enjoy a big V6 and still get very impressive fuel efficiency figures, but other manufacturers usually offer a bigger engine for those who like luxury and a bit more grunt, so it’s a bit of a shame you can’t just specify the 3.5 litre V6 on its own if you really want. But you never know, this could be a sign that a GSV8 is on the way…

Adaptive Cruise Control was a fun option, and one which took the stress out of driving. Well, it took the stress out in the sense that you didn’t have to do anything with your feet, but it was also incredibly stressful as you have to have full faith that the car’s systems will stop you. Which it does.

In the corners, there’s nothing between them – the 450 weighs a tad more because of the slightly larger engine, and the 250 felt a tad smaller, but they are both nice to drive, and the body structure is apparently 14% stiffer than the previous generation GS. They also both have double wishbone suspension at the front and multilink suspension at the rear, so there’s plenty of grip. I left everything in Sport + for the vast majority of the time because the steering was light in all other settings, but even without that the steering was direct. Throwing the car into hairpins, the traction control really did keep the back in check – at one point I got bored and put my foot to the floor on the exit of a damp hairpin, and while the back twitched and one of the wheels lost traction the systems quickly managed everything and got me on my way without being killed. The traction control can be turned off fully in the 250 because it’s an automatic, but in the 450 it can only be partly turned off, so powering out of a corner the back will slide before suddenly braking, at which point you have to be quick with the steering otherwise the wheel, which was pointing in the wrong direction to control the slide is now in the same place but with a straight back end. If you’re not quick, you will hit a tree.

On the subject of cornering, the new GS comes with the Lexus Dynamic Handling system, which can steer the rear wheels by a maximum of 2 degrees when cornering. I didn’t really feel the system in action, but other journalists said that it sometimes caught them out as the car would turn in better then they had anticipated.

What else is there to say about the new GS? Well, it has one of the best con-options in the world (a £2000 cool box), the boot is massive (552 litres in the 250 and 465 in the 450h), there’s plenty of leg room in the back, it has 10 airbags, there are enough cubby holes to file away your World War II history books at the border (I soon realised it wasn’t the best trip to bring Winston Churchill’s biography and two books on the Battle of Britain) and, for a car that feels this nice, the Lexus is very good in terms of money, with the 250 starting at £32,995, and the 450 starting at £44,995. It would be nice to see a few brighter colours, like perhaps a nice blue, to, again, really show that German cars are boring and not worth bothering with, but the colours available all look nice, the ‘Crimson Red’ in particular.

Should you buy one?

Lexus is launching the fourth generation GS with the tagline ‘Creating Amazing’, and if you can get past the stigma old Lexus’ had, this is a good buy and an enjoyable drive.


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