First Drive: 2013 Lexus GS 350 and GS 450h [Review]

Lexus has reinvigorated its midsize sedans with a newfound focus on sporty precision.

"Something wicked this way comes," once proclaimed the Macbeth-laced marketing efforts for Lexus' second-generation GS back in the mid-1990s.

And wicked car that GS was, what with its newly-arrived V8 engine and butch, in-house styling that screamed "pay attention to me!"

Fast forward a decade and a half and another GS has been tasked with a similar mission of injecting sport into an otherwise staid lineup. Technically, the 2013 GS is a fourth-generation model, but it might as well be the automaker's second-ever effort since trials one and three were proverbial bunts that never quite caught on with buyers.

This latest GS brings with it a pared-down but more focused lineup. Gone is the V8 that made the "wicked" model desirable. In its place is a new emphasis on precision thanks to Toyota heir, CEO and genuine racing enthusiast Akio Toyoda.

Shoes to fill
Despite a pleasant all-around competence, the outgoing GS was overshadowed by German rivals with more luxury, more features and more performance. Sales were modest as buyers flocked to the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6. Lexus was outclassed.

If the old car's bland styling turned buyers away, the more dynamic new GS should reel them in for a second look. Like eHarmony's finest, the GS must be seen in person. But unlike that deceiving heifer who posted a "recent" photo from 1984, the GS' curves are far more pleasant in real life. Up front, a bold fascia features what Lexus calls its new "spindle" grille that juts in toward a stylized "L" as large as a rodeo star's belt buckle. LED high and low-beam headlamps are optional.

Move along the car's side and its low stature becomes more obvious. By no means as svelte as Audi's latest A6, the GS does manage to be more interesting in profile than the BMW 5-Series and less frumpy than Mercedes-Benz's E-Class.

At the rear, however, the look falls short. While the detailing and design language is pleasingly consistent with what's going on up front, we can't help but think that the pointed tail lamps and chrome strip look like the Hyundai Sonata. A goofy racing-style rear diffuser on non-hybrid GS models doesn't help, although we did like their artfully-integrated tailpipes.

Speaking of powertrains, the GS sees a trimmed-down lineup for 2013. At the bottom of the spectrum is the rear-drive, 3,795 lbs. GS 350, which retains a mostly carryover 3.5-liter V6. On paper, it boasts a 5.7-second 0-60 sprint thanks to 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft. of torque, the latter of which peaks at 4,800 rpm.

Drivers interested in something a little more "wicked" can select the F Sport package, which doesn't add power but does feature a special body kit, 18-inch dark-finish alloy wheels and a tightened-down suspension with rear wheel steering, a Sport+ mode - more on that in a bit.

All-wheel-drive is optional, bringing with it ballast just shy of 200 lbs. The system sends 30 percent of power to the front under normal circumstances, but slushy conditions can see a 50/50 split when needed.

Anchoring the top of the lineup is the GS 450h (h stands for hybrid). A detuned version of the 350's 3.5-liter V6 works with a pair of generators and a 240-cell nickel metal hydride battery to achieve a total of 338 horsepower, while a CVT sends power to the rear wheels. Despite adding weight to the tune of 4,190 lbs. overall, the GS 450h vaults to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds.

EPA estimated fuel economy, meanwhile, runs the gamut. Opt for a GS 350 and Lexus guesses 19/28 mpg. AWD dings the highway figure to 26 mpg. The hybrid, however, is anticipated to net a solid 29/34 mpg, which puts it 2 mpg ahead of the admittedly more powerful Infiniti M35h.

The inside story
GS moves Lexus forward in terms of interior design by taking a page from both the company's LF-A supercar and its CT 200h five-door hybrid (talk about opposite ends of the spectrum) with a decidedly sport-oriented five-passenger cabin with a low roof and a short dashboard. Heavily-bolstered seats covered in standard or semi-aniline leather hold front passengers in place, while the driver grips a meaty three-spoke steering wheel that further adds to the performance car feel.

Driver and passenger are affronted by an enormous optional 12.3- inch widescreen controlled by a vaguely mouse-like knob for audio and navigation adjustments. Climate controls are handled via more traditional buttons, and while we don't necessarily mind Lexus' intuitive controller, we wish there were a few more redundant switches for common items like audio presets. At least the widescreen offers Lexus' brilliant mobile phone-based app system, which includes access to services like Pandora, OpenTable and Bing for on-the-go connectivity.

Materials throughout are generally top notch, especially the matte-finish bamboo used in hybrid models.

On the go
While we lament the loss of the optional V8, we can't blame Lexus for trimming the lineup since the V6 offers more than enough grunt for most any driver. From a standstill, the GS 350 isn't rocket fast, but it builds speed smoothly thanks to a fast-shifting six-speed automatic. In the mood for more? Ergonomic steering wheel-mounted flappy pedals fire off even faster up and downshifts. While "just" six gears won't impress spec sheet jockeys, the transmission felt well-matched to the V6.

For some unexpected aural delight, GS uses the same kind of intake plumbing we've seen in cars like the Ford Mustang and the Maza MX-5 Miata to pump underhood music into the cabin. Otherwise, GS is almost eerily quiet, as we discovered while traveling at near triple-digit speeds during a maddening wind storm outside of Las Vegas.

But Lexus swears the GS isn't just about about comfortable cruising. To that end, it has incorporated a version of its Drive Mode control knob. Turn it clockwise once and you're in sport mode, where gear shifts and throttle mapping extract more accessible grunt out of the V6. Opt for the Luxury Package or the F-Sport trim and you'll get a Sport+ mode, which adjusts the electric steering and an adaptive suspension for a positively performance-minded feel.

Regardless of Drive Mode selection, GS boasts an impressively nimble feel and a taut but compliant suspension. Its electric steering doesn't deliver Porsche-levels of feedback, but it is precise and quick, which helps the big sedan feel like it rotates on an axis centered on the A-pillar. Sport+ mode firmed up the steering at low speeds, but made little discernible difference otherwise.

We spent some time on a road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway pitting the GS 350 F Sport against a Sport Package-equipped BMW 535i. While the Bimmer was quicker in the straights, the Lexus carved through corners with less body lean and drama. We aren't quite ready to proclaim the GS as the segment's most fun-to-drive offering, but Toyoda-san's push toward precision has made this contest a draw.

Our time in the GS 450h was limited, but we found that its ride and handling qualities mirrored the GS 350. Performance was adequate when left in a fun-robbing Eco mode, but Normal and Sport selections imbued it with a noticeable increase in thrust compared to the GS 350. We found it easy to travel up to around 35 mph in EV mode, an impressive feat for a bigger hybrid. Braking feel was a bit more artificial than the standard GS 350 but still far better than hybrids of yore.

Lexus hasn't priced the '13 GS, but a base price around the outgoing car's $47,000 seems about right. Opt for the hybrid and expect to add about $10,000, although you'll get a full complement of luxury features.

MG's bottom line
GS represents a giant leap forward for Lexus in terms of creating the kind of desirable machinery worthy of eliciting "wicked" passion normally reserved for enthusiasts of German rivals. Its light-on-its-feet feel and terrific interior make it worthy of a spot on any midsize premium sedan shopper's list.

It's also hopefully a sign of what's to come from a newly-invigorated Lexus lineup. Even if the otherworldly LF-A isn't proving to be a sales hit, its mission in life is clearly filtering down to the cars driven by mere mortals (and mortals with some cash, in the case of the GS).

2013 Lexus GS 350 and GS 450h pricing TBD.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

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