2013 Lexus GS 350 review: Is this the first MVP on a comeback team?

Losing is never fun, especially when you play in the big leagues. Just ask the Texas Rangers. The same goes for Lexus. Last year it lost its top spot as the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. to BMW. This year, according to Lexus, things will be different. The upscale luxury brand is coming out swinging, with plans to hit a lot of home runs and up its sales by 25% — a lofty goal, but one that might not be impossible judging by the metal bats its wielding in the game. The first to get on base is the all-new Lexus GS 350, and it has a lot of traits that make it a quality player on the team.

Lexus’ all-star team will be made up of nine new and refreshed cars this year, starting with the GS and ES, three F-sport high-performance models, followed by the new RX and LX SUVs, then a few others.

If all the products match the GS 350, Lexus just might be taking home the trophy when the final scores are tallied 10 short months from now.

The 2013 GS 350 has been 20 years in the making. It comes from a long line of distinguished players, all of which have performed admirably during their time in the majors. The GS 300 in 1994 scored high in IQS from J.D. Power and Associates, and subsequent GS 300s and 400s continued to win awards for everything from Motor Trend’s Import Car of the Year to Intellichoice’s Best New Car Deal to a Car and Driver magazine “10 Best.”

When you come from a family of overachievers, you better be great right out of the dugout, and the GS 350 does not disappoint.

Just looking at it, you can see the GS sedan is aggressive yet elegant. The new design theme for Lexus starts with what it calls a “spindle grille,” where the nose features an inverted trapezoid-shaped upper and bottom-wide lower grille. It’s unusual, unique, and if you don’t like it at first, it will grow on you over time, which is always the mark of good design.

Recently, we used the GS 350 to shuttle hot rodders around town who came to Los Angeles to participate in Deuce Week at the Petersen Automotive Museum in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the 1932 Ford. Troy Trepanier, from Rad Rides by Troy, a top builder in the country, really liked the front end, as did Scott Whitaker, owner of Dynamat and a car builder in his own right. With professional eyes like that on the Lexus’ styling, who are we to disagree?

Other elements that contribute to the front end’s unique look are deep-set projector beam headlamps with L-shaped LED DRL enhancements. The profile is fairly mild, but the back panels have some shoulders that deliver a strong finish at the rear. Twin trapezoidal exhaust outlets and angled LED combination taillamps add to the overall beefiness of the sedan. The cleats that help the GS 350 maintain traction are standard 17-inch alloy rims with 50 series tires. Optional wheels and tires are 18s/45.

The GS 350 also comes in all-wheel as well as rear-wheel drive, and as a hybrid model, or in F-Sport dressing, which is the performance arm of Lexus for those who want even more from this already adept player. Those options change the shoes as well as a handful of other features.

Besides just looking good, the designers went for fuel economy, and with this low-slung look and an impressive 0.26 coefficient of drag, the 350’s fuel economy stats are pretty good, at 19 city/28 highway. During our testing, we achieved around 20-mpg average, admittedly with the selector spending more time in “Sport” mode than in “economy.” To be honest, that’s how we usually drive. I’m sure if we had been a bit more conservative, we easily would have seen the documented numbers.

Inside, the GS 350’s uniform is pressed and ready, with standard 10-way power leather seats, contrasting stitching on the IP, door panels and shift boot, and LED ambient lighting. Power everything also is standard (seats, mirrors, steering wheel, push-button start, proximity key, one-touch up/down windows, and more). The matte wood trim on the dash and doors is a classy touch, but some critics who rode with us still prefer a high-gloss finish. The only interior trim that was out of place was the mouse-fur like headliner. We’ve seen higher-quality cloth in Hyundais that were half the price. Switch it to Alcantera suede, Lexus, and there won’t be anything to complain about inside.

Carting four adults around in style is easy, as there’s plenty of room for heads, hips, legs and shoulders front and back (more room than the previous GS). Although there’s room for a third person in the middle rear seat (we tried it), we don’t recommend it unless you all get along really, really, really well.

Our test model came with many options, including — and how could you not notice it — the Lexus HDD navigation system with a 12.3-inch high-resolution screen. This was the focal point of the dash, and everyone who laid eyes on it laughed and pointed, remarking that it was bigger than their televisions at home. Yes, the screen is huge, but all the better to see and find what you want in infotainment.

Speaking of infotainment, the Lexus Enform system features a suite of safety, entertainment, information services and navigation controls that would almost allow you to throw out your laptop computer. For 2013, Enform includes the five apps and data services that are identical to Toyota’s Entune system.

The apps (you have to download and register for the Enform smartphone app to use the system) include Bing POI search, opentable.com for restaurant reservations, movietickets.com for finding theaters and buying tickets, Pandora and iHeartRadio. Pretty nifty apps that are fairly easy to use once you get your phone paired and connected.

While luxury probably is the primary reason buyers will consider the GS 350, the secondary reason to offer this player a spot in your garage is performance.

Under the hood of the GS 350 is an engine cover that blocks your view to the muscles, but underneath that is an all-aluminum 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with Lexus’ variable valve timing with intelligence. The V6 produces more-than-adequate 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque on premium unleaded fuel. The engine is mated to a smooth 6-speed sequential shift automatic with paddle shifters and features the Lexus Drive Mode selector. Choose from four driving modes: Eco, Normal, Sport S and Sport S+. Eco mode changes the meter lighting to blue, then alters the throttle, seat heating, and climate control for better fuel economy. In Sport S mode (meter lighting glows red), the throttle and transmission shifts allow for quicker inputs. In Sport S+ mode (with the F-Sport and the Luxury Package), changes include a more sporting setup for the adaptive variable suspension and the integrated vehicle dynamics system as well as the powertrain changes from Sport S mode.

When switching between Eco and Sport S, you can immediately feel the difference in the throttle. In Eco mode, the seat heater goes to the low setting, even if you want to keep it on high because you’re cold…annoying enough to stay away from Eco mode on cold days.

Ride quality is impressive. Our favorite test road is Interstate 405 in Southern California, which has more bumps, breaks and bad concrete than Clayton Kershaw has strikeouts. The GS 350 virtually sails over the road surface without drama, allowing the driver to concentrate more on the conversation than the steering wheel.

If you want to dump the passengers and turn up the fun meter, take the F-Sport package. It adds the Lexus Dynamic Handling system, which includes Dynamic Rear Steering, electric power steering, and variable gear ratio steering. Using inputs from a variety of sensors off the steering wheel, the system calculates the best angle for all four wheels and can modify the steering angles at all four corners to help improve turn in response, rear grip, overall control, and cornering agility. At most speeds below 50 mph, the front and rear wheels turn in opposite directions. In certain conditions over 50 mph, the front and rear wheels turn in the same direction. While rear-wheel steer isn’t a new idea, it has been nicely integrated into the electronics of the GS and works hard at being invisible until needed. If only we could create a shortstop with this ability; think of the possibilities!

Working in conjunction with the new handling system is Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. It’s the manager of all the systems: handling, adaptive suspension, ABS, traction control and stability control. After all, someone has to keep these players focused on the game.

Overall, the GS 350 is an impressive sedan that current owners will be happy to re-sign at the end of the season, as long as the price is right. With a starting salary of $46,900, and options that can go as high as $60,000 fully loaded, it’s right in the ballpark with the other players in the segment.

It also offers enough luxury, features, and performance to make BMW and Mercedes-Benz owners at least stop at the dealership and take a test drive before going back to their home teams. It beats the BMW on room and ride quality, and makes a mockery of the E-Class’ telematics system. And for most people, that’s a solid grand slam.