This fall, if the Japanese calendar still coincides with the U.S. calendar, Lexus will celebrate its 25th anniversary retailing cars in the U.S. It’s fair to say that few observers of the industry then could have suggested what Lexus would have looked like now. While Toyota’s retail ambitions were obviously high, the rollout – with the Mercedes-like LS 400 and Camry-like ES 250 – looks, at least in hindsight, to have been extremely modest. Notably, the subjects of this overview were not yet a gleam in Toyoda-san’s eye, and Lexus’ only performance orientation was the bottom line.
Fast forward 25 years and the Lexus lineup has swollen almost exponentially, offering an entry-level hybrid, performance compact, both front and rear-wheel drive midsize sedans, the aforementioned LS, and – lest we forget – three SUVs! And its modest retail footprint back in 1989, with but 81 dealerships, has almost tripled; many Lexus showrooms occupy acreage historically reserved for Chevy or Ford stores. The size of the Lexus operation is only exceeded by consumer satisfaction; scores typically rank at or near the top in both product and retail satisfaction. And while Cadillac is enjoying a substantive rebound, the debut of Lexus has effectively buried Lincoln – a second time.
For the actual Lexus anniversary we should reserve the LS 460, for both your reading pleasure(?) and our reviewing pleasure. In the interim, two of Lexus’ players vying for your $50K are the IS 350 performance compact and its bigger brother, the GS 350 midsize cruiser. That there can be that degree of window sticker overlap isn’t surprising; a great many car companies will offer hard-loaded compacts whose window sticker can easily surpass that of their midsize counterparts. Think Focus/Fusion, Malibu/Impala or 3-Series/5-Series. In this instance our GS 350 started at roughly $48K and (with modest adds) topped out at $54K, while our IS 350 AWD F Sport began at around $42K and topped out at just over $50,000. It essentially boils down to how you want to spend your $50,000…as a grown-up with the ‘G’, or self–Indulgent with the ‘I’. For us the answer can be found in the seat of our pants. Bottoms, as it were…up!
We received the GS first, so we’ll start there. Now in its fourth generation, the GS may finally be hitting its stride and – not incidentally – finding an audience. With apologies to stepchildren, the GS has long served as the ‘stepchild’ in the Lexus lineup; the ‘IS’ is decidedly sportier, the ES more accommodating (and inexpensive) and the LS far better established. And at its launch, rather quiet sheetmetal by Giugiaro (an Eye-talian, forgawdsake) might not have helped. We’ve always liked its size and demeanor, while wishing it could be more like BMW for those wanting to drive, or – from a sales standpoint – more like Benz, for those wishing to be seen.
As BMW’s 5-Series has grown fatter, the GS seems to have morphed into a ‘right-sized’ footprint. On a wheelbase of 112 inches, and boasting an overall length of 190 inches, today’s GS is about the size of a BMW 7-Series not too many years ago (although before Miley Cyrus, making the reference – probably – irrelevant). With a curb weight of 3,800 pounds, the GS 350 hovers in that just-right space between responsive and substantial. And with 306 horsepower from its 3.5 liter DOHC V6, the GS moves – as we used to say – with alacrity. Toyota claims a 0-60 of under six seconds for both RWD and AWD variants, along with a top speed of 142 and 131, respectively. Without an attorney on the CarBuzzard staff (Legal Eagle?) we didn’t attempt either number, but have no reason to doubt either number…either. Also, for purposes of this test the driver’s side floor mat was fixed firmly in place.
The performance is certainly there, but so is the connectivity. The GS’ electric power steering provides enough synthesized feedback to approximate ‘feel’, and the all-independent chassis – double wishbones in front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear – supplies an ideal balance of comfort and composure. This isn’t, by any stretch, a track day platform, but then, its target audience is more likely to run a ½ marathon than an SCCA autocross. And with a 17-gallon tank and roughly 22 miles per gallon in a combination of city and freeway driving, you could essentially drive a marathon, with an anticipated highway range of almost 400 miles.
We were impressed by the 4-door’s easy accessibility and, once inside, quiet dignity. Obviously, it comes equipped with all manner of ‘luxury and convenience’, but doesn’t seem overwhelmed by its electronic smorgasbord – much of which is included in the standard MSRP of roughly $48K. Beyond that ‘under $50K’ figure is Mark Levinson sound and Lexus navigation with a 12.3 inch screen. The Premium Package, with rain-sensing wipers (which continue to puzzle – doesn’t the driver know it’s raining?), heated and ventilated front seats and a power rear sunshade round out the list of substantive options, for a total MSRP – with destination – of $54K.
When compared back-to-back with an IS, we’ll take the fifth. In short, if you have a fifth passenger frequently you’ll want the wider rear berth provided by the GS. If, however, that happens once in a red sun – or you have a GX 460 on the other side of the garage – you can fuhget about it, and opt for the IS…which we’re sorely tempted to do.
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