2013 Lexus GS

2013 Lexus GS

Lexus adds more sport to the 2013 GS sport sedan
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BMW is used to being chased. The brand's sport sedans are regularly benchmarked by other automakers for their amazing balance of ride and handling. The BMW 5 Series has been the handling champ of midsize luxury cars for decades. Now, one brand can match or even exceed the 5's dynamic character. It's not Audi or Mercedes-Benz or even Infiniti. Surprisingly, that brand is the traditionally conservative Lexus with the 2013 Lexus GS.

Under the direction of chief engineer Yoshihiko Kanamori, Lexus set out to make the GS a full-fledged grand touring sedan. That meant making it a more emotional experience in several ways, most notably exterior appearance, driving character, fuel economy and interior environment. A lot of effort and technology went into turning the rather disappointing last-generation GS into a 5 Series challenger. Let's take a look at how Lexus did it.

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Emotional Styling

The emotion starts with the looks. The new GS represents the next expression of Lexus' L-finesse styling language; one is more aggressive and distinctive. The main component of the new look is the prominent "spindle" grille, which combines the upper and lower air intakes into one trapezoidal shape. Other touches include prominent hood lines, high-tech headlights with LED flourishes and a roofline that reaches far toward the rear of the car.

The look for the rear-drive GS 350 and all-wheel-drive GS 350 AWD models is quite striking. An available F Sport package with more aggressive front air intakes and wide-and-wider 19-inch tires looks even better. The F Sport's rear P265/35s are the widest tires ever put on a Lexus. The GS 450h hybrid looks about the same as the GS 350, with only discreet badging and hidden tailpipes to distinguish it.

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Engaging Driving Character

Kanomori's team made a serious effort to give the GS, as Lexus puts it, a bit of the DNA of the LFA. To accomplish their goal, Lexus engineers devised a more rigid platform by increasing the use of high-strength steel, adding more spot welds and putting laser welds in key areas. To make the car more planted, they increased the track 1.6 inches up front and two inches in the rear. Switching to aluminum suspension components, a double wishbone up front and a rear multi-link, reduced unsprung weight. And for good measure, all of the suspension components were retuned with a greater emphasis on sportiness.

Those are just the basics. Lexus also offers several ways to make the GS sportier. It all starts with the F Sport package, which comes with firmer suspension tuning, an adaptive variable suspension, larger front brakes with performance pads, quicker steering with variable ratios, and the aforementioned 19-inch tires. Dynamic Rear Steering is also available. At low speeds it turns the rear wheels up to two degrees in the opposite direction of the fronts to help the car rotate, and at high speeds the rears turn with the fronts to improve stability. Buyers in northern climates will appreciate the available all-wheel drive. It's not an advanced system that can aid handling, but it will provide foul weather security.

To show off the fruits of its labor, Lexus had journalists drive the GS on a handling course set up at Las Vegas Speedway, with the BMW 535i and Mercedes E350 Luxury for comparison. While the Mercedes is more about comfort than sportiness, we were surprised that the GS outperformed the BMW. A total of 273 pounds lighter than a 535i and with quicker steering, the Lexus feels more hunkered down and turns in more responsively. The GS F Sport is even more responsive, cornering flatter and changing directions even quicker. The base steering is fairly quick, and the variable ratio steering in the F Sport even more responsive. Neither, however, provides much road feel. In all, the base model feels like a near match for the BMW, while the F Sport is clearly more agile.

Of course, few buyers will take their GSs to the racetrack, so road manners are really more important. The base suspension, with its 17-inch wheels, does a fine job of soaking up bumps. F Sport and Luxury models come with an adjustable variable suspension. Both have Eco, Normal and Sport modes, but the F Sport adds a Sport + mode with even firmer suspension settings. The modes are chosen through knob on the center console. In addition to the suspension, the various modes change throttle response, transmission shift points, stability control limits and, when equipped, the variable steering ratio.

Sport + is the most aggressive mode, but it doesn't make the GS too stiff or the throttle too touchy for city streets. Still, drivers might prefer the slightly less aggressive settings of Sport mode, and Normal mode offers a fine balance between ride and handling without making the car wallow and float. Eco mode aids fuel economy slightly, but throttle response becomes dull and a bit frustrating.

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Competitive V6 But No V8

The GS 350's engine needed no changes to keep it competitive. This silky smooth V6 offers the latest in technology with both port and direct injection. This combination allows the car to run smoother at idle and in cold startups thanks to port injection, while delivering the power and fuel economy benefits of direction injection. The engine is plenty powerful, launching the GS from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. AWD adds a couple hundred pounds and 0.3 seconds to the 0 to 60 time. While that's impressive, the BMW 535i is a bit quicker and offers more low-end torque. Fuel economy is a reasonable 19 mpg city/28 highway, up 2 mpg on the highway.

While the engine isn't appreciably different, Lexus added some performance flair by installing an intake sound creator that emits a refined but aggressive exhaust note when the driver gets hard on the throttle. Go light on the gas, though, and you can barely tell the engine is on.

A six-speed automatic transmission carries over, but Lexus made it sportier as well. Steering wheel shift paddles are standard, and the transmission itself gets traits from the IS-F, notably downshift throttle blips, quicker shifts and earlier torque converter lockup. We found the transmission to be smooth and more responsive than we are accustomed to in a Lexus.

The V8-powered GS 460 model does not return. That puts the GS at a slight disadvantage versus the powerful V8s from BMW, Mercedes and Infiniti, but Lexus says the take rate was low and buyers wanting more power have been opting for the hybrid.

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Fast and Efficient Hybrid

The Lexus GS 450h hybrid uses the same 3.5-liter V6 as the GS 350. It also carries over from last year's hybrid, but is more than 30 percent more efficient. The main reason is the change from the more powerful Otto combustion cycle that all non-hybrids use to the more efficient but less powerful Atkinson cycle. That change brings horsepower down to 286, but the Lexus Hybrid Drive system's nickel-metal-hydride battery adds 52 horsepower, upping the total to 338. Fuel economy improves from 22 mpg city/25 highway to 29/34 mpg. Quite a jump.

The electric assist gives the GS 450h a bit more low-end torque than the base engine, improving response from a stop and cutting the 0 to 60 mph time to 5.6 seconds. The hybrid uses a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that doesn't ever shift, so power delivery feels a bit unnatural. Lexus Hybrid Drive also allows turns off the engine at stops and turns it on again when you touch the throttle. This all happens seamlessly.

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Luxurious, Roomier Interior

Inside, the GS features a quality cabin that is now roomier. Quality materials abound and soft touch surfaces cover the dashboard, armrests, and door panels. Three types of wood trim are offered, with the GS 450h getting bamboo trim that is both inviting and appropriately green. The F Sport package comes with attractive aluminum trim.

The GS has been known for space issues, and those are improved this year. While the front seat adds only 0.2 inch of headroom, the steering wheel angle is reduced two degrees, so drivers can see over it easier. Choose the Luxury package's 18-way power seats and you get more downward seat travel for an extra 1.5 inches of headroom. We found all of the seat choices to be comfortable and notably supportive with enough side bolstering to prevent front seat occupants from sliding around during aggressive cornering.

The rear seat adds more room than the front. The car's additional width adds almost three inches of hip room, making three-across seating more comfortable. Headroom is improved by almost an inch and the front seatbacks are carved out to add more knee space. In total, there is enough room for a six-footer to sit behind another six-footer, though very tall rear passengers will still find rear headroom cramped.

The trunk is better, too, improving from 12.7 to 14.3 cubic feet. The trunk opening is also larger, making it easier to load large items. The only drawback is a lack of a folding rear seat. Lexus only offers a pass-through.

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A Technological Step Forward and Back

The GS comes standard with an 8-inch center screen and a massive 12.3-inch screen is included with the optional navigation system. That's the largest dashboard screen on the market, and it can show three types of information at once. For instance, you can see a map, radio information and climate settings.

The functions on the dashboard screen are controlled by Lexus' Remote Touch system. It comes with a mouse on the center console that uses resistance (called haptic feedback) so you can feel the "buttons" on the screen. We have liked this system in the past, but we're not so sure about the second generation.

The problem is the mouse is no longer a stand-alone item. It now uses a short, flat joystick with a handrest behind it. The thumb activated enter button is gone, replaced by a click down on the mouse to enter commands. Rather than the stability of a whole hand, the new system requires fingertip control that makes it harder to achieve pinpoint accuracy. I found myself missing buttons, having to back up and try again and generally spending a longer amount of time to aim for the controls. All of this requires a longer look away from the road. Anything that distracts the driver's attention is a bad thing.

Technology does take a step forward with the addition of the Enform system, which pairs with your smartphone to provide access to apps. The apps include OpenTable restaurant reservations, MovieTickets, Bing local search, streaming radio through Pandora and iHeartRadio, Yelp business reviews and Facebook check-in. Tech junkies will love Enform. It capitalizes on the capabilities of smartphones to bring more features into your car. It is limited by your cell phone signal, and as always, be careful not to let it distract you from the road.

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Bottom Line

The changes made to the 2013 Lexus GS improve it greatly. The look is far more attractive and emotional, and interior space gets a needed boost. More importantly, though, this sport sedan is now fully competitive with great sport sedans from BMW and Mercedes. Lexus says this new focus on sportiness will permeate its lineup in the future. We look forward to more cars as good as the GS. www.lexus.com

2013 Lexus GS luxury sport sedan - grille
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