Review: Do Robots Dream of the Lexus GS 350?
I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind. This is a car assembled in a work area that’s completely free of human presence. Not a spot of mortal sweat, except, okay, for the guys who drive the product out of the plant — allow a little moisture when they grip the wheel. The system flows forever onward, automated to priestly nuance, every gliding movement back-referenced for prime performance. Hollow bodies coming in endless sequence. There’s nobody on the line with caffeine nerves or a history of clinical depression. Just the eerie weave of chromium alloys carried in interlocking arcs, block iron and asphalt sheeting, soaring ornaments of coachwork fitted and merged. Robots tightening bolts, programmed drudges that do not dream of family dead.
And with that, we’re introduced to the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s landmark 1997 novel Underworld. If we’re being pedantic (and why not?), Nick Shay was likely driving an LS 400 in that passage, which was set in early 1992. The Mercedes S-Class-fighting LS was still the breadwinner for Lexus back then; the popular Camry-based ES300 had just arrived in dealerships that spring, and would take the bigger car’s sales crown by the end of the year. A third, even sleeker, more modern, and even more robot-built model, the GS 300, would reach U.S. shores in ’93, but it would spend its first few years in the shadow of the more popular older models.
The original GS, with its design by Giorgetto Giugiaro — the man behind the BMW M1 and DeLorean DMC-12 — was a bold departure for the young brand. It was a bona-fide Mercedes E-Class/BMW 5 Series competitor, but with Lexus’s over-engineering and obsessive levels of build quality. Over 23 years on, the GS is still fighting with the same intensity as it always has, and it’s arguably better than ever.
So what does a postmodern novel have to do with the 2016 GS 350? A lot, actually. Because that passage was the first thing that came to mind after a few minutes of driving our test car. In an era when build quality is at an all-time high and consumers’ tolerance for mistakes is at an all-time low, the GS still stands out for its precision. It’s bold, quiet, comfortable, and quick without many compromises. And after our time in one, we’re convinced that whoever — or whatever — built our GS doesn’t have much time for anything other than work, is probably a bore at parties, and doesn’t tolerate mistakes.
In its 2015 redesign, Lexus fully committed the GS to its polarizing hourglass grille, or what wags call the “Predator Grille.” It took us a while (OK, years), but we’ve come around to it recently. Yes, it’s bold and in your face, but it means the days of losing Lexus’s midsizer in a parking lot are a distant memory. The brand has been focusing on standing out lately, and its certainly figured out how to do it — especially in our car, with its gorgeous “Nightfall Mica” paint job.
Even in midrange trim, the GS is taut and muscular, with its lights and front vents looking like they’re bursting through the sheetmetal. In profile, you can see traces of the car’s conservative 2013-’14 past, but it still doesn’t look dated. Despite the mixture of flowing lines and hard edges, everything just works. Lexus calls its busy design language “L-finesse.” We still prefer Jason Torchinsky of Jalopnik’s “Cybaroque.” Either way, consider us converts.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Lexus has stopped playing it safe from a design standpoint. We couldn’t be happier for it.
+ Combination of soft shapes and hard edges works surprisingly well.
– We may be converts to Lexus’s look, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will be.
– Despite the newer fascias, it’s a 5-year-old design in a segment with several all-new competitors (Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-Series).
Lexus has made powertrains in the GS line simple enough: The 241 horse 2.0 liter turbo four is found in the base GS. Our car, the midrange GS 350, has the 3.5 liter V6, which is good for 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque going to all four wheels (rear-wheel drive is standard), and a zero to 60 time of 5.8 seconds — not bad for a 3,800 pound luxury sedan. Next comes the GS 450h, with an electric motor added to the V6, good for a bump to 338 horses. Sitting at the top of it all is the bonkers GS-F, with its 467 horse V8.
But if you’re not planning on chasing BMW M5s and Mercedes-AMG E 43s around the track, the GS 350 is plenty of car. The 3.5 delivers enough power, and using the paddle shifters to manually run through the six automatic gears makes for a lively driving experience. Power comes on even and smooth, and with the cabin being as quiet as it is, the GS is one of the best highway cruisers around.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ This big sedan has plenty of go, even in luxury trim.
+ Paddle shifters breathe life into the otherwise smooth and unobtrusive six-speed automatic.
+ With such a quiet interior, it’s deceptively quick.
– All that refinement means very little grunt when you do want to mash the gas, even in Sport mode.
The interior is where the GS really shines. Every luxury car cliche you could throw at it is here, and the car comes by each one honestly. Bank vault quiet? Check. Supple leather everywhere? Yup. Soft-touch everything else, real wood, and aluminum trim? You bet. This is where Lexus’s affinity for robot workers shines through, because there isn’t a misstep in here. Every seam, every stitch, each tolerance — it’s almost too perfect. It’s not like we found many faults inside Mercedes’s the 2017 E-Class either, but even staid old Mercedes has some faint, immeasurable trace of the human touch in its new sedan. It doesn’t feel that way inside the GS, and that’s by no means a bad thing. In fact, it makes it stand out.
The flaxen leather with open-pore walnut trim made our car a stunner, especially paired with the deep blue exterior. Along with aluminum trim, it beautifully broke up the big black dashboard, though the stitched leather inserts atop it were stunning too. Ergonomically, everything is where you expect it to be, and within minutes, you’re able to adjust radio and HVAC controls without having to take your eyes off the road.
Interior pros and cons
+ Seats are comfortable and well-bolstered front and rear. After taking our car on a five hour road trip, we felt relaxed and refreshed. You won’t feel fatigued here.
+ Fit and finish is almost otherworldly.
+ Rich variety of materials and textures worked together beautifully and broke up any large surfaces.
– Not as visually striking as some of the competition.
– We’d love to see a panoramic sunroof offered.
– Kink in the rear door glass makes for an awkwardly shaped door opening. If you forget about it and go to get something out of the rear seat, be careful not to brain yourself on the door.
Tech and safety
So the GS has a bold exterior, an overachieving powertrain, and an interior you could live in. Does it do anything wrong? Unfortunately, yes, and that’s its Lexus Enform infotainment system. On the plus side, it has a big, deeply-inset 12.3 inch touchscreen that’s shielded from even the worst sun glare. If you don’t like touchscreens, too bad, because it beats the alternative here.
That would be a console-mounted joystick controller with a hair-trigger. At first it’s great; in a parking lot, it’s fairly easy to get the hang of. Sitting next to the shifter on its own leather and aluminum armrest, it seems simple enough and comfortable to use. But once the car is moving, it’s cumbersome, complex, and easy to make a mistake. We took a road trip upstate from New York City and made the mistake of using the controller to try and zoom out on the map. In the span of two quick speed bumps, we jostled the controller enough to make the GPS reroute us to Philadelphia. By the end of our week with the car and some time with the owner’s manual, we felt like we could handle Enform, but it severely tried our patience, and we don’t know if we’d want to live with it.
But Enform-related gripes aside, the GS has everything you’d expect from a modern luxury sedan. The optional Mark Levinson sound system is a must, the standard safety suite is great for parking and highway driving, and the MID and touchscreen are customizable and easy to read.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ The Mark Levinson stereo is a pricey option ($1,380), but it would be a must for us.
+ The huge touchscreen is easy to read in even the harshest sunlight.
– There should be a college-level course to teach drivers how to use the Enform controller.
– Hair-trigger on said controller can make for some interesting road trip detours.
If we needed to drive across the country today, the GS 350 would be on our short list of cars to do it in. It’s pretty quick, cuts a mean profile in someone’s rearview mirror, and is about as comfortable as it gets. This isn’t the type of luxury sedan where you’re coddled into ignoring the drive; you’re just comfortable — and kept comfortable — behind the wheel. The steering is nicely weighted, it handles a corner well for a car its size, and it has plenty of power on hand. In a week of heavy driving, we averaged 20 MPG. It isn’t a car that makes you want to push it to its limits, but if you want to do that, Lexus would be more than happy to sell you the GS-F.
Wrap up and review
The GS is a great all-rounder, in that it does nearly everything above average (grumble, grumble, Enform), and is spectacular where it counts in the segment: inside. Overall, we found it hard to find fault in the GS. It offers everything that Lexus buyers have looked for over the past 27 years, but does it in a way that’s impossible to ignore anymore.
After eating up hundreds of highway miles in the GS, DeLillo’s description of a Lexus stayed with us. Yes, the E-Class, 5 Series, Jaguar XF, Volvo S90, and Cadillac CTS are all newer, but the Lexus still holds its own. In fact, it almost feels more solid or heavily weighted than the competition, like an expensive watch or a well-made suit. With the hard/soft lines outside and that perfectly serene interior, the GS 350 is like being inside an ultra-high-definition photograph, where everything is crisper and even more vivid than reality.
Of course the GS is designed and engineered by humans that are driven by the competition and want to build the best car possible with the resources they have. But Lexus doesn’t let you see that, not even as much as the Germans do. There aren’t any fingerprints on the GS, and the level of precision that surrounds you is still jarring, even if the model has been around a while. To err is to be human, right? So to cut man out of the mix has got to be the best way to build a faultless car. Lexus has spent nearly three decades striving for that goal, and while people aren’t out of the equation just yet, the company doesn’t do much to discourage the stereotype either. Its midsize sedan isn’t faultless, but it’s well on its way to getting there.
Is the GS a machine’s idea of the perfect midsize sedan? Because if it is, it has pretty good taste.