2016 Lexus GS 350 AWD F Sport
It’s only a mid-cycle update, but the latest GS has certainly added swagger to its strut thanks to more complete adoption of the marque’s L-finesse 2.0 design language that now includes a larger, deeper more eye-catching grille, an aggressively complicated lower fascia, vertically stacked LED headlamps, checkmark-shaped LED driving lights, more complex LED taillights and other visual refinements, the look especially pleasing in uprated F Sport trim. That’s how Lexus shipped my latest tester, a car that had me at hello.
It’s difficult to remain unbiased when a vehicle or brands’ styling grabs your heart, mind and soul as effectively as Lexus’ latest lineup of cars and SUVs has done with mine. Rather than my weeklong tester seeming like a cubicle in a dingy newsroom I’m feeling as if I’ve suddenly been promoted to a corner office with a view of the harbor below and mountains above, complete with an upgraded 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display sitting next to my new Samsung S7 Edge and Gear VR atop a new Cattelan Italia Vega desk, a Herman Miller Eames Executive Work Chair under my seat, an 85-inch Samsung Ultra HDTV hanging on the opposite wall playing an HD download of next months’ Australian Grand Prix.
Truth be told I would never have associated Lexus with such ultimately upscale brands and products previously, but now its cars are as cool as a mash-up episode of Mad Men and Suits with Harvey Specter somehow representing Don Draper, no doubt in a DUI, although this analogy might not be the best to contemplate while reviewing a luxury car. After all, its cabin is way beyond the parlor club ambience Draper visits to contemplate life while drowning himself in old-fashioned martinis or Canadian Club rye whiskey after hours, it’s as modern as anything from the Bauhaus era with my F Sport tester sporting zero hardwood inlays, instead boasting beautiful diamond-patterned gray metal trim across its instrument panel, lower console and doors, complemented by stunning satin-silver accents most everywhere else, plus inky piano black surfaces elsewhere, perforated and solid contrast stitched leathers in key areas, and hardly a trace of hard plastic anywhere, the GS incorporating the best quality soft-touch synthetics from top to bottom. Likewise its electronic interfaces are amongst the best in the biz, the mixed analog and digital primary gauges perfectly uniting the two technologies and long, lean and large infotainment display hovering overtop the center stack as state-of-the-art as anything fastened to four wheels.
Do you think it’s just better value that’s allowed Lexus to storm ahead of Audi here in the U.S., where last year’s sales were dangerously close to upsetting BMW for second place? The numbers read 372,977 units sold for Mercedes-Benz, 346,023 for BMW and 344,601 for Lexus, Buick fourth with 223,055 deliveries and Audi fifth with a scant 202,202. Yes, you read that right, Audi is a comparative no-show and BMW just 1,422 vehicles ahead of Lexus, whereas Toyota’s luxury division is doing so with way fewer models. Just wait and see how its sales will grow by continuing to add to its lineup like it did last year with the new NX compact SUV and RC sports coupe, the already announced LC 500 set to add yet more buyers next year and a seven-passenger crossover plus new subcompact and compact models expected in the near future.
Lexus buyers continue to enjoy some of the best reliability in the industry, the brand still number one by a long shot in J.D. Power and Associates esteemed Vehicle Dependability Study and once again rated most reliable in the 2016 Consumer Reports Brand Rankings, just to name two, but this is nothing new, as is its impressive materials quality and rare levels of refinement. Now Lexus’ pragmatic past combines with said style and superb road manners for an altogether more complete sport-luxury package, good enough to drive its sales to new heights by attracting previously unattainable clientele and at least as importantly keeping long-term Lexus’ faithful fans coming back for more.
Those road manners are improved upon via my F Sport model’s gorgeous machine-finished twinned five-spoke 19-inch alloys with gray-painted pockets, my tester shod in 235/40 Pirelli SottoZero rubber, sticky for winters, while Lexus upgrades the F Sport yet further with a “track-tuned” suspension featuring an Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) for improved handling and a better ride that borders on sublime. I suppose that’s what I love best about today’s Lexus, a newfound ability to balance already renowned opulence with engaging performance, this F Sport model a step above the base GS 350 AWD and noticeable notch below the fabulously entertaining GS F.
While I’ll delve into that 460 horsepower super sedan in a future review, the 311 horsepower GS 350 AWD is no slouch off the line or when powering out of an apex, let alone saying so-long to a slow moving highway truck on a lonely two-laner. It’s stock with 280 lb-ft of torque, plenty for spirited takeoff while that number is up 3 lb-ft from last year and the aforementioned horsepower increased by 5, plus its proven six-speed automatic with paddles performs well considering its down two gears when compared to most rivals, as did my tester’s all-wheel drive. Still, despite the 3.5-liter V6 being strong for a just-above-base engine I could see some wanting more power and gears, especially with Tier 2 luxury brands such like Cadillac lurking in the background, its CTS an impressive E-segment entry boasting new twin-turbo V6 power bridging the gap to an even more potent super sedan entry in its CTS-V, plus others from Infiniti to Jaguar that would love to take a piece out of Lexus GS, even though sales in this entire class are hardly stellar. Fortunately Lexus has added its 241 horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four to the GS lineup too, a more fuel-friendly entry-level engine that’s not only important for the brand’s enviro efforts but also to make the base car more competitively priced.
As you can probably guess Mercedes leads this segment with its E-Class, but it’s an unfair comparison because last year’s 49,736 U.S.-market total included the E sedan, coupe, convertible, and wagon, while the CLS four-door coupe is also sized similarly and adds another 6,152 to the E-segment total for 55,888 down the road last year, while BMW came in second with 44,162 examples of its 5 Series sedan and Gran Turismo liftback, plus it sold another 8,146 6 Series Coupes, Cabriolets and four-door Gran Coupes for a total of 52,308 E-segment sales. If you include the E-segment sized A7 within Audi’s 22,850 A6 numbers the combined tally makes it third with 30,571 sales last year, but in reality the lone 31,374-unit strong Hyundai Genesis sedan beats A6 sales, the Hyundai only getting mention in this luxe crowd due to that model getting premium Genesis brand status this coming year along with a new G80 nameplate, whereas the other segment shocker was the fifth-place all-electric Tesla Model S with 26,400 sales during 2015, not only beating the Audi A6, but also this Lexus GS that sold well enough at 23,117 units to also lay waste to the four-ringed German entry and take out Cadillac’s CTS in the process, the domestic model only managing 19,485 sales. The rest of the E-segment competitors sell in much lower numbers, Infiniti’s Q70 with 8,449 sales last year, Lincoln’s MKS with 6,877, Acura’s RLX with just 2,195 (although I’m not quite sure if it really qualifies for this class), and the long-in-tooth Volvo S80 with 1,887 sales (give them points for tenacity).
I’d like to believe this latest mid-cycle makeover will be enough to boost GS sales to a level the car deserves, the new design looking more like the sporty IS sedan and less like the more comfort-oriented ES which should help in this class, while the GS F adds street cred, but I’d be stabbing in the dark. The fact is the E-segment shrank for all models listed except the Genesis, Tesla, Infiniti Q70 and this GS (plus the XF and S80, but only by handfuls). Compare these numbers to mid-size crossover SUVs produced by the same brands and its easy to see where the money’s being made, Lexus’ RX the top selling model with 100,610 units sold across the nation last year.
I could give you a lot of reasons why the GS 350 AWD is a better choice than the equivalent E-Class, 5 Series or A6, but the most obvious left-brain leaning is value for money spent (I know the right vs. left brain theory that was debunked years ago, but please allow me some creative license as this is an automotive column, not Psychology Today). For just $45,615 plus freight and dealer fees you can drive away from your local standalone Lexus dealer in a 241 horsepower GS 200t with rear-wheel drive, compared to $46,200 for a front-wheel driven 252 horsepower four-cylinder powered Audi A6 2.0 TFSI, $50,200 for a 240 horsepower four-cylinder BMW 528i (for that price you’re already into the same 311-hp 3.5-liter V6 with the GS), or $52,650 for a V6-equipped yet hardly bahn-storming rear-drive 195 horsepower M-B E 250 BlueTec. See what I mean about logic? I’m not going to go into detail comparing features with these three Germans, but suffice to say the GS comes with many more standard goodies than just its powerful V6.
A list of standard features includes auto on-off bi-LED headlights with auto-leveling, LED daytime running lights, Drive Mode Select, variable intermittent wipers, auto-dimming and heated power-adjustable side mirrors with integrated LED turn signals, proximity-sensing access with pushbutton ignition, an electromechanical parking brake, a universal garage door opener, aluminum doorsill scuff plates, LED interior ambient lighting plus LED map lights and LED rear reading lamps, a power tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters, a leather-wrapped shift knob, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a larger 4.2-inch color TFT multi-information display, dual-zone auto HVAC, an eight-inch infotainment display in place of the 12.3-inch system noted earlier, a rearview camera featuring active guidelines and Lexus’ older joystick style Remote Touch Interface (RTI) with new “Enter” buttons for easier prompts, 12-speaker audio with satellite radio, HD radio and Bluetooth streaming audio, an updated dash-mounted analog clock with LED indicators and automatic time zone adjustment via GPS that comes housed in a single ingot of aluminum, real open-pore walnut hardwood trim, 10-way powered front seats with driver’s side memory, NuLuxe pleather upholstery (although front heatable and air conditioned perforated leather gets added to the GS 350), a powered glass sunroof, a cargo area mat and cargo net, tire pressure monitoring, a first aid kit, plus 10 standard airbags including dual front knee blockers and rear side-thorax airbags. Go ahead and compare this standard list against what you get with any of the Germans and you’ll see that the GS offers loads more for less money. Again, this is all left-brain thinking.
GS 200t customers can upgrade to include many of the features that come standard with the GS 350, such as its machine-finish 18-inch alloys, rain-sensing wipers, the larger infotainment screen with navigation, heatable and ventilated front seats, leather, etcetera, while GS 350 buyers can opt for a Luxury package that contains 19-inch alloys, adaptive headlights, LED fogs, an adaptive variable suspension with Sport S+ mode, laser cut wood trim, a wood and leather trimmed steering wheel, softer semi-aniline leather upholstery, 18-way powered front seats with passenger-side memory, rear climate and audio controls, and manual rear side sunshades.
Additionally my F Sport trimmed tester adds its sharper styling details and the performance equipment already mentioned plus variable gear ratio steering and upgraded front brakes with high-friction pads for rear-drive models, special 19-inch alloys, an adaptive variable suspension, F Sport doorsill plates, an F Sport shift knob, aluminum dash accents, aluminum sport pedals with rubber inserts, a three-spoke F Sport steering wheel, and unique F Sport leather upholstery overtop an upgraded 16-way powered driver seat including lumbar support. My tester also came with an 835-watt 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio upgrade, premium LED headlamps with auto high beams, a head-up display unit, dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system, and lane departure alert with steering assist.
As you can imagine I never felt like there was anything lacking, although not everything worked as well as with others in the segment and some items were much better. For instance, as mentioned the infotainment system’s RTI was the older design that I personally don’t like as much as the new touchpad, but it worked well enough when using the new enter buttons (trying to push down on top of the wiggly toggle to make entries is an exercise in futility), while the wide-screen display it connects to is one of the largest I’ve seen next to a Tesla Model S, but I like the Lexus’ horizontal layout much more and its resolution is incredibly clear. Under a nice set of audio controls and CD slot for the Mark Levinson audio system, that sounds fabulous incidentally, is a nicely organized dual-zone auto HVAC interface with three rows of buttons and dual displays next to driver and passenger temperature toggles, all just as effortless to use as it’s easy on the eyes.
In describing the center stack I probably got ahead of myself as the customizable primary instruments are superbly done too. Lexus incorporates metal-look circular dials for a traditional design, although within those dials it’s a pure TFT digital delight with some of the sharpest and richest looking graphics in the industry. The large center dial is a tachometer that makes subtle graphic changes when moving between Normal, Eco, Sport and Sport + modes, while the smaller right dial incorporates temp and fuel gauges. To the left is a large multi-info display with too many functions to list, all controllable via the steering wheel switchgear.
That steering wheel is a beautiful bit of performance oriented kit, it’s rim wrapped in both solid and perforated leather that’s stitched together with light gray thread, its nicely indented thumb spats feeling good and finger flickable paddles even more engaging. The only more appreciated human-machine interface is the upgraded GS’ F Sport driver’s seat. The 16-way office chair mentioned earlier delivers excellent support and superb comfort, but on the negative the heatable front seats only get warm, not hot, and the heatable steering wheel trains you to put your hands at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions because it doesn’t heat anywhere else.
These are forgivable sins from a car that should be more popular than it is, but I believe the much improved styling changes should get the 2016 GS attention it richly deserves, at which point its top-tier convenience, luxury and tech features, along with its superb interior, over the top refinement, excellent ride, more than adequate performance and great value for money spent will allow it to achieve a strong third place on the sales charts, equivalent to where the brand sits in the overall luxury pecking order. Until then you can enjoy a bit more exclusivity and Lexus’ legendary reliability, while I’m pretty sure you can also work out a better deal than its already attractive list price.
Beware, however, as this is a winning combination that could cause an internal brain battle. Whether ego, i.e. emotional intelligence or lack thereof and the right side of your head win over, your smarter left lobe will be a personal experiment in luxury purchasing patterns. Good luck with that, as the money you could be saving by purchasing a GS 350 AWD F Sport rather than one of its German competitors could be padding your portfolio with some undervalued gold stocks or numerous other temporarily devalued investments. It’s one thing to make money and an entirely different thing to keep it, after all.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press