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2013 Lexus GS350/GS450h 
Lexus wants sportier image

Price: $47,250-$59,450

LAS VEGAS—Lexus is out to change its image with sportier models such as the new GS350 gas-engine sedan, which goes on sale in February as a 2013 model, and the new GS450h gas-electric hybrid sedan that follows shortly.

The two models represent, as Lexus puts it, a “new signature design philosophy.” Lexus is well known for its posh, comfortable, upscale cars, but they aren’t much fun. There’s a trend toward sportier luxury autos that provide more driving kicks.

Hence, Lexus says it’s developed the GS to compete with such autos as the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz  E350. Lexus hopes to annually sell 20,000 to 25,000 of the new GS models.

Previous GS models haven’t done well in sales or in comparison tests with German rivals. 

A test of the new GS models at a media preview in early December both at and near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway showed these cars are still very much a Lexus. But, yes, a sportier one, although the new GS is no BMW.

While fast, the previous GS models looked bland. The new GS features bolder styling. It has the same 112.2-inch wheelbase and overall (190.7-inch) length  as the 2011 model, but is is slightly taller and has a wider track for a more tied-down look.

Importantly, the new car is more fun to drive—without losing a definite luxury edge.

Lexus seems especially proud of the GS350’s FSport option. It has 19-inch wheels, retuned suspension with firmer springs, adaptive variable damping system, thicker anti-roll bars, variable gear ratio steering system (rear-drive models) and larger front brakes. Cosmetic changes include a sport front bumper and rear lower valence, special mesh grille inserts and a rear spoiler. Inside is a sport interior with aluminum trim and unique perforated leather trim.

I found that this package gave the GS350 sharper reflexes on a “handling course” set up at the Las Vegas speedway. But all versions of the GS were more fun to drive than previous models  The GS even offers an advanced four-wheel steering system for surer handling.

Brakes are strong, with good pedal feel. I encountered no rough roads when driving the car at the media preview, but one assumes the ride is smooth because, after all, this is a Lexus.

The GS350 is powered by a  high-revving 3.5-liter, 306-horsepower V-6 that whisks the car from 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, with estimated fuel economy of 19 mpg in the city and 28 on highways.

The GS450h has a 3.5-liter V-6 and electric motor that has a total system output of  338 horsepower, with a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds. Its estimated fuel economy is an impressive 29 city and 34 highway.  It can run in gas-only or electric-only modes, besides a combination of both.

Acceleration figures are pretty good, although the GS450 weighs 3,795 pounds with rear-drive and 3,980 pounds with all-wheel drive. The GS450h is no lightweight, either, weighing 4,190 pounds. Lexus concentrated on weight reduction—an enemy of performance and economy—but additional technology has made the car a bit heavier.

Both GS versions call for premium gasoline. 

The GS350 can be had with rear- or all-wheel drive, while the hybrid comes only with rear-drive.

The GS350 has been criticized for having no V-8, which rivals offer, and a six-speed automatic transmission when competitors have seven- or eight-speed automatics. (The GS450h has a continuously variable automatic (CVT) transmission.)

Lexus says there will be little demand for a V-8 in GS350 models and that the V-6 provides strong performance.  Moreover, it says most GS buyers would rather opt for all-wheel drive or a hybrid version of a GS than a V-8.

Interestingly, Lexus equips the GS with a system that provides a hearty V-8-style sound in the cockpit during hard acceleration.

As for the transmission, Lexus says it has an “excellent” eight-speed automatic, but that its engineers found the six-speed worked best in the GS350. It shifts smoothly and efficiently and can be manually controlled with paddles..
Lexus declined to give prices at the preview for these two new models, but figure on approximately $47,000-$58,000. Lexus general manager Mark Templin says the cars will “be a great value.”

All models have plenty of comfort, convenience, luxury and safety equipment and are more rigidly built.

The new GS has added rear room, although as with most rear- or all-wheel-drive cars, the center of the rear seat is too stiff for comfort. Small rear-door storage pockets are nearly useless.

Large outside door handles help make it easy to enter the GS and settle into its large, supportive seats. A big front console, however, consumes a lot of space. Gauges can be quickly read, and there are several large storage areas up front. There’s a nifty dashboard analog clock and a mixture of small and large secondary controls. Some controls initially seem too small. but I soon  became familiar with them.

With an optional navigation system, GS occupants get an industry-first 12.3-inch, split-screen, high-resolution multi-media display. It’s large enough to support simultaneous split-screen viewing of a large map display, besides audio, climate and other vehicle information.

The huge trunk has a low, wide opening, but its lid has hinges, instead of hydraulic struts.  A hefty interior handle makes it easy to close the lid without putting hands on outside metal.

The hood raises smoothly on dual struts to reveal an engine with an enormous plastic cover, although fluid-filler areas are easy to reach. Lexus says few GS owners raise the hood, “leaving maintenance to professionals.”

Lexus plans a whiz-bang national promotion for the new GS. But convincing many prospective buyers to opt for the car instead of, say, a Mercedes, will involve having them visit showrooms to drive one. Favorable word-of-mouth promotion also will help.