“Nicest car I’ve reviewed so far.” Those were my exact words on Twitter. And boy, did I get to hear it from people.
The Lexus GS350 AWD is Lexus’ second from the top sedan. The mighty LS sits above it, the venerable ES and IS below. It’s always seemed that it was tough to sell, because people would rather save a few bucks and stick with the ES, sport it up and go with the IS, or drop a few more dollars and head down LS Lane.
I’m here to tell you that the GS is a heck of a car, worthy of consideration. A GS starts at CDN $51,900. Tack on all-wheel drive and one option package (the Luxury Package in this case), and you’re going to have to shovel over CDN $62,835 for the privilege of driving this one off the lot.
The restyled GS is a substantial change, with a design that flows more smoothly. Up front, you’ll find Lexus’ new corporate face, the love-it-or-hate-it pinched grille. Personally, I don’t mind it at all, and everyone who had a look at this car said they liked it.
Aggressive headlight clusters are augmented with a nice set of LED driving lights that look mean as it’s coming toward you. Unfortunately, there are a couple of goofy touches – one of them would be the faux air-intakes next to the foglights. The long, sculpted hood and the nicely-styled lines around the windows (which are amplified by the use of chrome) add to the flowing shape.
The rear tail light assemblies are new too, and look good – they integrate well into the line of the false trunk lid. The GS now has the integrated exhaust finishers – they look handsome, but not everyone likes them – they’re pretty showy and surrounded with chrome.
I liked the wheels – they’re nice, but I prefer the hotter F-Sport wheels for their additional aggressive look.
Under the Hood
Lexus model numbers still reflect what’s going on under the hood, unlike Mercedes and BMW’s latest models. 350 means 3.5-Liter V-6. This one is tuned to drop 306 HP at 6400 RPM and 277 lb.ft of torque at 4800 RPM. All that creamy power makes its way through a 6-speed automatic transmission and to the road via an all-wheel drive system and lugs 3795 pounds around.
Fuel economy is decent for a vehicle of this size. It’s rated 11.1 L/100 km (21.2 mpg) in the city, 7.6 L/100 km (31 mpg) on the highway and 9.5 L/100 km (24.8 mpg) for the combined cycle. I averaged 12.1 L/100 km (19.4 mpg) during my time with it – I never made any attempt to drive economically, it was all city driving with a few short sprints down the highway and some quite aggressive fun in there too. So not bad. I think if Lexus caught up with the competition in terms of number of gears in the transmission, the GS would be seeing some better fuel economy numbers. A 6-speed seems a little behind the times nowadays. The tank holds 66 Liters, which seemed a touch small for this car.
I’m not sure what term to use to best describe the interior. Sumptuous? Slathered in nice? I don’t know. It’s beautiful. Materials are first-rate throughout. Essentially every surface has a soft, tactile, textured feel to it. There is stitching everywhere. The woodgrain is lovely. The leather is made out of real cows and simply glows.
The seats are ridiculously good. Suiting this car’s character, they are nothing if not comfortable. They are heated and air-conditioned. They are 18-way adjustable. It sounds silly, but man, I got the seat in this car EXACTLY how I wanted it. After moving everything (including several layers of lumbar support, your seat cushion length and even the headrest!) with power buttons, you can save the settings. On both sides. That’s right – 3 memory settings for driver AND passenger. What I really appreciated was the fact that plenty of lateral support is available too. Available, you ask? Yep. The side bolstering is ADJUSTABLE! You can sit in complete luxurious comfort. Or you can suck those bolsters in tight enough to pop one of your kidneys out of another orifice. And it works – these seats act like sport seats if you want them to.
I was a bit surprised that there wasn’t more headroom – it’s plenty fine for me, but still. The power-adjustable and heated steering wheel is a work of art and has a great rim thickness and diameter, and is comprised of wood and leather. It’s a good size, and it has controls for media, phone, handsfree and driver information screen. Behind it sits a simple instrument bin with two clear, easy to read gauges, and a wonderfully sharp driver information screen in between.
I really liked the sculpting and design of the dash – there are interesting stitched panels, and swooping lines. Inset into a deep bin in the top part is an absolutely enormous 12.3″ screen – the biggest in the industry. Underneath sits a classy analog clock surrounded by nice woods. Below that is a very limited space dedicated to the media system (a couple of knobs, a couple of buttons and a CD slot) and finally an automatic tri-zone climate control system.
The center console is clad with a sea of woodgrain. At the front is a large pivoting lid that covers two cupholders. Behind that is the gear selector, and behind that is the drive-mode selector. At the back of the console sits a nice, wide armrest.
Lighting throughout the cabin is soft, white LED lighting, and is very luxurious and effective.
Of course, every thing is powered here – windows, door locks, mirrors, the tilt/slide sunroof and the rear window sunshade. The trunk lid opens and closes on its own (there’s a release button on the dash, and on the key fob). There’s keyless entry, of course, and a push-start ignition. The nice bright HID headlights are automatic.
The screen, though not a touch-screen, is a pretty cool piece of tech. It’s controlled by the joystick thingie that Lexus is using now. I’m not a huge fan of it, but it does get easier to use and it does start to seem more intuitive after a couple of days. In this revised state, it has a haptic feedback system and kind of “snaps” to whichever onscreen buttons are available, pending on what you’re doing. It’s OK, but I felt the mouse/joystick pad felt flimsy and just not “Lexus”. Most of it seems out of place in this car. I just don’t think it’s the greatest way to interact with a vehicle, but then again, I still haven’t seen the right answer to that question to date – in ANY car.
The massive screen services the navigation system which works well, as well as phone, media and climate control functions. It can split into a main screen, and a subscreen off to the side, which works nicely. The voice recognition also works very well.
The media system is spectacular. It effortlessly reproduces highs, mids and full bass, from AM, FM, satellite,CD, auxiliary, USB and Bluetooth streaming sources. The one issue with having stunning bass capability is that, even though it wasn’t boomy or irritating, the solid bass notes made the rear-view mirror vibrate like a trembling flower.
I enjoyed the spring-loaded rotary drive-mode selector, and thought I’d drop it in here because it’s some cool tech. But I’ll flesh it out in The Drive. In Normal mode, there’s a blue “sky” over your two main gauges – the blue sky is there while you’re driving economically. Step on the gas, and it fades away – drive like a sensible human, and your blue sky is restored. Switch it to Sport or Sport+, and the horizon switches to red, because you’re Boy Racer now, don’t you know? The parking brake is electronic, and can be set to “auto” to do its own thing when you park the car.
The driver information screen offers you a wealth of information, allowing you to toggle between instant and average fuel economy, fuel range, tire pressure readings, outside temperature, ECO driving gauge, average speed, two trip meters and your odometer.
There’s a little button to activate headlight washers – nice! A three-setting HomeLink garage door opener is located on the bottom edge of the rear-view mirror. You get a tire-pressure monitoring system, which is cool.
There are three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests. The two outboard seats are simply amazing – they’re nice deep buckets and also offer a decent amount of bolstering! They’re upholstered in the same lovely perforated saddle leather, they’re heated and very comfortable. As in most cars, the middle seat is hard, narrow, raised and perched over a massive drive shaft tunnel coming up out of the floor. Let’s call it comfortable for 2 adults, or 3 kids.
Headroom is pretty good, and legroom is also good. It’s not as big as you might expect, but it’s certainly sufficient.
Once you’re sitting back there, you might be surprised that there isn’t much in terms of convenience or luxury. Just a couple of air vents and a 12V plug at the back of the center console. Ah, but don’t fret, my guitar, for luxury is only a quick movement away.
Flip the middle seat back down, and you’re presented with a fantastic armrest (with a storage bin underneath), and two cupholders that slide out of the front. But most importantly, because it’s so awesome, is the control panel at the front of this armrest. It has a display screen, and a control panel for heating your rear seats, raising and lowering the rear sunshade, the media system and a separate climate control zone.
There are manual pull-up sunshades over the rear windows. And here’s a nice touch – because of the rear side window styling, you’re left with a small scalloped window behind the main square one. Lexus saw fit to add a small rounded sunshade that pulls out toward the back for that window too. EVERYone who looked at it, loved that detail.
Small door bins and 2 seatback map pockets add some storage space. There are 2 LATCH anchors for kids’ seats. I found the car was slung a little low, and the opening made putting my little guy into his seat a tad snug, but it wasn’t bad. I’ve just seen bigger, more accessible rear door openings, that’s all.
The glove compartment is large, has two levels and is lined with beautiful fabric – and opens and closes with perfect heft. There’s a small change bin (again lined with the same material) on the left underside of the dash. The door bins are decent, but not great.
The armrest lid slides back and flips open to reveal a mid-sized carpeted bin and an organizer tray – inside are auxiliary, USB and 12V plugs.
The trunk, while not huge, is a decent size and is easily accessible. I couldn’t find the actual cargo capacity anywhere in the documentation. The rear seats do not fold down but there is a ski pass-through port, which is lockable inside the car. The literature DOES indicate the trunk is 23% larger than the previous generation’s, and it holds 4 golf bags.
This is a very comfortable car to drive. It does everything with a laid-back competency, and it delivers well on the Lexus image.
The drive-mode selector always starts you in normal mode. You can rotate it to the right once for Sport mode which will hold shift points longer (but isn’t as aggressive as you’ll find in other cars’ Sport modes) and one more time for Sport+ mode. Sport+ mode reprograms the transmission like Sport mode, but also stiffens up the suspension and tightens up the steering response. Press the knob and it returns to normal mode. Turn it to the left, and it will put the car into the lame Eco mode which retards the operation of the whole car, and there’s a separate button for Snow mode.
Normal mode suits this car the best. The ride is very, very nice and will soak up any bumps – and the handling is pretty good, gripping the road very well considering the size and weight of the vehicle you’re slinging around corners. There is a fair bit of body roll, but it doesn’t seem out of character, and it’s not horrible.
Sport mode barely makes a noticeable change. Sport+ mode, on the other hand, stiffens things up quite a bit. The car is more fun to drive, for sure, but the price is paid in a harsher ride, which, over our Grand Canyon roads in Edmonton, become tiresome. It does take to curves nicely though, but you’ll never get rid of the body roll completely, and when pushed, the car will understeer. This is fine, because it’s just not that kind of car. Nobody will ever take this thing to a track, and for pushing it a bit on the streets, the Sport+ mode ramps it up enough. I did quite like the transmission’s downshifting when driving hard, especially into and out of corners.
When you select Sport or Sport+ mode, the screen shows you an x-ray graphic of the car, and it highlights which parts of the vehicle are impacted. Gimmicky, but cool as all get out. Regardless of drive mode, I enjoyed the transmission’s ability to figure out where I was coming from, and it mostly seemed to be in the right gear. It doesn’t hesitate to hang on to a gear once in a while, but it’s typically appropriate and the mapping seems to be intelligent. There is a manual shifting mode, using either steering wheel paddles or a slap-stick mode, but it’s slow and I felt the transmission was just as effective on its own for most conditions, unless I really wanted to wring every last horsepower out of it. But again, it’s just not that kind of car.
The operation of this car is virtually silent. Road, engine, drivetrain and wind noise are exceptionally well dampened and it’s a smooth operator. The happy exception was engine noise when you step on it. The V-6 delivers a nice (and very audible) snarl into the cabin when you’re heavy on the gas.
The V-6 is satisfying here. I do feel this car would greatly benefit from an additional 30-50 horsepower, but as is, it’s a reasonably-powered car, and in most situations, it provides enough oomph to do whatever you need to do. I really like that there’s no hesitation off the line, and no lag. Around town, it’s perfect. Step on it on the freeway or highway to pass someone, and you might find yourself yearning for a few extra ponies under the hood, but it’ll still get up and go. Regardless of the situation, the power delivery is silky smooth.
I found the turning circle to be very tight for a vehicle this size. I liked the inclusion of a useful dead pedal space. Visibility out of the GS is very good, and even though the rear pillars are sizable, they don’t intrude into your shoulder-checking view too badly. And finally, the brakes, while powerful, are nice and linear and never seem grabby.
The GS is perfectly suited for highway driving – it’s quiet, rides perfectly and maintains very high levels of speed if asked to, without any complaints. It would be a great road trip ride.
I thought a vehicle that is bristling with technology like this one would include rear parking distance sensors. Sure, it’s nice to have a back-up camera, but they’re well augmented with the addition of audible distance alarms. Which this car doesn’t have. A surprising omission.
As much as we loved the powered trunk lid, we couldn’t figure out how to close it from inside the car. You have to use the button on the trunk lid to close it. Weird.
Again, this might seem like a first-world problem, but I can’t help it. When manufacturers put in the effort to make a steering wheel power-adjustable, they should make it so that it doesn’t take half an eternity to get to where you want it. This one is perfect. The electronic action is quick and precise. Details, details.
So, remember the “nicest car I’ve reviewed” line? I stand by that statement, but I’ll take this opportunity to be a little more clear. It’s not the fastest. It’s not the most fun to drive. But it’s the most competent overall. It’s certainly sitting near the pinnacle of luxury and tech. It drives very nicely, and is supremely comfortable. It accelerates adeptly and handles well, all things considered.
The reliability of this car is pretty much a given, as is the resale value.
I give the GS350 AWD an 8.5 out of 10. I’m guessing that might sneak up to a 9 if this were the GS450h.
Although Lexus tries to imbue the GS with some hints of sportiness, this is clearly a luxury sedan. It’s a beautiful car to drive, and it would be very easy to live with, and nobody in their right mind would ever take this (even in the F-Sport trim) to a track. This is a pretty awesome high-tech cruiser.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was the highest it’s ever been for the GS350 AWD. She loved the interior, she loved the seats, she loved the ride, she loved the space, and she loved the armrest. The clincher was the powered trunk lid. Anything she can hit the mall with, shop to her heart’s content, open the trunk door without setting down her precious new possessions and plop them into the trunk, gets her vote.
Well done, Lexus. This is a car that is competitive on many fronts, and I can’t imagine anyone buying it and being disappointed in any way. If you need some more power, and the GS450h with additional power and significantly improved fuel economy is sitting there, just waiting for you. Look out though – they’re not giving them away. And of course, you’ll miss out on the all-wheel drive which is a big deal here in Canada’s version of Winterfell. Winter is coming, if you need to be reminded.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Lexus.
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