First drive: 2012 Lexus GS 250, GS 350 and GS 450h at Yas Marina Abu Dhabi
Let’s face it, we didn’t have high expectations for the 2012 Lexus GS. We never drove the old model, which was never taken seriously anyway, and we didn’t like the way the new model looked in pictures, like a photoshopped Honda Accord. But then we started hearing good things about it in the foreign press, like how it was somehow better than the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. That was enough to pique our interest, and we started to look forward to the GCC launch event at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
The car looks nice enough in person, though markedly conservative, just like its dull-looking German rivals. What sets it apart are the details, such as the aggressive new “spindle” corporate grille and the tasteful use of LED lights. But if you really want to stand out, spring for the F-Sport package, because that body kit is just wicked.
Lexus says the car is taller than before, which is obvious, but they had to do it to increase cabin space. That gives is a side-profile just like the LS 460, only shorter in length.
The interior is very tastefully done, with just enough curvy bits to keep things interesting. That 12.3-inch screen on the dash is massive, controlled by a new version of the mouse-joystick that we’ve seen before in the RX 350. There’s soft-touch and leather padding almost all over the cabin, so we can honestly say the interior matches the car’s high price tag.
There are three flavours of the Lexus GS. The first two to come to market will be the GS 250 with a 206 hp 2.5-litre V6 and the GS 350 with a 312 hp 3.5-litre V6, both with a 6-speed automatic and rear-wheel-drive. The top version that will hit GCC roads a few months later is the GS 450h, with a 288 hp 3.5-litre V6 mated to a 197 hp electric motor, making a combined 340 hp and transmitting power to the rear wheels via a CVT automatic.
We got to do a couple of laps each around part of the Yas Marina Circuit in the GS 250, the GS 350 F-Sport, and the GS 450h F-Sport.
The GS 250 sounds good at full throttle. It didn’t feel particularly fast, but is no slouch either. It takes turns rather well, with great body control and the body-roll never making itself felt. There were some tight 70 kph slaloms as well as obstacle-avoidance cones set up on the track too, and the car handled those with a little wag of the tail. The brakes are good, while the steering offers some feedback, although it’s still a bit on the light side. The “sport” mode makes the automatic hold on to gears longer and downshifts more readily. Incidentally, none of the cars have a parking brake control, as it electronically engages and disengages by itself when in “P” mode.
When we switched to the GS 350, the difference wasn’t readily apparent, as it’s hard to judge speed on the track. But it was doing beyond 160 kph on a certain straight where the GS 250 could not cross 150 kph. The GS 350 also seemed to take the swerving around the cones in a more composed way, not wagging the tail as much as its lesser sibling. At this point, we remembered that the GS 350 comes with adaptive suspension as well as four-wheel-steering, a system that turns the rear wheels in the same direction as the front ones by two degrees to keep the car more stable. It really works. But we did wish the seats had better thigh bolstering as we moved around a fair bit in aggressive turns.
Hopping into the GS 450h, the car took off silently in full electric mode. In fact, the engine doesn’t even bother turning on when sitting idle or cruising below 40 kph in the pit lane. Gun the throttle though, and the engine comes back to life seemlessly to help it hustle around the track. The hybrid is a fair bit faster than the others, hitting 175 kph in that same straight on the track as indicated by the heads-up display. But it understeered a little more readily, as it was easier to make the front tyres squeal on sharper curves. It’s weighed down by a boatload of batteries behind the rear seats, and it becomes apparent when pushed. Of course, the CVT automatic doesn’t help its sporting credentials. But as a high-speed luxury cruiser that probably drinks relatively little fuel, it turns well enough so that most actual owners will never reach its cornering limits, especially with that four-wheel-steering thing doing its duty.
The new Lexus GS is a very compelling product that can now ride with the big boys of the segment. The pick of the range is the GS 350, although it does lack the low-end urgency of the turbocharged BMW 535i, but none of its other competitors are turbocharged either. Without instrumented testing and lap times, it is hard to say if the GS is better or worse than the Germans. And it remains to be seen how it performs on the street But it’s safe to say that it drives pretty damn good.