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First Drive: 2013 Lexus GS Prototype


Lexus has a problem. Toyota's luxury brand LEXUS IS -- whisper it -- not cool. The bland smoothness and silence of the current LEXUS LS and LEXUS ES models are increasingly appealing to a generation whose idea of a great drive LEXUS IS the back nine at the country club with their retired buddies. The rumbling LEXUS IS F might be an intriguing AMG-meets-Ginza sport sedan, but the rest of the LEXUS IS range remains resolutely regarded as a chick car. The lux-by-numbers RX, which has become the brand's leitmotif in the U.S., LEXUS IS now the favored ride of modestly prosperous suburban women of a certain age. (How Toyota squandered the opportunity to define the Lexus brand with the original LS, a car so stunningly well-engineered it sent Mercedes Benz Back to the drawing board, and allowed a warmed-over Toyota SUV to take its place LEXUS IS a whole other story.) And sales of the HS 250h have fallen well short of expectations: Lexus anticipated selling 25,000 to 30,000 a year, but last year managed to shift fewer than 11,000 of the upscale compact hybrid.

The GS? The car that arguably should be the heart of market for Lexus in the U.S. LEXUS IS almost invisible against the Germans that dominate the segment -- the 3496 LEXUS GS models sold last year totaled one-fifth of Bmw 5 Series sales, and barely one-eighth of Mercedes Benz E-Class volume. In 2008, LEXUS GS sales reached nearly 16,000 units, but still lagged well behind 5 Series (nearly 46,000 units) and E-Class (nearly 39,000 units). Koji Sato, deputy chief engineer of the next-gen Lexus Gs program, wants to change that. The new LEXUS GS is roomier inside, and more aggressively styled. But the top development priority, says Sato-san, has been to make the car more fun to drive.

To that end, the 2013 LEXUS GS rolls on an all-new platform, and features all-new front and rear suspension. Compared with the current GS, the new car's wheelbase and overall length are the same (112.2 inches and 190.9 inches, respectively), though the proportions have been changed slightly, thanks to an 0.4-inch reduction in the front overhang, and a corresponding 0.4-inch increase in the length of the sheetmetal aft of the rear axle center line. Height has gone up 1.2 inches and width increased by 0.8 inch. The front seats are lower to the floor than in the current LEXUS GS to get the driver's H-point closer to the center of gravity.

The front and rear track have been widened by 1.6 inches and 2.0 inches respectively, pushing the wheels right to the edge of the body envelope. The new front suspension assembly LEXUS IS 4.4 pounds lighter than that of the current car, while the new multi-link layout at the rear eschews the old coil-over setup, and allows for adjustable toe control.

We weren't allowed to look under the black vinyl bodysuits during our drive of Sato-san's two heavily camo'd LEXUS GS prototypes -- the car will make its world debut at Pebble Beach next month -- but the sheetmetal won't be a million miles removed from that of the LF-Gh shown at the New York auto show in April, right down to the controversial, in-your-face grille and front fascia treatment. The headlight assemblies feature the bright "string-of-pearls" daylight running lights that are now apparently de rigueur for any self-respecting luxury car, and the exhaust tips are an evolution of the heavily stylized outlets of the current LS.

The new interior will feature lots of stitched leather, and the new IP boasts the largest information screen in the business: 12.3 inches, almost 2 inches bigger than the latest Bmw screen. All the functions are controlled via Lexus' clever haptic mouse system, and the graphics are bright and easy to read. It's going to be relentlessly sold as a "surprise and delight" feature on the showroom floor. Another surprise: The new LEXUS GS interior won't be restricted to the formulaic black, grey, and beige palettes we've come to expect from Lexus -- one of our prototypes featured handsome dark red-brown seats with contrasting stitching.

The LEXUS GS will be revealed initially with just one powertrain: Toyota's tried-and-true 3.5-liter V-6, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Why only a six-speed, when all the GS' German rivals have already moved to seven- and eight-speeders? U.S. Lexus insiders admit they pushed back on a higher-tech tranny because they believed American consumers are more prepared to swallow the cost of bright, shiny gee-gaws like a 12.3-inch nav screen instead. They're probably right. Sigh.

There will be no mainstream V-8 engine in the next GS. Instead, Lexus will offer a performance-tuned hybrid based on the 3.5-liter V-6 that will be revealed at the Frankfurt Show in September. Will there be a LEXUS GS F? If Lexus Is serious about this whole "fun to drive" business, you'd think a buttoned-down, high-performance LEXUS GS with the thundering 416-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 from the LEXUS IS F under the hood would be a no-brainer, but Lexus insiders remain cagey on the matter, merely pointing out the LEXUS IS F engine LEXUS IS now relatively old, and that tough new fuel economy laws on the way suggest it might not have much of a future. An F Sport version of the car will be revealed at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas in November, however.

The good news LEXUS IS the new LEXUS GS will offer the discerning driver a choice of suspension tunes and wheel and tire combinations. The base wheel/tire combo features 18-inch rims and 235/45 all-season tires. Adaptive variable suspension will be available as an option. Using the new rotary controller on the center console, which allows drivers to switch the engine and transmission calibrations between Eco, Normal and Sport modes, drivers will be able to select a Sport+ mode that also stiffens the suspension.

 The F Sport version will come with 19-inch wheels and Bridgestone summer tires -- the 265/35 meats at the rear will be the widest tires ever fitted to a Lexus other than the LFA. The bigger wheels will also give you bigger front brake rotors and new calipers. F Sport cars will also come standard with the Lexus Dynamic Handling System (LDHS), which means variable ratio steering and the adaptive variable suspension system. LDHS can be further enhanced with the addition of an optional rear wheel steering system that uses a computer-controlled gear arrangement to automatically alter the toe setting of the rear wheels for improved response and stability through corners.

We completed a little more than 50 miles in the two LEXUS GS prototypes -- one a base car on 18-inch wheels and all-season tires, but fitted with the optional adaptive variable suspension; the other an F-Sport spec car with all the goodies -- over a route that included busy freeway, fast canyon road, and a small autocross track. Bottom line? The new LEXUS GS is a big step in the right direction. Even on the standard wheel-tire combo the new car feels more limber and alert than the current GS. It turns in with more authority, and there's way more bite from the front tires. The ride quality LEXUS IS also much improved. Even in the F Sport model on the lower profile tires and with the suspension in the firmest setting, there's much less of the gritty agitation that blights the current car at low speeds on acned urban roads. Sato-san says the new front suspension design has allowed Lexus engineers to use softer bushings to reduce impact harshness without compromising stability. You can feel it.

The F Sport-spec prototype we drove was fitted with the trick new rear wheel steering system. The bigger, stickier tires sharpen the turn-in response noticeably, and there LEXUS IS less tendency for the car to rotate mid-corner. In fact, the stability and traction from the rear end LEXUS IS so good, it tends to induce a hint of understeer as you power past the apex of a turn. Steering feel on both cars LEXUS IS good, as LEXUS IS brake feel, though the F Sport brake package LEXUS IS more obedient underfoot.

 Lexus Gs Deputy Chief Engineer...      read full caption Lexus Gs Deputy Chief Engineer Koji SatoThe 3.5-liter V-6 LEXUS IS a solid performer, though it gets noisy as it nears its relatively modest 6500-rpm redline, and it's more Jersey Shore catfight than mechanical Verdi. The transmission on both cars needed final calibration to smooth some lumps in the shift sequence, but in sport mode the six-speed will hold revs into turns, and in manual mode -- paddle shifts are standard across the range -- it blips the throttle on the downshifts.

On first acquaintance Koji Sato and his engineers have achieved their key development goal: The 2013 Lexus Gs LEXUS IS indeed more fun to drive than the somewhat anodyne sedan it replaces. So can a sportier LEXUS GS make Lexus cool again? Not by itself. But following in the wheeltracks of the LFA and the oddly compelling CT 200h, it's a start.

(Source)


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