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First look: Lexus stands up to be counted with new GS

Rear-steer: New Lexus GS features a host of new technologies, including rear-wheel steering.

No more Mr Bland Guy as Lexus wheels out tougher new high-tech GS large sedan

19 Aug 2011


LEXUS has promised to finally stand out from the crowd and inject a large dollop of fun factor into its mainstream cars, starting with the launch of the all-new Lexus GS large sedan that is scheduled to arrive in Australia in the first half of next year.

Sick of its reputation as a builder of refined and respectable but somewhat bland luxury cars, Lexus says the time is right to kick a bit of sand in the faces of its mainly German rivals by stepping up its vehicle dynamics and performance to class-leading levels.

The GS not only debuts the new Lexus look, with its distinctive open grille that was likened to Darth Vader's mask when it was first shown on the LF-Gh concept car at the New York motor show in April, but also an all-new body with a heavily revised chassis loaded with high-tech controls that the company says can virtually eliminate understeer and outperform the best from Germany.

Rear-wheel steering – a favourite of Honda and Mazda in the 1990s – even makes a comeback, this time with complex electronics that link all the modern dynamics controls such as electronic stability and traction control to finally deliver on the technology's promise.

Lexus rolled out the first of the new fourth-generation GS sedan variants, the petrol V6-powered GS350, in front of no fewer than 1300 journalists at the Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance in California overnight.

To be joined later by a new hybrid GS450h and sportier F-Sport variants, the ES350 gets the most powerful V6 in the mid-sized luxury class – the 233kW 3.5-litre V6 that debuted in the smaller Lexus IS350.

This engine, featuring both direct and port sequential fuel-injection, develops 50kW more power than the smaller 3.0-litre 183kW engine of the current generation that made its Australian debut in 2005.

31 center imageThe more powerful V6 will be mated exclusively to a revised version of the Lexus six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, with engineers rejecting seven- and eight-speed drivetrains as they were deemed unsuitable for the driving character they wanted.

The slow-selling and – according to Lexus executives – increasingly irrelevant 4.3-litre V8 version has been dumped, with the yet-to-be revealed hybrid version ready to step up to the plate as the performance leader, presumably with a large dose of extra performance.

That model will make its appearance at the Frankfurt motor show in September, with the F-Sport enhancement packages going public at the SEMA accessories show in Las Vegas in November.

Lexus' finely-tuned media reveal of its new baby hit a speed bump when spy photos of the car turned up in China, prompting some critics to suggest the GS designers had wimped out on the dramatic design of the concept when they translated it to the production car.

However, in the flesh, with all its elements exposed, the new second-generation ‘L Finesse’ styling, as Lexus calls its design language, remains bold and distinctive by Lexus standards.

The so-called 'spindle grille', with its gaping openings and L-shaped tail-light treatments will be translated across the range over time, finally giving Lexus its own stand-out-from-the-crowd appearance.

The distinctive styling was one of three main goals for the GS development team, with others including a more engaging driving experience and better vehicle packaging.

Lexus Australia is yet to confirm specifications, pricing and release timing on its GS range, but it has acknowledge that Australia will get the GS350 and GS450h – and F Sport versions of both models – in rear-wheel drive format (the all-wheel drive variants are only for cold countries with icy roads).

Lexus Australia marketing director Peter Evans said the company was still to lock in its range and specifications, but he confirmed the offerings would be much broader than the current four-model line-up that starts at $97,814.

He also said there would be no four-cylinder variants – including diesel – to take the fight up to the more affordable German cars such as the Mercedes-Benz E220 and BMW 520d.

It is unclear what models will get some or all of the new technologies such as dynamic rear steering, variable gear-ratio steering, adaptive suspension and Lexus dynamic control – a ride and handling control system with four dial-up settings, ranging from Eco to Sport S+, depending on driver mood.

Turning the knob to Sport activates powertrain sportiness courtesy of different throttle mapping and steering assistance. Going all the way to Sport+ engages more chassis enhancements, adjusting the rear-wheel steering, adaptive damping and transmission to suit sportier driving.

In the modern fashion, the new steering system is electric power-assisted, with varying assistance depending on dynamic chassis setting and other factors such as speed.

The electric-operated rear-wheel steering system alternates between turning in the opposite direction to the front wheels at speeds under 80km – albeit by small degrees – to the same direction over that speed to assist high-speed stability and handling.

The all new body is 20mm wider (1840mm) than that of the previous GS, while the track has also been widened by 40mm and 50mm at the front and rear respectively.

The bodyshell's torsional stiffness had been improved by 14 per cent – another factor in the claimed overall dynamic improvement in the car.

Somewhat ironically, considering Lexus' famed reputation for suppression of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), the only major area of performance not improved in the new car is quietness.

Lexus says the current car already had plenty and its engineers even went out of their way to make some elements a little more raucous – particularly the engine note – in their attempts to give the vehicle more personality.

Wheel sizes will be either 18-inch with 235/45 rubber all around or, for Lexus Dynamic Handling-packaged cars, 235/40 R up front and 265/35 R at the back.

Bigger sports brakes with aluminium callipers will also be offered on the sportier models.

The front and rear suspension systems – double wishbone at the front and multi-link at the rear – have both been redesigned, not only to improve vehicle dynamics but also, in the case of the rear set-up, packaging.

‘Mini bloc’ springs – separated from the damper struts – contribute to a major increase in boot space, taking it from being capable of holding two golf bags to a capacious area big enough to swallow four such bags.

The designers also worked on interior cabin spaciousness, generating 30mm of extra front headroom and 25mm more rear headroom. Rear passengers also get 10mm more knee room, courtesy of thinner front seats, as well as extra hip room, making the rear seat a more pleasant place for three passengers.

The dash design even contributes to this feeling of specious, with the centre console less integrated into the dash to free up more space.

The dash gets a monstrous 12.3-inch horizontal LCD screen that can be split so the driver can display separate functions, such as sat-nav and audio functions, at the same time.

A head-up display is also standard, with added features over the previous generation, and the Lexus command centre has also be simplified with an RX-style mouse-like joystick controller.

The front seats of the GS have electric-powered adjustment in no fewer than 18 ways, even including a butterfly-style head restraint and pelvic support. Seat heating and cooling will be available on some models.

An analogue clock with modern LED points is front and centre on the dash, which also gets a more upmarket double-stitched surface, replacing the plastic look.

For Australia, the GS will come with the choice of four interior leather colour schemes – tan, grey, garnet (a dark red) and black.

A 17-speaker high-quality audio system will be standard, as will a DVD player.

Lexus Australia chief executive Tony Cramb said the new GS marked the start of a revitalised Lexus range, introducing a new look and spirit to the brand.

“The launch of GS is something that is really exciting for us, obviously,” he said. “That will give us the chance to revitalise Lexus. We are calling it the bold new face of Lexus.”

Mr Cramb dismissed early criticism that Lexus designers had wimped it by scaling back the dramatic front grille of the LF-Gh concept car – first shown at the New York motor show in April before being aired at the Australian International Motor Show in July – by the time it was translated into the production versions in the GS.

He said the show car had been designed to take the new look to the extreme, which was not appropriate for the production version aimed at a relatively conservative market.

The new GS will target the same demographic as the current model – wealthy executives and business owners with an average age of 54 and an income of $400,000-plus – but, as Lexus Australia's Peter Evans puts it, “more of them”.

The addition of F Sport enhancement for the new GS will take to three the number of Lexus models to wear the F treatment, which is currently only available in the IS and CT200h ranges.

However, F Sport models already account for 25 per cent of all Lexus sales in Australia.

Mr Cramb says Lexus Australia is expecting a big improvement in sales over the current model, which he described as disappointing.

The GS has been one of Lexus Australia's under-performers, declining year on year for several years, from 508 units in 2007 to 189 in 2010.

This year, the run-out model has managed just 46 sales compared with the segment-leading Mercedes-Benz E-class (935 units to July) and BMW 5 Series (807 units), although the impact of the Japanese earthquake on Lexus production must be considered.

The GS has slipped from fifth place in its segment last year to seventh this year, and with the new model not due until 2012, it will continue to struggle for some time yet.

Australia’s first GS arrived here in its second generation in 1997, with the local market having missed out the first generation, called the Aristo in Japan.

The current third-generation GS landed in Australian showrooms in February 2005, debuting with a 4.3-litre V8 and direct-injection in the 3.0-litre V6 – the first time this technology had been applied in a large luxury car.

The GS450h arrived in May 2006, when it became the first large hybrid luxury car on the Australian market, with a claimed fuel consumption of just 6.8L/100km.

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