First Drive: Lexus GS 450h

The original Lexus GS arrived in the UK in 1995, seen as an attractive and imposing sporting alternative to the mainstream German alternatives of the day. Since then the GS has faded away a little, with few knowing what it was really about; was it a luxury car, a sporting saloon or an eco warrior? That’s all about to change with the 2012 GS.

With a fleet of GS’s lined up at Munich airport and the prospect of the autobahn looming, we obviously headed to the GS 450h F Sport. This top of the range model, a title shared with the luxurious but less sporty Premier trim level, is priced at just five pounds less than £51,000 and that’s £3,500 more than a BMW 535d M Sport costs. The F Sport had better be good then.

Approaching the car, it’s clear that Lexus have been working hard. Gone is the slightly anonymous look of the outgoing GS and in is an aggressive, angular front end leading a slightly slab sided body and a very IS-like rear end. There are a few different styles going on at the same time, but it comes together well and is certainly imposing – that ‘spindle’ grille flanked by LED daytime running lights certainly encourages other road users to move over swiftly.

Inside the story gets even better. There’s simply nothing to complain about as far as luxury and quality go in the new GS. Sliding in to the driver’s seat, there are 16 different ways to adjust what feels like a leather armchair. However, once you find the buttons that move the side bolsters around, extend a thigh support panel or adjust the rake of each half of the backrest, you can suddenly find yourself cocooned in a figure hugging sports seat.

Other than the seat, once adjusted, there’s little clue that you’re in a sport version. The dashboard is superbly constructed, with thick leather and quality stitching. It’s divided in to two distinct zones, with a horizontal plane splitting them. That plane encompasses a clock in the centre, complete with LED lighting, engineered from a single ingot of metal.

The top zone, or display zone, includes the instrument binnacle and LCD screen. The instruments are all analogue, presented using digital technology. That means that the rev counter only appears when the car is in Sport mode, replaced with a greener focussed eco dial under normal driving. The backlighting changes too, showing red when you’re pressing on or blue when in that eco mode. Blue is obviously the new green. They’re all incredibly clear and intuitive, although by the time you’ve turned on all the options and driver aids there’s an awful lot going on.

To the right is a 12.3 inch LCD screen, the largest fitted to any production car. Even Rolls-Royce’s Phantom II can only boast an 8.8 inch screen. Lexus’ effort sees the screen split in to two sections, a large panel on the driver side showing the sat-nav, audio or other similar info that needs to be large and easy to read, while a second smaller section covers less important details and some menu options. It sounds complicated, but works extremely well.

What doesn’t work so well is the ‘mouse’ that controls the system, the equivalent of BMW’s iDrive. It’s imprecise, as if the small motors that block you moving in certain directions either can’t keep up or aren’t powerful enough. It’s a problem that can be easily resolved, and hopefully Lexus will look in to that.

Elsewhere there’s nothing to complain about at all. I can’t comment on the standard stereo system, this car having the option Mark Levinson system fitted, but in car audio is an area that Lexus excel in and I can’t imagine that’s any different this time. The Mark Levinson system, an astonishing £1,000 optional extra, sounds incredible.

The luxury continues in the rear, with plenty of space for adults to sit in comfort thanks to an extra 20mm of legroom and 25mm of headroom over the outgoing GS.

Under the bonnet there’s a 3.5 litre V6 petrol engine mated to an electric motor putting out 288 bhp and 197 bhp respectively. Combined, they produce a peak output of 341 bhp, enough to propel the 1,900 kg car to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds and on to an electronically limited 155 mph top speed. Out on the autobahn we reached 151 mph where it remained completely calm in the cabin, with the CVT gearbox keeping revs down and the noise low.

Through the city, despite the bulk of the GS, life was easy. That CVT gearbox is ideally suited to a gentle style, so progress was smooth and efficient, with the car frequently switching to all electric mode.

Out on the twisty roads of Austria though, things went slightly awry. Despite being in the F Sport model, a close to two tonne luxury car with a hybrid power plant and CVT gearbox doesn’t make a sporty combination. For the point-and-squirt roads facing us, a huge delay in throttle response as the CVT and hybrid systems decided what to do was immensely frustrating.

Not that the car is slow. It’s quick, and disguises that almost too well. That 0-60 sprint never felt fast, but the stopwatch proved that circa six seconds was achievable time after time. On the motorway, 120 mph felt no faster than 70 mph. Even through the corners it holds on well, despite its bulk, while Sport+ mode stiffens up the suspension to aid confidence and egg you on to go that bit faster, that bit closer to the edge.

But in sticking the F Sport badge on the back, Lexus have misled us and missed the point. If F Sport is meant to match M Sport, there’s a long way to go. This is a luxury car that can be driven enthusiastically, not an outright sports car.

The return journey ably proved that. Switching to the GS 450h Premier, the ultimate luxury variant that costs the same as the F Sport, the car started to make perfect sense. It’s the same chassis so, ultimately, has the same abilities in the bendy bits and is every bit as quick in a straight line. But instead of shouting about performance, the Premier wafts along in an understated fashion, eschewing the F Sport’s 19 inch wheels for a more comfortable 18 inch style and featuring that Mark Levinson system as standard.

Specced as the Premier, or even the lower Luxury or SE models, the GS makes a great deal of sense. Fast, efficient, economical (officially 46.3 mpg on the combined cycle) and cheap(ish) on tax thanks to CO2 figures of 141 g/km, it’s as good as any of its obvious competitors and better than many of them.

The BMW 5 Series may still have the edge for driving dynamics, but the GS trumps it in every other area.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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