Lexus cars have never been known for their expressive looks or sporty driving. But starting about a year ago, with a pair of brash concept cars, Toyota Motor's () luxury division swore it had plans to leave its snoozy styling behind. The strategy: to build cars that draw more attention on the road and give Lexus' customers all the adrenaline-inducing performance they want.
In other words, after giving Mercedes-In other words, after giving Mercedes Benz () a thrashing over the past few years, Lexus wants to inject enough sport and passion into its cars to take on BMW. The first cars bearing the new look of Lexus are the GS 430 and GS 300 sedans. I tested the 430, which starts at $51,375 but goes up to $61,070 with options such as satellite radio, a navigation system, and a rearview camera that shows what's behind the car when driving in reverse.
The first test in the luxury sports-sedan class is speed. The car's 300 horsepower V-8 delivers. Lexus boasts that the 430 can make it from zero to 60 in less than six seconds. I punched the gas pedal on my neighborhood street, leaving a plume of dust as the acceleration sucked me into the leather seat. This car has enough giddyap to run with a Mercedes E-class, Infiniti M 45, Cadillac STS, or BMW 530.
But the real question is, does it handle like a Bimmer? The answer is no. Don't get me wrong: The GS is a pleasure to drive, with Lexus' new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management systems that instantly correct for tire slippage or spinning of wheels. It's a great feature for safety and improved handling. But unlike BMW, which allows the driver to switch off the traction-control system to push the car's limits, the Lexus runs the VDIM all the time. That makes it tough to see how much the car can handle when speeding through a sharp bend.
Styling is subjective, but give Lexus credit for stepping out. In the past its designers could be accused of knocking off Mercedes' looks. But the GS and the new IS 300/400 are really different. Lexus designers pushed the cabin rearward, so the car has a nice long hood. The roofline slopes down toward the trunk to improve aerodynamics and add a splash of style.
Inside, the GS is superb. Every knob and switch moves with precision accuracy. Lexus has hidden the controls for the mirrors, trunk, and fuel door in a fold-down panel to the left of the steering wheel. It's a nice touch, but the buttons are tough to reach when driving.
All in all, Lexus has come up with a great car. It's as refined as what we're used to but with more spirit than we've come to expect.
BY DAVID WELCH