As the first completely new passenger car from Toyota’s luxury division since 2001, the 2006 Lexus GS is a showcase of the giant company’s most advanced technology. It’s not only loaded with more computer power than some third-world countries, and flush with a degree of luxury enjoyed only in the best zip codes, but the fully restyled and reengineered four-door luxury sedan makes a bold dynamic statement that says, “Watch out, BMW!”
Lexus openly admits that BMW’s 5 Series sedan provided the benchmark for the new GS, in much the same way the big Lexus LS originally targeted the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, at the time top of its class. Again going after the perceived leader of the pack, Lexus devised a crafty strategy.
First, it broadened the appeal of the GS lineup with a faster, better-equipped “base” car. In fact, the rear-wheel-drive GS 300 out-measures its competitor from Munich, the BMW 530i, in torque, the 0-60 sprint and fuel mileage, not to mention offering a far friendlier and more sybaritic cockpit.
Second, to entice those in cold climes who until now had to look elsewhere for an all-weather passenger car, Lexus is offering an all-wheel-drive option for the GS 300. More than one-third of all new GS sales are expected to be AWD models, most headed for the northwest and northeast United States.
Finally, Lexus made sure the top dog of the family, the 430, had the bite to wrest bragging rights away from the Germans, not just by matching but exceeding the high-end performance recorded by the BMW 545i. Simply put, Lexus fine-tuned its 4.3-liter V8, paired it with a wonder of a transmission and cloaked the drivetrain in a slippery coat of sexy metal. Result? The GS 430 runs in realms never reached by a Lexus, and it’s quicker than the BMW.
However, the primary target of this new, longer and wider GS isn’t all that important, because Lexus is confident its four-door sedan’s combination of driving fun and creature comfort is unequalled among its many peers and will do much to spread the badge across the land.
The outgoing GS was eight years old, so it was expected that the new GS would be more than just a freshened take on a familiar theme. Lexus hasn’t disappointed, adding more than a dash of driving spice to the family virtues of smoothness and refinement. But there is another, major question to be answered: Is this Asian upstart delivering where it counts most? Does a Lexus GS feel like an ultimate driving machine?
The 2006 Lexus GS is available as three models (and an intriguing gas/electric hybrid GS is on the horizon).
The rear-wheel-drive GS 300 ($43,550) sports a completely new 245-horsepower V6 under the hood; the GS 300 AWD ($45,500) grips the road through the first all-wheel-drive system in a Lexus passenger car; and the top-of-the-line GS 430 ($51,775) is the quickest Lexus yet, due in part to its recently refined 300-horsepower V8.
Every GS puts its power to the wheels through three variations of a new close-ratio six-speed automatic transmission, each designed for optimum performance with their respective GS applications. One of the smallest and lightest gearboxes of its type, it includes a sequential manual shift mode, with gear changes made via a lever in the center console. Steering-wheel-mounted pushbutton gear selection is no longer offered.
The list of standard equipment places the GS line squarely in the luxury fold. And yet despite all the amenities wrapped in the more appealing bodywork, on a comparably equipped basis the new GS 300’s cost-up is a paltry $1,110 over the outgoing model. In addition to the usual electronics, every GS gets a bunch of cool stuff, including leather-trimmed, heated front seats with 10-way power adjustment; SmartAccess keyless entry and a pushbutton starter; a premium sound system with CD capability; Bluetooth wireless telephone technology; and a seven-inch multi-information touchscreen for easy access to a wide range of information and commands.
Not surprisingly, given the generous array of standard items, interior options are limited: a steering-sensitive Park Assist system; DVD navigation system with rear backup camera; one-touch open/close moonroof; ventilated front seats; power rear sunshade; and an eardrum-pounding, wallet-smashing Mark Levinson® Premium Surround Sound audio system, its 11 channels of sonic wash flowing through 14 speakers.
Exterior options are even fewer: Adaptive Front Headlight System (AFS standard on GS 430), rain-sensing windshield wipers and headlamp washers; a rear spoiler; and all-season run-flat tires, which also can be ordered with a spare.
The face of Lexus has evolved cautiously in the marque’s short life, but the company is now determined to inject more passion into its styling language. In the GS this was resolved with a lower stance, more front overhang, a longer and lower hood, a 2-inch-longer wheelbase and wider rear track. The nose still carries the line’s trademark four separate headlamp units and vertical grille, but now it’s more like a spear piercing the wind than the blunt instrument of the previous GS. It certainly looks as sleek as the 0.27 coefficient of drag would suggest. A flat underbody aids the aerodynamic efficiency (the previous GS had a Cd of 0.29) and helps reduce noise.
The lowered stance is underlined by an aggressive front valance, with a large inlet to indicate there’s a powerful engine under the hood, thirsty for air. A fog lamp is integrated into each lower front corner. Prominent body-color rocker extensions anchor the car’s mass along the midsection, which is nicely balanced by the well-proportioned wheel wells. A deep rear valance carries this glued-to-the-ground theme to the tail and frames the large, exposed dual exhaust with stainless steel tips.
Much of the car’s visual dynamism emanates from the strong shoulder arc, which evokes the contour of an airplane wing slicing through the wind. This sense of forward motion is reflected in a swept-back greenhouse that blends into the short rear decklid via a coupe-like C-pillar. The integrated aero look extends to color-keyed rearview mirrors and bumper covers. For sportier types, or for the determined driver who might need a bit more downforce in high-speed corners, the tail can be outfitted with an optional spoiler.
The external structure is rust-resistant galvanized steel and was engineered to help provide just one of many lines of defense against collisions. Should a severe frontal or severe side impact occur, the GS has airbags to help manage impact energy. But Lexus also took measures to help reduce the chance of those accidents happening in the first place. Sophisticated systems of electronic sensors and computers, designed to work seamlessly without the driver aware of all the electro-mechanical effects prompted by such threats as slick pavement or, especially, driver error.
Along with the usual airbags for both front passengers, Lexus offers, for the first time in the GS, driver and front-passenger knee bags to augment the other occupant restraint systems. These include front seat-mounted side-impact airbags; force-limiting, 3-point seat belts (all five seats), with pretensioners for both front and rear (outboard) passengers; front and rear side-curtain airbags; and automatic locking/emergency locking retractors for all occupants save the driver (ELR only).
This passive level of occupant protection extends to such features as a padded instrument panel, impact dissipating upper interior trim and a tire-pressure warning system. Also available: daytime running lights; adaptive front lighting that illuminates the road through a curve (AFS standard on GS 430; optional GS 300); a system that helps reduce movement of the brake pedal toward the driver in the event of a front-end collision, thus helping to reduce the potential for leg injury; an optional rear backup camera display in the touchscreen; and the usual array of electronic handling aids, designated by a veritable avalanche of acronyms.
The new braking system integrates four-channel, four-sensor ABS with large, vented discs at all four wheels. To ensure that the brakes achieve optimum stopping dynamics, they’re augmented by Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, Traction Control (TRAC) and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC). The 300’s front discs measure 11.6 inches, while the 430 is fitted with giant 13.1-inch discs. Both cars have 12.2-inch rear discs.
Though the GS 300 uses a conventional brake booster, GS 430s also get what Lexus calls the Electronically Controlled Brake (ECB). This system detects the length of the brake pedal stroke applied by the driver and then sends the data to a computer that calculates the optimum brake force for each wheel in that particular situation. High-friction brake pads complete the upgrades to handle the extra beef of the V8.
The GS 430 also sports an even more sophisticated handling technology as part of its standard package: Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, or VDIM. Such data as steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, brake pressure and wheel speed are processed much earlier than was possible before VDIM, which then sets in motion a number of measures to help provide controlled handling at the limits of adhesion. In contrast to conventional systems, which only react to the onset of a car’s loss of control, VDIM was developed to anticipate loss of control and then, by making certain corrections, allow the driver to maintain a brisk pace without even realizing the system is at work.
VDIM integrates operation of various active systems, including VSC, TRAC, Brake Assist, ABS and the Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence (ETCS-i, of course). Three new technologies are also brought into concert with VDIM: Electric Power Steering (EPS); Variable Gear-Ratio Steering (VGRS) and Electronically Controlled Brakes (ECB), a brake-by-wire system.
Also available: Intuitive Park Assist and the Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. Intuitive Park Assist, a feature of previous Lexus models, now considers steering angle input in the equation and offers contact avoidance advice (through graphics in the touchscreen) for heightened driver awareness while negotiating tight parking spots. This advice is displayed in the lower center of the speedometer, an area that is also used to show information from the trip computer, radar cruise status, distance monitoring and various warning messages.
PCS goes even further and uses a millimeter-wave radar sensor to detect obstacles in front of the car. A computer then measures vehicle speed, steering angle and yaw rate to calculate the likelihood of a collision. If it looks like there will be an unavoidable front-end collision, PCS switches the AVS (on GS 430 only) to Sport mode to help reduce nose dive and enhance emergency handling, preemptively retracts the seat belts and gets Brake Assist ready to go so that increased braking arrives instantaneously with application of the pedal.
These unprecedented measures still might not meet the demands of drivers in icy climes, in which case there awaits the GS 300 AWD. The full-time all-wheel-drive system’s basic elements are front and rear differentials and a center transfer case. Acting from the information provided by wheel sensors, the transfer case varies torque output between the front or rear axles to retain traction. During take-offs, while accelerating or on very slippery surfaces, torque output is evenly divided between the axles. It also can vary up to 30/70 front to rear if Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) determines it’s necessary to keep the car going in the proper direction.
A secondary level of the AWD system is Traction Control (TRAC), which, when it senses wheel slippage, applies the brakes on that particular wheel and then transfers torque to the non-slipping wheel on the same axle. With this electronic system in operation, anyone who sticks a new GS in a snowbank has got it coming.
We should all live in houses as well appointed, and as well designed for simple use, as the Lexus GS. Open any one of the four doors (don’t worry about having to unlock the car, you’ve got keyless entry) and you’re greeted by aluminum alloy Lexus-stamped scuff plates, the scent of leather and cut-pile carpeting, and the gleam of highly burnished hardwood trim.
The handsome wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel, electronically adjustable for rake and reach, frames a newly designed dash panel. Following established Lexus standard, each gauge, button, wheel and lever is clearly identified by easily read words or symbols, and the three-pod analog instrument cluster’s white-on-black graphics can be grasped at a glance.
A 160-mph speedometer, with an integrated electronic digital odometer and twin trip meters, is flanked to the left by a tachometer and to the right by fuel and water temperature gauges and lights indicating gear choice.
Dominating the center console is a seven-inch touchscreen, flanked by two banks of menu buttons. Entering the various menus and navigating through the submenus doesn’t take too much brainpower, but like most multitasking systems, a day spent with the owner’s manual on a quiet side street is the best way to figure out how to work everything properly.
Still, there are so many systems/operations/functions to either operate or monitor that Lexus chose to hide some of the switches. One of the hideaways is accessed via a door that drops down out of the dash panel to the left of the steering wheel. Here you’ll find switches for outside mirrors, fuel lid, trunk release, meter brightness control (more on this later), odometer/trip meter, headlamp washers, rear sunshade, park assist, AFS (lots more on this later), and interior lamps. More hidden switches are under the sliding top of the center console: adaptive variable suspension, transmission mode and front seat heaters and ventilators. Some might find it tedious to access these functions in these ways, but it does go a long way to cleaning up the console of excessive clutter.
Another innovative cockpit feature is the variable transparency lens covering the gauge cluster. Called an electronic chromatic device, it automatically changes the diffusion of the lens to optimize viewing depending on the intensity of light in the cabin.
The interior leather/wood schemes are Ash with black bird’s-eye maple, Cashmere with golden bird’s-eye maple, or Black with red walnut. Fit and finish is impeccable, down to the finest details. For instance, every compartment door or cover opens at exactly the same speed, with identical levels of damping and feel. Tactile luxury at its most basic.
Definitely not basic is the standard Lexus audio stack, comprised of an AM/FM ETR with auto-reverse cassette and six-disc, in-dash CD changer, 10 speakers and a 134-watt amplifier. No MP3 capability is yet offered, but the GS is pre-wired for XM Satellite Radio.
Audiophiles can opt for the Mark Levinson® Premium Surround Sound system, developed especially for the GS interior. Utilizing Discrete 5.1 surround playback via a 7.1-channel speaker topology, it sends the vibes through 14 speakers via 11 channels of amplification by an advanced discrete amplifier with 330 watts. It sounds quite amazing.
The newly reengineered navigation system now has information for more than 6 million points of interest. Destinations can be input in several different ways for easier use, and the phonebook holds over 10 million entries. Route searching is said to be faster than with the previous nav system, and both it and the Bluetooth cell phone system can be operated by voice command or through the seven-inch touchscreen.
Of course, the GS boasts all the usual amenities expected by luxury car buyers, including power door locks; cruise control; electric trunk and fuel filler door releases; a pass-through tunnel to the trunk for hauling long items; a dual-zone climate control with an auto-recirculation feature to help minimize micro-dust, pollen and other air pollutants from entering the car; auto-dimming for outside mirrors as well as the interior rearview mirror, which also incorporates a compass and HomeLink® programmable garage door opener; and illuminated vanity mirrors in the sun visors.
Entering a locked GS via the SmartAccess system is as easy as touching the inside of any door handle or the underside of the trunk lid, as long as you’ve got the key fob on your person. First seen on the LS 430, this is a worthwhile convenience and also saves door paint from wayward keys seeking small keyholes. Once seated, the driver starts and stops the engine by simply applying the brake pedal and pushing a stop/start button. Again, the convenience is augmented by practical considerations: fewer moving parts to require potential repair, and the elimination of a risk posed by a bunch of sharp-edged keys dangling from the console. SmartAccess also allows the key fob to be programmed to memorize three different settings for the front seats, steering column and rearview mirrors.
The 10-way adjustable seats and electronically adjustable steering column ensure a good fit for almost every physique, but a bit more bolstering and a longer seat cushion would be helpful for spirited driving. The GS is capable of extraordinary road grip, but the seats just don’t quite match up to that grip. Otherwise, they’re just the kind of chairs that allow you to climb out after a long drive without needing your spine cracked. Adjustable headrests are found at all five seating positions, and the fronts automatically adjust up or down as the seats are moved toward or away from the steering wheel.
Push that start button yet? Better check by blipping the throttle, because there’s no way you’re going to hear the engine, V6 or V8, at idle. All GS models are extraordinarily quiet, their aural distinctions to be appreciated only at full throttle. It’s then that the V8 separates itself from its new, smaller sibling. The big engine scarcely notices the weight it must pull or the air it must push, and the suck, squish, bang and blow of the eight cylinders is reduced to a muted rumble from the dual exhaust system.
Throw in a six-speed automatic that is so smooth as to seem one continuous gear, and there’s little to do except sit back and enjoy the ride. At its most fuel deficient, the GS 430 jets from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds, with the driver’s chief sensation simply the rapid change of view outside the windows. A bit of road noise manages to make it through the sound-dampening measures, and there’s a hint of wind around the A-pillars when the car approaches triple digits (driver on test track), but otherwise the cockpit is a librarian’s paradise.
Handling is virtually no-fault. The newly engineered suspension is state of the art even without all the electronic handling aids. Both V6 and V8 cars share the same suspension geometry: double wishbones, coil springs and gas-filled shocks in front, and a multi-link design with coil springs and gas-filled shocks out back. The GS 430 also features standard Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), which automatically adjusts shock values depending on the driving conditions, or the driver can choose between Normal and Sport modes.
But, is it an exciting car to drive? If your only measure of driving fun is speed, then the 430 is a fulfilling ride. But, if you value a high level of feedback from external forces, then the Lexus experience might be a bit of a bore. It is just so competent and smooth that the driver feels more like a passenger than the commander. Make no mistake; this is no track car. The electronic handling aids cannot be switched off, so tail-happy cornering is out of the question. However, there’s a lot to be said for the ease of taking a corner at competitive speeds without having to wrestle the steering wheel or worry about the rear end overtaking the front.
Driving fans should consider the rear-drive GS 300. In comparison to the outgoing inline six-cylinder engine, the new V6 produces more torque over a wider range, better fuel economy and lower emissions, and it produces some very pleasing sounds as it goes about its business. Featuring such advanced aspects as drive-by-wire throttle, variable adjustment of the timing on both the intake and exhaust sides, direct-to-cylinder injection, and a special Swirl Control Valve that works like a variable induction system, the V6’s 245 horsepower can take the GS 300 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds.
The V6 is not an effortless puller like the V8, but it’s no slouch, either. The generous torque provides plenty of juice for the stoplight grand prix, and there’s little sense of the power falling off as redline is approached. Better still, the V6 provides the kind of aural feedback that delights the sporting driver.
Whichever drivetrain is chosen, the GS has pretty much hit its targets. In those areas most critical to driving fun (steering, brakes and torque) this is a far better car than its predecessor. A lot of attention was paid to the steering, resulting in a new Electronic Power Steering system. A steering ECU processes vehicle speed, yaw rate and steering angle to determine how much electronic assist should be generated, and it works wonderfully well, assisting low-speed maneuverability and tightening up when more feedback is needed.
In addition, the GS 430’s rack is augmented by Variable Gear-Ratio Steering (VGRS), which reduces the amount of steering input at very low speeds. It also accelerates the steering angles as the wheel approaches full lock. VGRS itself incorporates Differential Steering Control (DSC) and Correction Steering Angle Reduction (CSAR) in its operation. DSC closely matches wheel angle to the speed at which the driver is turning the steering wheel in order to offset any delay in the car’s response to steering input. This works especially well on winding roads. CSAR features a correction feature to offset the effects of sidewinds, making the steering adjustments normally having to be done by the driver.
This might sound too much like Big Brother taking over the wheel, but none of these systems are intrusive, and they do little to diminish the performance aspects of the new GS.
The GS comes in three flavors, all of them delectable, but all of them a variation of vanilla. Don’t get us wrong; we like vanilla. But, when we were told the GS would make us forget about the BMW driving experience, it had our taste buds flipping into overdrive and hungry for a spicier kind of road cuisine than we’d come to expect from Lexus. We’re still waiting.