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Having sampled the latest Lexus GS 350 at its launch, which included hot laps at Laguna Seca raceway, it's always interesting to drive the same vehicle on home turf, just doing the things one normally does with a car.
In some instances, it teaches that the initial impression was wide of the mark -- many previews are conducted so as to showcase the new car in its best possible light. This means it ususally never shines quite as brightly when driven away from that venue.
In this case, though, it served to reinforce my first impressions: The GS is as much sports car as it is luxury sedan.
At the preview, I was impressed by just how light the full-bodied GS felt on its tires. It felt no less lithe on home turf. The adaptive suspension does a very good job of quelling body roll without beating the riders up on a rough road.
Likewise, the steering is both poised and precise. The latter is accentuated when the GS is wearing the F Sport package -- it brings a better variable-rate steering rack and, on the rear-drive car, active rear steering. The latter can turn the rear wheels by up to two degrees, which improves the turn-in and overall precision.
The F Sport option brings a number of other upgrades. Along with better seats -- and a steering wheel that has a pleasing heft to it -- come boy-racer pedals and a body kit that adds some sporting flair, as well as better P235/40 front and P265/35 rear tires mounted on attractive alloy rims.
It also allows the driver to tweak the manner in which the GS drives. Along with the Normal and Eco (forget this setting!) modes come Sport and Sport+. The Sport mode alters the throttle and transmission response, while the Sport+ mode also firms the suspension and steering as well as moving the stability control's intervention point further out.
Generally, the Sport mode is the right one for all eventualities. It's accommodating when tooling about town, yet sharp enough to tackle a more enthusiastic charge.
The other important F Sport upgrade is found in the brakes. The addition of two-piece front rotors pushes fade out to the point where it is a non-issue, even after standing on the pedal repeatedly. In the end, the F Sport package is well worth the $7,000 it commands. Indeed, I would not consider the GS without it.
The GS 350 arrives with a 3.5-litre V-6 engine that delivers 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. The numbers do a surprisingly good job of motivating 1,750 kilograms of leather-lined opulence. I clocked the zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour run at six seconds and the 80-to-120-km/h passing test at 4.7 seconds. Both times are more than up to snuff.
Lexus also did a good job of making the GS 350 produce the right noises when it's worked. The siren is rewardingly throaty -- there's an acoustic amplifier built into the intake system!
If there is a powertrain disappointment, it's the number of gears in the transmission. Certainly, the six speeds work very well with the engine and the shifts are smooth when loafing along and snappy when the driver flicks one of the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
However, given the seven-speed (Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz) and eight-speed (Audi and BMW) boxes that are becoming commonplace, it would behoove Lexus to drop the eight-speed transmission from the LS 430 into the GS 350, especially when it's equipped with the F Sport package.
On the flip side, the GS 350 F Sport is a true luxury car. The cabin is lined with excellent materials, the leather is first-rate and the toys are all in place, up to and including heated and cooled front buckets along with the navigation system that's included with the F Sport package.
As is rapidly becoming the norm, most of the GS's key functions are accessed via a centrally mounted controller. Yes, there are some stand-alone buttons, but the deeper functions are accessed through the second-generation Lexus Remote Touch system. It looks after the media, climate, trip, navigation and phone functions.
The latter proved to have surprisingly handy features. When an email or text comes into a paired phone, the system allows the driver to open it and have it read aloud by an automated voice. This simple extension eliminated the need to play with my hand-held device.
The only other minor complaint is found in the trunk. As the rear seats are fixed (there's only a ski pass-through), the volume is capped at 14.3 cubic feet. Thankfully, the space is nicely squared off and, as such, all of it is usable.
The new GS signals a change in philosophy for Lexus. It's still predominantly a luxury car, but it now has the jam needed to be considered a real threat to its German competition.
More remarkable is the pricing strategy. The starting point for the 2013 GS 350 is $10,000 less than the GS 300 from a decade ago. Factor in the technological advances, increased content, better performance and superior fuel economy, and the latest GS is a real bargain.
-- Postmedia News
TYPE OF VEHICLE: Rear-wheel-drive sports sedan
ENGINE: 3.5L DOHC V-6
POWER: 306 hp 6,400 r.p.m.; 277 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,800 r.p.m.
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manumatic
BRAKES: Four-wheel disc with ABS
PRICE: base/as tested: $51,900/$58,950
DESTINATION CHARGE: $1,950
TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY L/100 KM: 10.7 city, 7.1 hwy.