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2006 Lexus GS430 cars - test drive

Lexus GS300 car reviewsIn some ways, the Lexus GS430 reminds us of the old American luxury cars — the interior is quiet, all shocks are cushioned, the powerful (300 hp) V8 engine gives instant oomph, and when you hit the gas, the transmission downshifts immediately and firmly, jerking the passengers back in their seats. The big differences are in the plush interiors of the older cars - the GS has a modern, plastic-dominated interior with modern colors - and in the high technology of the GS430 which eliminates a large number of compromises. The well-tuned suspension, grippy tires, and advanced stability control make a mockery of Cadillacs and Lincolns past, by making sure that the tires stay firmly on the road at all times - it might be a luxury sedan, but the Lexus GS430 corners like a sports car. Likewise, the brakes are quite good, unlike the heavy boats of yesteryear; and the interior, though nicely sized, is not huge (nor is the exterior unparkably big). But that rather nice feel of being totally cushioned from nasty external influences - the silence, the soft ride, and the knowledge that you are driving one of the world’s best and most prestigious mass-produced makes - remains intact, sans the old-fashioned wallowing.

The 4.3 liter V8 produces a good 300 horsepower, a good return from a smallish engine; Chrysler's Hemi beats it by about 40 horsepower, but takes a good 1.4 extra liters of displacement to do so. The GS300’s straight-six performs a similar feat, extracting 245 horsepower from a mere 3 liters. Both deliver sprightly performance; but the V8 can get from 0 to 60 in a mere 5.8 seconds, sports-car territory (and better than any vehicle powered by the standard version of the aforementioned Hemi).

Many cars are good at sudden sprints - but the best ones can also provide instant rocketry on demand, no matter what the occasion, around town or on the freeway. The GS430 is one of those cars, able to satisfy any momentary desire for sudden speed. The six-speed automatic drops a gear or two, and the back seat hits your back as the engine revs through its power band with the muffled roar of a nicely tuned intake.

Being a Lexus, the loud-exhaust routine is simply not done. However, induction roar is nicely tuned, right to that deep-toned note people used to modify their air cleaners to reach. The exhaust remains silent; there is no muscle-car rumble; but hit the gas, and there's no mistaking the presence of a powerful V8 under the hood, albeit one smaller than any muscle car ever had (and as powerful as most). The six-speed automatic brings reasonable gas mileage, according to the EPA, though we have to admit we couldn't break 16 mpg in our tankful. A well broken in car driven in mixed city/highway should be able to reach 18 or 19 mpg, perhaps even 20.

Lexus LS430 V8 enginesThe GS430 goes around turns with surprising confidence for something created by the company known for Camrys, sticking to turns like glue and presenting little body roll and even less tire noise. Despite the V8 output, sudden acceleration results in nary a squeal, including when the gas is floored when starting into a turn; the stability control quickly and efficiently intercedes, doing what appers to be the absolute minimum to keep total control, so that acceleration is unhampered, even aided, by its intercession. Some stability control systems make acceleration unpredictable, because they cut in too severely; the GS430's is much better tuned than most.

The suspension can be switched to a sport mode, which makes it a bit stiffer, passing more road feel through; but the cornering was good enough that we had no problem keeping it on the normal comfort mode after experimenting for a little while.

Road feel is maintained through a gentle cushion, without passing shocks or slams, and with only a distant, quiet noise to show most bumps, rough surfaces, and potholes. Hard core sports-car addicts, the ones who prefer Vipers to Corvettes for everyday driving, may be put off by this; normal people and those who like to do a bit of spirited driving now and then will appreciate the comfort, since it doesn't interfere with road-holding. We think it is just about the optimal balance of feel and comfort for most people.

Safety is assisted by standard side curtain and side impact airbags for both front and rear passengers, tire pressure monitoring, driver and passenger knee airbags, height adjustable headrests for all seats, stability control, a first aid kit, and other features detailed on our Lexus technology page. As one might expect, stopping power is impressive, with four wheel antilock disc brakes.

Inside the Lexus GS430

lexus car reviewsInterior space is good for four passengers and their luggage, which is more than you can say for most sporty cars. Rear leg room is not generous, but it is sufficient.

What we thought was black plastic trim turned out to be a glossy genuine wood, stained so dark that it was hard to see any grain at all even under strong light. The wood and leather steering wheel added to the feel, even if the wood was indistinguishable from plastic; surfaces are generally pleasant to touch and made of appropriate materials, and the light gray perforated leather (used on seats, doors, and the console lid) helps to bring back the impression of luxury.

At night, the interior is lit with a multitude of bright blue LED lamps instead of traditional bulbs, which saves power and reduces long-term maintenance, while providing a "wow!" factor, at the expense of actually being able to see anything. That and the large center LCD display are the only two questionable features in this otherwise very nice vehicle.

The instrument panel has large gauges dominated by a 160 mph speedometer, which seems a bit excessive even though the GS430 might be able to reach that speed; it cramps legal speeds into a relatively small area. The reflective surface of the gauges is cooler and not as distracting as it appears in the photo, and the gauges are indeed clear and easy to read in all types of light (though setting the brightness is not as easy as one would think, thanks to an over-application of gadgetry). In the photo, the trip computer is set to gas mileage - it doesn't let you reset average mileage at will, as other cars do, but measures from the start of each tankful; and the transmission is in manumatic mode, set to second gear.

The manumatic is more automatic than manual, even in manumatic mode. It takes any gear you put in as a suggestion, not as a mandate; and, in a more unusual move, Lexus doesn't indicate the actual gear in the PRNDL, but the gear that you've selected. That means if you go into manual mode in fifth gear and come to a stop, the indicator will continue to read 5, and the transmission will downshift as you slow down and upshift normally as you speed back up. That said, it could theoretically be handy from time to time, if the transmission did not already read your mind and set itself to the right gear all time time anyway. (We spent much of our time with the transmission in the sport mode. It felt more natural than the standard mode, which is optimized for gas mileage - not a bad thing, but it leads to the transmission sometimes seeming confused and slow to react to demands for power. But even the standard, gas-saving transmission mode worked well.)

trip computerThere are three driver presets for seat positions and radio stations - most cars have two at most - and all four windows have auto power down and auto power up with pinch protection, which ends up being more convenient than you'd think. What's more, there are presets for both driver and passenger - each of the front doors has its own triplet of buttons.

Our GS300 and GS430 both share an optional navigation system, and to make room for its extra-large screen, even the cars without the nav system get the big screen. This is a shame, because it makes using the climate control and stereo system unnecessarily painful and distracting. In a car as well-designed and generally impressive as the GS, the contortions this system puts people through seem thoroughly out of place and unnecessary.

With or without the nav system, then, you have to use the big screen to access sound and vent system features that should really be given to knobs. As an example, one would think that bass and treble would be adjusted using the large tune knob. Here, you have to press the Audio button next to the touch-screen (far away from the stereo), then press Sound, then press (or hold down) a + or - sign by bass, treble, or midrange. Balance and fade are handled the same way. You can easily switch modes (e.g. AM or CD) using buttons or a steering-wheel control - other wheel controls are volume and up/down - but changing audio properties requires an attention-diverting trip to the screen. This could be less dangerous (any time you're not looking at the road, it's dangerous) if the system remembered audio settings by station or mode, but it doesn't. Given that there is a tuning knob anyway, using pushbuttons for the audio controls just seems illogical.

lexus parking assistThe fact that there are now several FM and satellite modes doesn't help, either. Given that each of three drivers can choose their own presets, having so many modes seems a trifle illogical. Then again, maybe that's done to compensate for the large number of attractive satellite-radio stations, and the long, long pause between changing a satellite radio channel and actually hearing something different - a pause that's not encountered on GM or Chrysler systems.

Some climate control functions, such as shutting off the air conditioner compressor and manually changing fan speed, also require trips to the touch-screen. Given that the automatic climate control tended to be erratic in its choices, with an odd and stubborn preference for keeping the air recirculation on, this was also awkward, with or without the navigation system (the GS300 did not have it, and the GS430 did).

On the lighter side, the touch screen does provide a great deal of audio, climate, and trip information in a large. convenient space. The trip computer is limited to distance-to-empty, gas mileage since the last refill (not since the last checkpoint), and average speed and distance (for this trip). That information is also provided right on the odometer, which can easily be cycled between range, tank average mileage, current gas mileage, outside temparature (also displayed above the touch-screen), and an "odometer only" display. The touch screen itself can also be shut off, or used as a telephone book. Oddly, you cannot choose your own durations for gas mileage calculations.

The navigation system, when used, is fairly standard issue. The weak point is its predeliction for ignoring smaller roads and putting the driver through huge detours, even though you can see the road on the screen; the system just won't use it. It also seems haphazard in the items on the list of attractions. The strong point of the system, compared with other navigation systems — most features are similar — is the ease of entering a destination, with a choice of ABCD or QWERTY entry keyboards on the screen, and touch-typing on the screen itself. That makes it considerably faster to put addresses into the system.

The big screen really shows its merit when you order the backup camera, which is placed almost invisibly under the trunk lid; the tiny camera shows a bird's eye view of what is behind the car as you back up. It isn't meant to show the distance to the next object (it's not very good at that), though it's quite handy for getting right up to the line in a parking space; it's there to save the life of that child who started walking behind the car as you were backing out of your driveway. A surprising number of children die each year in driveway-leaving accidents, and we're glad to see that backup cameras are becoming more popular each year. It's a great invention. On the GS, it goes on automatically as soon as you get into reverse.

lexus carsSuperimposed on the screen, if you get the parking alert system, is the parking alert icon, showing the car and any areas where you are getting close to a solid object (as sensed through detectors in the bumpers). The Lexus has several sensors in each bumper, including two set at angles; and since it knows (and shows) which way the wheels are pointed, it can figure out what you have a likelihood of hitting, and sounds the audio alert appropriately. The system is a bit conservative, going into solid-beep and red-bar mode with a good few inches left, but that's probably a good thing. The displays (in the instrument panel, replacing the odometer, and on the big center-stack screen) show 1-3 bars around the sensor that's detecting an object to tell how close you are, and turn from yellow to red to show that you should really be stopping now. It's the best system of its kind we've seen, and it's good to see it in both front and back.

dropdownOther controls are standard for the class, except for the awkward drop-down panel to the left of the steering wheel, which contains mirror controls, the backlighting rheostat, trunk and gas cap releases, headlight washers, and the trip odometer controls. If equipped, this panel also includes the on-off control for the parking alert system and the convenient rear sunshade up-down control. A word about that sunshade: a press of a button brings it up or pulls it down, and it covers nearly the entire rear window. Though it does a good job of shielding passengers (usually children?) from the sun, it is also very easy to see through, so that leaving it up is not an issue most of the time. This is one of the nicer options for parents.

Storage pockets abound, including map pockets on all four doors that fold out if needed, an overhead sunglass tray, a dual-level center console, and a little space in the glove compartment, which also contains the massive owner's manual and a much smaller, more colorful guide to get people quickly started on the many features the GS can have. The center console doubles as an armrest, sliding forward if needed; as an armrest, it covers the central switchbank, which includes the three-way transmission switch (power, standard, snow) the sport/normal suspension switch, and the seat warmers/coolers. The front has cupholders under a cover, while the rear has cupholders inside a drop-down center console which also provides oversized-object trunk access. On the back of the front seats are well designed map pockets for rear-seat passengers; unlike mesh versions, these probably will age well.

lexus gs-300 consoleControl backlighting is good at night, with all but the steering wheel controls, stalks, and overhead buttons (for the optional sunroof and the interior lights) lit up. The climate control fan is fairly quiet even when going at a high rate, and the stereo has good sound and an easy to use six-disc changer right in the dashboard. Dual zone climate control is standard, along with a smog sensor that can temporarily shut off outside air, and a filter for the rest of the time.

Visibility is good in all directions, despite a small blind spot caused by the rear pillar; the headlights are extremely bright (high intensity discharge headlights are standard) and well focused, and the power-folding outside mirrors include an anti-glare coating as well as defrosters; what's more, unlike just about any mirrors we've seen that automatically tilt down when you reverse (so you can see the parking-space stripes or curb better), these do so quickly enough to be useful. Likewise, the optional rain-sensing wipers actually come on when the windshield gets wet, and have no compunction about moving to high gear when needed. (The system is adjustable.) One nice touch is a delayed extra-single-wipe after the washer system is activated, to get that little drip that always shows up when the wipers are done.

The GS300 has a huge number of interesting features, from the standard "garage door controls and compass integrated into the auto-dimming rear-view mirror" to the unconventional "smart locks." The smart locks are rather nice in winter, when your keys never need to leave your pocket; you can unlock the door by touching the handle (all doors unlock if you touch any but the driver's door handle), start the car by pressing a button, and lock the car by pressing a button on any of the four doors. If the battery dies, you can slide out a mechanical key and use it in the driver's door.

All windows (and the sunroof if you have one) can be opened from the outside to let heat out quickly, and from the inside, all windows have express up and down controls (with pinch protection). Cellphone lovers may like the integrated Bluetooth system, though ours made a predictable beep-and-warning-notice-on-the-screen a few minutes into each drive, a bit annoying since we don't have a Bluetooth cellphone.

Many adjustments are easy to make, though it apparently takes a dealer to set some preferences (e.g. default locking behavior; we're not sure why Lexus doesn't integrate this into the trip computer, as Jeep/Chrysler and General Motors have. The seats are very adjustable, with electric height, fore/aft, bolster, and other controls; the steering column has power tilt and telescope; and, as mentioned earlier, the gauge backlighting can be adjusted (some cars only let you adjust night-time brightness, but the GS lets you adjust daytime brightness as well). The front seat goes very far back, making it convenient to use a laptop from the driver's seat while stopped.

overhead lights - 2006 Lexus GS300Safety comes in spades, with all sorts of clever doo-dads to save you from yourself and from the loose nut behind the other wheel, too. There are just too many safety systems to list.

With all of these features (well, except the optional ones), the GS300 weighs in at about $43,000. Our test GS300 had the rain-sensing wipers ($525), run-flat tires ($400), moonroof ($1,000), and a package you really shouldn't have to pay for on a car that retails for over $40,000 - $194 worth of trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks. At least the floor mats were free.

The GS430, on the other hand, starts at $52,070, and goes up from there. To be fair, that base price is for a vehicle that could be considered fully loaded: it comes not only with the 300 horsepower V8 engine and six-speed automatic, but also with speed-sensing variable gear ratio steering, electronically controlled brakes that provide assistance in emergencies, 18 inch alloy wheels with 245/40 tires, front and rear side curtain airbags, front side impact airbags (aside from the curtains), front knee airbags, adjustable headrests in all positions, traction and stability control, high intensity discharge headlights with automatic levelling and fog lights, tire pressure monitoring, tool and first aid kits, leather with three-passenger memory, push-button start and stop, wood trim that looks like plastic, power heated automatic-dimming outside mirrors, dual zone climate control with smog sensor and air filter, 10-speaker stereo with in-dash CD changer and cassette, power locks and trunk closer, BlueTooth phone integration, power tilt and telescope steering that automatically moves itself away when you park, wheel mounted audio controls, compass, and our perennial favorite, floor mats.

If that's not enough for you - though that's more than most cars give you with all their options - our test car had more, balancing the scales at $60,000. We ran the gamut from the Mark Levinson Audio/Navigation System at $4,030, which included the wonderful rear camera for backing up safely, to the preferred accessory package at $194. In between were all-season run-flat tires with a spare ($480), rear spoiler ($200), rain sensing wipers with headlight cleaner - both nice features that worked well ($225), moonroof ($1,000), rear sunshade (at $210, you have to get it!), ventilated seats ($200), satellite radio kit ($486), and another rather nice feature, intuitive parking assist at $500, well worth it if you can afford the base price for the car in the first place. The total seems rather high until you realize how little $60,000 can buy if you look in the wrong places - for example, a low-end Volkswagen Phaeton (a wonderful car if you ignore the electronics, which seem to come straight from Lucas, complete with curse); a low-reliability Mercedes, Touareg, etc.; or for that matter a Cadillac Escalade, the vehicle that drives like a Chevy but has a price tag like, well, a Lexus. The GS gives you a lot more than its equivalents at a number of other automakers, and that's before you get into the legendary dealer service. On the other hand, if you’re into the performance feel, and can give up some of the luxury, there are also some rather nice alternatives (albeit without the best in class reliability and dealer service) — the Hemi Charger, 300C SRT-8, and BMW 3-series come to mind.

We're not sure if you got the impression we liked this car. Let's be clear: this is a fine vehicle that we enjoyed very much; driving it was easy and enjoyable. The V8 was a blast, the sure and true suspension kept all that torque from getting us into trouble, and we loved being able to swing through fast corners on rough or poor surfaces with nary a squeal or sense of imbalance or roll. The GS430 just got better the more we drove it, at least until we reached the gas station. However, despite excellent traction and acceleration, the GS’ emphasis on refinement made it less “fun” and “connected” than less luxurious (and slower) cars like the Dodge Charger. That’s one reason why BMWs still sell, despite their lower durability and comfort.

If you're in this price range (or for that matter a higher price range), even if you're looking at SUVs, you really owe it to yourself to try the Lexus GS. Sure, Mercedes was great once, but now they're sneaking Chrysler engineers in through the back door to help them fix their nagging quality problems. The Lexus GS430 has an enviable balance of performance and luxury which is just made the sweeter by its superior reliability and dealer service.