When Lexus rolled into town, each model was special - superbly well insulated, quiet, and reliable. Over time, Lexus brought out new models that sold well, but just didn't seem to be made in the same mold as the LS and ES. The GS, fortunately, is very clearly a Lexus. It starts with the superb sound insulation that makes other $40,000 cars seem like noiseboxes, and continues with scads of gadgetry and features, a very comfortable ride that doesn't give away much grip, and an incredibly responsive six-speed automatic transmission.
The GS300 does make some compromises, mostly in engine power and, to a lesser degree, interior materials. The passenger has the usual massive blank textured-plastic face, and the upper half of the dashboard is a molded black plastic which doesn't do the GS any favors.
That said, the wood and leather steering wheel does add to the feel, along with the plastic inserts used where woodgrain would normally be placed. 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) help to bring back the impression of luxury. There 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. 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.
To get the other flaw out of the way, we will look at the center stack next. It is dominated by a large, navigation-system-sized touch screen display, which works very well when you get the navigation system, but is more of a nuisance when you don't, because you still have to use it 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; in past stereos, that's the way it was done, but not in this one. 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 settings by station and mode, but it doesn't. Some climate control functions, such as shutting off the air conditioner compressor and manually changing fan speed, also require trips to the touch-screen.
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.
That's the bad part. Now, let's consider the rest of this car.
The instrument panel has large gauges dominated by a 160 mph speedometer, which seems a bit excessive even if the GS300 can reach that speed; it cramps legal speeds into a relatively small area. The reflective surface of the gauges is actually 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. 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 engine is running, by the way, but the Lexus is not moving in this photo - we're not crazy.)
The GS300 is driven by a quiet 245 horsepower V6, which isn't a huge engine by luxury standards; there is an optional higher-power version, but the 3-liter is more than enough for most situations. It provides near-instant get-up-and-go without a lot of noise and fuss, particularly in its rather high power band; acceleration is swift without being brutal. Credit a responsive six-speed automatic which seems both efficient and very quick to react, yet gentle as a lamb in most situations and not even rough under sudden full throttle. It's one of those rare automatics that saves gas by keeping revs low most of the time, but is still always ready to move into action at a moment's notice; and that's with the program set to normal, rather than power (there's also a snow setting). The limiting factor for the engine actually seems to be the traction control, which cuts in to reduce power when it senses an imminent skid. That can sometimes cause an unexpected delay, no matter what car it's installed on; the GS300 seems to be tuned more towards safety and confidence than towards performance. (In all fairness, the system was invaluable in getting a good start on wet roads.) With those caveats, we found the GS300 to be quick and ready, with acceleration that is quick but manageable; hardly a muscle car but still quite sporty and fun to drive, with 0-to-60 times of 7 seconds (Lexus claims 6.8) - quite credible, and there is an optional 300 horsepower V8 for those who want more. The optional all wheel drive may also help boost real-world acceleration, as it greatly reduces the likelihood that the traction control will kick in.
EPA-rated gas mileage is a surprisingly good 22 city, 30 highway, partly due to variable valve timing, and partly due to that efficient automatic. We found highway mileage to be reasonably close to that estimate.
Cornering is surprisingly good given the smooth ride, which transmits road feel without passing shocks or slams, and with only a distant, quiet noise to show most bumps, rough surfaces, and potholes. Really putting the GS through its paces, though, is likely to bring up the antiskid systems, which can make it impossible to lean on the throttle. Real sports-car addicts, the ones who prefer Vipers to Corvettes for everyday driving, will be put off by this; normal people and those who like to do a bit of spirited driving now and then will appreciate the safety tuning coupled with generally good handling.
As one might expect, stopping power is impressive, with four wheel antilock disc brakes. Wheels are 17-inch alloy with 225/50 V-rated tires. 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.
Interior space feels generous, but the GS300 is mid-sized; that said, there is more than enough space for four adults to sit in comfort, with baggage in the trunk, which is more than you can say for most sporty cars. The GS also allows for tuning of the digital signal processor to make audio sound better for the driver, both front passengers, or both rear passengers - or everyone. With the Lexus GS300, you can have your cake - a sporty, fun car - and eat it, too - by having a convenient family hauler that, if you have the money for the car in the first place, won't drink you out of house and home.
Storage pockets abound, including map pockets on all four doors that fold out if needed, an overhead sunglass tray, a dual-level center console which is easier to raise and lower than usual, 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 front has cupholders under a cover, while the rear has cupholders inside a drop-down center console which also provides oversized-object trunk access.
Controls are fairly standard for the class, except for the odd drop-down panel to the left of the steering wheel, which contains mirror controls, the backlighting rheostat, trunk and gas cap releases, headlight washers, the trip odometer controls, and other gadgets.
Control 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. As one might expect, the climate control fan is quiet even when going full blast, 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 dischrage 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.)
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 interesting and rather nice in winter, when your keys never need to leave your pocket; you can unlock the door by touching it, start the car by pressing a button (which automatically starts the engine on the briefest touch), and lock the car by pressing a button on any of the four doors. If the battery dies, you can slide out a traditional 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. With all of these features (well, except the optional ones), the GS300 weighs in at about $43,000. Our test car 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.
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).
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. If you're in this price range, even if you're looking at things like Hummer or BMW SUVs, you really owe it to yourself to give the Lexus GS300 a spin. It has a nice balance of performance and luxury - and much higher reliability than most (or all) of its competitors.