Twelve months ago Lexus slipped a few pre-production examples of this car out the back door and handed them around as sneak peeks of a new 2013 model they were proud of. Last February I wrote—
Late last night, about 200 miles into a 300-mile flog, I realized I was having one of those ecstatic automotive experiences, a drive where time and distance telescope, leaving just the sensation of boring weightlessly through the night into a tunnel carved by powerful headlamps. It was a mostly interstate romp, and even big pickups fled the left lane before me. Steering and throttle seemed to be wired to my brain; slingshotting past traffic took the merest thought, accompanied by surging revs and a distant engine snarl. The suspension might have been connected to the seat of my jeans. Brakes? Never touched them till it was time to exit.
The finish was 35 miles of empty, winding country two-lane. By then it was snowing and the tarmac was turning white. Worried? Not with all-wheel-drive grip on top of everything else.
At the house I sat for a moment, reveling in what we’d just done: Knocked off a long and normally arduous trip in one compressed blast, in complete comfort and safety and with no drama at all. I could have reversed out of the driveway and done it all over again.
Such periods of motoring Zen are rare reminders (in our traffic-choked, speed-repressed, cupholder-obsessed highway culture) of what driving can be. So was this a Porsche? An M-sport BMW? An Aston Martin or a Maserati? No, no—it was a Lexus, that anodyne brand favored by One Percenters who regard driving as a chore.
On paper the GS 350 is not remarkable: a 306-horsepower V-6 and a 6-speed automatic, a posh and oh-so-tasteful cabin, stereo and computer systems better than what most of us have at home . . . that’s standard for upper-shelf sedans from Japan. But while several Acuras and Infinitis might have pulled off this midnight ride of the Valkyries, no previous Lexus cars that I am familiar with could have done it so well. They’d have been too squishy or too wooden.
Last year Toyota executives began to fret publicly that Lexus was a product that aroused no passion. Coincidentally or not, Lexus had earlier unwrapped its carbon-fiber V-10 supercar, the LFA, and set some record at the Nürburgring, that merciless track in Germany where carmakers go to bash their way to way to marketing glory. It’s a long reach—about $330,000 and 250 horsepower—from the LFA down to this GS 350, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some shared genes. (Lexus hasn’t loaned me an LFA, so I can’t say for certain.)
In town, however, the GS 350 has no better reflexes or maneuverability, or trickier features, than any other upper-end sedan. Inside, anyone who has suffered the proliferation of gadgets in luxury cars is soothed by the GS’s comparatively simple array of buttons and knobs. I can deal with this! But start it up and you’re whacked in the eyeballs by a high-resolution computer monitor that’s more than a foot across. It’s a split screen, and the information overload is intimidating. Then you discover the computer mouse-like controller in the center console. At first it seems way too sensitive, especially for use in a moving vehicle, but you do learn the touch. You gingerly begin to feel your way through the computer menus, and decide it’s not so bad after all. You can do it without a 14-year-old co-pilot.
Page 2 of 2 - The car is now filthy with long speed-streaks of road grime. I don’t want to wash it because they remind me of last night’s dash through the elements. Mechanical perfection without soul is boring, and with the GS 350, Lexus finally offers some pepper to go along with its well-refined salt.
That was then. This GS 350, with a proper owner’s manual in the glove box and a window sticker (with a price of $55,407), is the production version. Without the benefit of a long midnight romp for comparison, it leaves me wanting to drive its two newer siblings, the GS 350 F Sport (starting price $52,590 and also available with all-wheel drive) and the GS 450H, a higher-performance, rear-drive-only gas-electric hybrid that runs about 10 grand more.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of IMPA, the International Motor Press Association, whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.