The Lexus GS 400 was a surprise right from the start. First of all, it looks like no other Lexus. Its sleek aerodynamic shape presents a stunning appearance, finished with a rear spoiler and five-spoke aluminum wheels that say it means business. Some critics have charged that Lexus cars, though nearly flawless, are somewhat lacking in character. It was immediately obvious that this would not be the case with the GS 400.
Even more surprising is the brilliant acceleration performance. The GS 400 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 6 seconds. That's quick. And it will cruise all day long at speeds that are not at all socially acceptable. In this mode, it is an extremely stable car that instills confidence in the driver.
From any angle, the Lexus GS 400 makes a statement. From the side, it presents a dramatically sloping nose with a cab-forward placement of the lower edge of the windshield. Unique football-shaped headlights sweep up and back into the fender.
A thin, graceful roofline arches back to a stubby rear deck. A chrome strip surrounds the side windows and accents the shape of the glass. This strikes an interesting contrast with the flat black window posts. For engineering reasons, the rear side glass is divided into a third window, which breaks up an otherwise graceful sweep of glass.
Large multi-lens taillights wrap around to the sides, making a strong design statement from the rear. Small, separate brake lights adorn the rear. The $440 optional rear spoiler that came on our test car heightens the car's appearance as a high-performance sedan. The spoiler serves as a small status symbol among GS 400 owners because getting it requires ordering one of the premium option packages. The bottom of the rear fascia has a gentle race car-like curl between the twin tailpipes for improved aerodynamics.
From a practical standpoint, the trunk lid raises a full 90 degrees and the lift-over height is low for easier loading and unloading. At 14.8 cubic feet, the cargo capacity is comparable to other cars this size.
Our $46,000 GS 400 came with the $3,055 Premium Package, which includes a CD changer, power moonroof, heated front seats and the HID headlamps. The total came to just under $49,500. Since we were spending that much, we may also have considered the $215 upgraded tire package, which swaps the 225/55VR-16 Michelin Pilot HX MXM tires on 16-inch alloy wheels for a set of 235/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE030 tires mounted on 17-inch wheels. The shorter sidewalls of the 17-inch tires might degrade the superb ride quality, but we did not get a chance to try them out.
It's pleasant inside a GS 400 and we found ourselves just parked at times, listening to the sound system and enjoying the surroundings. Lots of leather, thick carpeting and tasteful design add to the ambiance. This interior manages to feel roomy and cozy at the same time.
The GS 400 instrument panel and dashboard is a refreshing departure from other designs from Japan. Turn on the ignition and a black panel illuminates to reveal gauges with black markings on white faces lighted from the rear. The intensity of the backlighting automatically varies with ambient light. The gauges are a handsome, creative design and are easy to read.
Audio and climate controls are logically laid out and easy to use with separate heating and cooling controls for driver and passenger. A hydrocarbon air pollution sensor automatically switches to the recirculation mode when contamination is detected.
An optional navigation system fills the center of the dash, moving stereo and climate controls to the top and bottom of an information screen. The navigation system comes as part of a $5,305 package that includes a six-disc CD changer, power moonroof, heated front seats and high-intensity discharge headlamps.
Opening and closing power windows and moonroof are a one-touch operation. A sensor stops the window or moonroof and warns the driver when anything -- such as the head of a child or pet -- is blocking its path. The supplied keyless remote can be used to operate the windows and moonroof automatically, depending on the season. A hidden electric garage door opener can be programmed for nearly all frequencies.
The view out the front of the GS 400 is excellent, but the rear view is restricted somewhat by the rear headrests and wide C-pillars. Lexus GS models come standard with seat-mounted side-impact air bags.
Lexus redesigned its 4.0-liter V8 engine before dropping it into the GS 400. It boasts four camshafts (dohc) and 32 valves. Variable valve timing allows the engine to deliver strong torque at low engine speeds, while providing healthy horsepower at higher speeds -- often mutually exclusive benefits. The engine produces 300 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds (lbs.-ft.) of torque. Most of that torque (80 percent) is available at just 1800 rpm, giving the GS 400 lots of around town cruising power and allowing it to sprint away from intersections. In spite of its impressive acceleration performance, the GS 400 delivered an EPA highway fuel economy rating of 23 mpg on the highway.
All that power gives the Lexus GS 400 a leg up on its performance-luxury counterparts from Europe: BMW's 540i has a 282-horsepower V8. Mercedes-Benz offers its comparably sized E320 with a 221-horsepower V6 and its larger S420 with a 274-horsepower V8.
The $37,800 Lexus GS 300 uses a 3.0-liter, 225-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine. It can make the run to 60 mph in a quick 7.6 seconds and boasts a 25-mpg EPA highway rating. Its top speed is electronically governed at 144 mph, while the GS 400 is governed at 149 mph. The GS 300 doesn't have all the features of the $46,000 GS 400 and it certainly isn't as fast, but its price is $8,200 less.
All Lexus GS sedans come with a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with a console shifter. The transmission is designed to be shifted manually as well. The top half of the shift gate has the familiar PRND markings. To the left of Drive is M for manual. Pulling the shifter toward the left permits manually downshifting and upshifting using the shift lever. This can also be accomplished by using the Formula 1 racing-inspired buttons on the front and back of the steering wheel. Pushing the button on the front of the steering wheel downshifts one gear. Pushing the button behind the wheel upshifts one gear. A readout at the bottom of the speedometer displays the selected gear. Electronics prevent downshifting above the engine's redline.
Like all true high-performance cars, the Lexus GS is rear-wheel drive. The GS 400 features anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic traction control and vehicle skid control (VSC). The latter can be switched off using the console mounted button. Skid control uses the brakes to bring the car back on course if it senses the car is going in a direction not consistent with the steering wheel position.
With all that horsepower, right-foot gratification is instantaneous and substantial. In fact, drivers inexperienced with high horsepower ratings may find themselves intimidated the first few times they apply full throttle. The GS 400 practically leaps off the road when given full throttle. There is plenty of engine noise, but it is a high-tech mechanical sound rather than the angry noise of a Corvette's V8. However, the force pushing the driver back into the seat is very Corvette like.
Under normal driving conditions, the GS 400 is a perfect gentleman. It is sedate and effortless with just the right amount of steering effort to instill a firm feeling of control often missing in luxury cars.
The ride quality more like a BMW than a Cadillac -- firm, but not harsh. The suspension absorbs road variations, while providing reassurance in tight turns and fast sweepers. The stellar acceleration performance is backed up by high-performance brakes. The GS 400 stops quickly and without drama with big anti-lock disc brakes.
Optional high-intensity discharge headlamps throw a wide pattern with bright, sharply defined edges. The light sometimes appears blue/white, but is actually a very white hue in a world of yellowish headlights. We liked them.
Buyers considering a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E Class should look closely at a GS 400. The all-new Lexus GS 400 delivers awe-inspiring performance and a head-turning exterior design. There is simply nothing like it on the road today.