LOOK SHARPThe fourth generation Lexus GS is a temptingly different choice in the full-sized executive saloon sector. Jonathan Crouch tries it.
Ten Second Review
The Lexus GS is a full-sized executive saloon often forgotten in a segment dominated by cars like the BMW 5 Series, the Mercedes E-Class or the Audi A6. Yet all of these have had to copy its ground-breaking hybrid technology, further refined in this fourth generation model. It's a car that's sharper, both to look at and to drive, as well as being safer and more practical. Plus it's also on offer in conventional V6 petrol form at a more affordable price. This won't be the first model of its kind you think of in this sector, but include a GS in your deliberations and you might find it a tempting proposition.
Being different has always been what Lexus' GS has been about in the full-sized executive saloon segment. Hence its 2006 introduction of the kind of pioneering petrol electric hybrid engine that rivals like BMW's 5 Series, the Mercedes E-Class and the Audi A6 have only just got around to matching. But match it they have, which has led to a thorough re-think of this car by the Japanese brand in fourth generation form.
The most obvious improvement would have been to equip it with the kind of diesel engine that most European buyers in this segment seem to want, but that wasn't viable given that almost all GS production is sold in America and Japan where there's no interest in fuelling from the black pump. What Lexus could do was to make the GS450h hybrid variant more powerful, more practical and more efficient, add an affordably priced conventional GS250 petrol V6 entry-level version to draw new customers in and improve the appeal of both models with sharper handling, smarter looks and higher technology. The result is this MK4 design, launched in the Summer of 2012. It'll be a rare choice. But might it not be a rather clever one? Let's find out.
So what's the GS experience like? Very quiet, is the answer at the wheel of the GS450h hybrid version. Silence when first you begin and push the starter button. Silence when you ease through slow-moving rush hour traffic, the petrol V6 engine cutting in only above 25mph, unless you've a particularly heavy right foot. Like most hybrids, the car can trickle along powered by the 288V nickel metal-hydride battery pack only (as it is from start-off) or more usually, with a combination of both battery and engine, something you can monitor via a graphic display in the centre of the dash.
What all this cleverness creates is not only an environmentally-minded Executive saloon but also a very powerful one that glides away from rest, then storms forward as if magnetically attracted by the horizon. If you keep you right foot planted firmly to the floor in the GS450h, sixty from a standing start is demolished in just 5.9s on the way to a top speed necessarily limited to 155mph. There's also a lower-powered 178bhp GS300h hybrid model on offer. In the GS250 conventional V6 petrol model, the figures are 8.6s and 144mph. Either way, there's a 'Drive Mode Select' system with 'Eco' and 'Sport' settings, depending on how you want to drive. And the option of choosing an F-Sport model that, as well as stiffer springs and dampers, gives you what Lexus calls 'AVS' - 'Adaptive Variable Suspension' - accessible via an extra more dynamic 'Sport Plus' setting. Go for the top GS450h F-Sport and this is also combined for a four wheel steering system.
Design and Build
This fourth generation GS is a more confident piece of design than any of its predecessors, an approach emphasised by the neat 'spindle-shaped' arrangement for the upper and lower front grilles, a sort of 'flattened hourglass' design now a trademark of all the brand's latest cars. The sleeker body is the same length as the previous generation model but slightly higher and wider and certainly more dynamic-looking thanks to shorter front and rear overhangs.
And inside? Well interiors have always been a Lexus strongpoint and this one is no exception to the rule. Carefully crafted satin trim details, high quality stitching and brushed aluminium highlights are all pleasing to the eye, as is the analogue clock forged from a single ingot of metal. More importantly perhaps, the layout of the long, sculpted dash gives the driver and front passenger a sense of roominess and the shape of the front doors and centre console combine to offer the sense of being safely cocooned in the car.
Revised door openings mean that it's easier to get in and out. And once at the rear, there's much more head, leg and kneeroom, thanks to a re-designed seating layout and thinner front seatbacks. All well and good but what about the boot? Not to put too fine a point on it, the trunk capacity of the previous generation GS, in hybrid form at east, was pathetic - just 280-litres. Now, thank goodness, a vertical relocation of the hybrid system's battery has improved things by a massive 55%, allowing 465-litres of space, a figure that improves to 552-litres if you opt for the GS250 model.
Market and Model
Though key options like an estate bodystyle and a diesel engne are admittedly missing from the GS range, much of that can be forgiven when you start to look in detail at the competitive pricing. It'll help considerably that you no longer have to stretch into the £45,000-£50,000 bracket for the privilege of GS ownership. That price span still applies to the GS450h hybrid in its various guises but if you can be satisfied with the conventional petrol V6 of the entry-level GS250, then you can be looking at a starting figure of well over £10,000 less than that. Which would get you an executive saloon with V6 power for the kind of money that rivals will charge you for an equivalent model with four cylinders. Perhaps the pick of the range though is the least expensive 178bhp GS300h hybrid, priced from around £32,000 and equipped with the kind of running costs that will embarrass rival German hybrids and diesels in this segment.
All variants get an exhaustively long kit tally: bi-xenon headlamps, alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, a rear view parking camera, front foglamps, leather upholstery on the 10-way electrically adjustable seats, dual-zone climate control, an electrically-adjustable steering wheel, cruise control, a hill start assist system to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions and a 12-speaker audio system with DAB tuner, Bluetooth and USB/Aux ports for connecting personal music players. It's a bit surprising though that the entry-level GS250 doesn't come with things like rear parking sensors, satellite navigation, metallic paint or power-folding mirrors - though all these items of course are standard further up the line-up.
The big decision with GS ownership though, is whether or not to have the 'AVS' 'Adaptive Variable Suspension' system that improves the handling with its extra 'Sport Plus' mode. It comes with the F-Sport trim level or on the top Premier GS450h variant.
Cost of Ownership
If you have any qualms about the viability of hybrid technology, just look at the figures on offer from the GS450h we tried, around 20% better than those of the original version. Which means that owners can expect a combined fuel return of 46.3mpg and an impressive 141g/km CO2 figure. That's about the same kind of showing as you would get from the kind of six cylinder diesel E-Class, A6, 5 Series or XF that would struggle to match this Lexus' performance, would be noisier, would pump out more harmful NOx and hydrocarbon emissions and would run on pricier fuel. If you want to do even better, the GS300h puts out just 109g/km and can return up to 60.1mpg on the combined cycle.
What else might you need to know? The hybrid system's nickel metal-hydride batteries? They're zero maintenance items guaranteed for 100,000 miles. Insurance? It's group 42 for the GS450h. Residual values? Not quite as good as the top German brands but pretty strong nonetheless.
When it comes to the more conventional GS250 model, the reading isn't quite so rosy - but then you are paying a lot less money up-front. The combined cycle fuel return is 31.7mpg and the CO2 reading is 207g/km. That's some way behind the kinds of figures you'd get from comparable petrol-powered rivals in this segment. But then few of these can offer this Lexus' lovely V6 growl and high standard equipment quota. Insurance for this variant is group 33 - or 34 if you go for the F-Sport variant.
This is a refreshing car in so many ways. Instead of simply copying its competitors in the full-sized executive saloon segment, Lexus continues to take a different approach with this fourth generation GS. You could ask why there's no diesel engine - but in doing so, you'd also have to answer the question as to why one might be needed when in hybrid form, this car can match the fuel and CO2 returns of any direct comparably performing V6 diesel rival you care to name, and do so with greater refinement and less poisonous emissions from cheaper fuel.
Of course, going the hybrid route in this Lexus is hardly inexpensive, hence the importance of the more conventional GS250 petrol V6 model, a key stepping stone between the brand's affordable compact IS and CT models and the plusher luxury hybrids further up the range. But if you can afford it, the GS450h is the version of this car you'll really want - and for once perhaps, you'll get some support from your accountant in choosing such a premium purchase.