Lexus' sporty rear drive GS, introduced in 1999, has been totally re-thought for 2006. Far better looking now, the new GS also now has all the performance hardware it needs to run with the big German dogs. The 2006 GS 430 with a muscular 4.3L V-8 under its comely hood showcases Lexus' impressive engineering and build prowess. A no-less-impressive GS 300 with a new direct injection V-6 and AWD is also available. MSRP: $51,125; Warranty: 4/50,000.
Lexus chose to introduce the 2006 GS at the plush Aerie Resort, Conde-Nast's 2002 resort of the year located near Nanaimo, British Columbia. With unusual (for February) sunny, spring-like weather, the Aerie offered an ideal setting to experience these luxurious and very sporty sedans. We had an opportunity to drive the V-6 powered GS 300 in rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, as well as the rear-drive V-8 powered GS 430. The GS shows off the new corporate design philosophy, which Lexus calls "L-Finesse". Future Lexus passenger car models will embody L-Finesse design elements. Shigetoshi Miyoshi (chief engineer for both the GS and the SC430 coupe) told us L-Finesse suggests "performance, refinement and luxury". It also signals the giant Japanese carmaker's determination to be a major player in the global sports luxury car market. Although recognizable as the progenitor of the original GS, the in-house designed 2006 is (by consensus of those journalists at the Aerie) far better looking than Giugiaro's original 1999 design. While it is actually a bit larger than the original GS, the new 2006 version looks much more buff.
In the Driver's Seat
The GS experience begins as you approach the driver's door with the ignition key in your pocket. You're immediately recognized by the car's electronic brain and authorized to enter. A light under the side view mirror illumines the ground under your feet. Touch the door and the latch pops up; as you open the door a light under the dash illumines the driver's side floor. And as you close the door, the ignition button lights up. With your foot on the brake and with the key still in your pocket, you touch the ignition button once and the 4.3L V-8 comes to life. A subtle rumble from the twin exhausts is felt rather than heard. The whole experience is just so... so... well, let's just say I could get used to it very easily. The base sound system will just knock your socks off; I think the optional Mark Levinson installation is overkill. So save your money. Standard ten-way power driver and passenger seats allow anyone of any proportion to get comfy. The large truck holds a lot of stuff and there's also pass-through to the rear seats for extra long cargo. The rear seats have ample legroom but the cushions are set too low to allow back-seat passengers a good view of the passing scenery. Entry to the rear seats is a bit tight as well.
On the Road
Anticipating extra vigilance on the part of the island constabulary, Lexus wisely secured an unused taxiway at Nanaimo's municipal airport to showcase the GS' dynamic abilities. I'm glad they did; I was able to push the GS well beyond what prudence would dictate and it allowed us to do so without fear of running into any of the local wildlife (not to mention cars or, in this case, parked airplanes... try explaining that one to the insurance adjuster). The most obvious advantage the GS 430 has over its direct competitors is its advanced stability control system (VDIM - Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management). VDIM takes Lexus' already excellent VSE automatic stability control system, which uses individual wheel brakes and the throttle to control fishtailing, to another level. By integrating steering control along with brakes and throttle, VDIM makes VSE feel almost primitive by comparison. It allows the driver to maintain complete control under the most extreme conditions. The net effect was to make me look like a far better driver than I actually am. I was able to snake through a greasy slalom course at speeds that caused the VDIM-less GS 300 AWD, which we were using for comparison, to stumble.
Potential buyers of the GS 430 will need deep pockets. Target market is the 40-something with a household income north of $150K -- no doubt the same people who, unlike me, can actually afford to stay at the Aerie Resort. But this is where the going gets tough for Lexus: This is exactly the same buyer that the German luxury car companies have drawn a bead on. So why would this unnamed high roller buy a GS 430 instead of a BMW 545i, Mercedes E500 or Audi A6 4.2? The GS will be far less common in fancy-restaurant parking lots, at least for a while. Another unique point is VDIM, which represents a revolution in electronically-assisted active safety and performance handling. According to GS chief engineer Miyoshi-san, VDIM also has another more subtle purpose: It is intended to help establish Autobahn credibility for the entire GS line. Which it should do because the GS 430 is also a very, very fast automobile. Lexus promises zero to 60 mph times in the 5.7 second range, though top speed will likely be limited to 155 mph as per the gentleman's agreement among the German car companies. When in Rome... or in this case, when in Stuttgart.