Review and road test of the Lexus GS (1998 - 2005)
QUIETLY DOES IT
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Although most laughed at the prospect of a credible Japanese rival to a Jaguar or Mercedes, the laughing stopped when Lexus launched the LS400 back in 1990. Having achieved this masterstroke, the GS300 was, in certain respects, the equivalent of the difficult second album. Whereas the LS instantly rubbed shoulders with the class best, the GS300 never quite hacked it as a credible rival to the Mercedes E Class or the BMW 5 Series. Much of that changed in 1998 when the GS range was thoroughly revised. With the subsequent introduction of the 4.3-litre GS430, the GS range suddenly looked very appealing. A Lexus is about as bulletproof as a used luxury car can get . Just make sure you know what you're getting.
Second generation GS Series - Four door saloon, 3.0-litre, 4.3-litre petrol[ [SE]
The second-generation range arrived in January 1998 in two versions, the S and SE, with a new five-speed automatic transmission to complement the more powerful 3.0-litre engine which now featured variable valve timing. Power was boosted from 209 to 218bhp in the process, although if it was power you were after, the GS430, introduced in October 2000 certainly had that in abundance. With a 4.3-litre V8 engine developing 280bhp, this was the quickest Lexus to date. At the same time as the GS430 was introduced, the S variant of the GS300 was canned, the range consisting of the GS300, short-lived GS300 Sport and GS300 SE. A very minor facelift was also undertaken, with a revised radiator grille and rear lights although few would spot the changes. The base GS300 model and the Sport didn't last very long and nowadays the GS range campaigns solely with plush SE versions of the GS300 and GS430.
What You Get
The Lexus GS series is Japan's (or more accurately Toyota's) idea of what the successful Western executive would like to be driving. When it was first launched in 1993, it was based on a concept car originally designed for Jaguar by Italian stylists Giugiaro. The current version, in contrast, appears to have borrowed more heavily from Mercedes, with similar front and rear styling to Stuttgart's E-class.
The mix of German, Italian and Japanese influences works surprisingly well, giving the distinctive kind of on the road presence so often missing from pricey Oriental saloons. Most potential GS converts, however, may well place luxury as a greater priority than speed. Either way, the car is gaining ground in a tough sector and is a useful stepping stone between the IS200 compact executive saloon and the luxury 4.3-litre V8 LS430.
Visually, the car looks larger than its executive rivals (it isn't; the dimensions match those of BMW's 5 Series to the millimetre). This illusion continues when you climb inside, where the huge rear bench promises room for three of the largest corporate types. The boot's larger too, with 504 litres of space now on offer.
Behind the wheel (which electrically rises up and down to aid entry and exit), there's plenty of high-tech wizardry; take the backlit Optitron instruments, which appear almost magically from three black holes in the dashboard. There's also the option of a superb satellite navigation system. With this in operation, you are politely but firmly ordered around your intended route by a very sexy-sounding English girl. It's tempting to go the wrong way just to listen to her...
This apart, almost everything else is standard. The plush GS300 SE that has proved most popular with UK buyers features a Mark Levinson premium audio system, featuring a custom-designed amplifier and eight specially designed speakers, including a centre dash-mounted speaker for more detailed surround sound. As you'd expect, the car also comes with dual front and side-airbags, electric adjustment for the steering wheel and front seats, climate control, cruise control, a dash-mounted CD changer and a security system with an immobiliser. There's also a heating and 'memory' facility for the front seats, an electric sunroof and the opulence of full leather trim. The Sport trim level was deleted for the 2001 model year, the larger-engined V8-powered GS430 filling that particular remit.
The GS430 itself is extravagantly equipped. The interior of the car carries on the somewhat glitzy effect started by the 'look-at-me' wheels. Packed with every electronic gizmo imaginable, the GS430 is a magnet for technophiles. There's little of the fashionable minimalism that big Audis and BMWs display, and the combination of veneer finish and grey plastic is something of an acquired taste. Nonetheless, the sheer amount of kit is deeply laudable and includes an activated charcoal cabin air filter, electronically adjustable steering wheel, wave-reflector headlamps, water-repellent glass for the front side windows, and leather seats with heating and memory function for the front pair. The wood and leather steering wheel isn't the prettiest fitment, but it's fitted with an airbag, one of a number including passenger, side and curtain-type ready to transform the interior of the GS430 into a bouncy castle in the event of impact.
The equipment list also includes a particularly good speed-sensitive power steering system, a 6-disc CD autochanger located in the glovebox, thus preventing those awkward moments spent digging through luggage in the boot to retrieve a disc. As standard equipment, you get another Mark Levinson stereo, this time featuring a custom-designed amplifier and eight specially designed speakers, including a centre dash-mounted speaker for more detailed surround sound. With an optional satellite navigation system to play with, the GS430 could be the world's finest car to get stuck in traffic in. There's a lot to fiddle with, from the dual climate control air-conditioning to the electrically multi-adjustable front seats. If you can exhaust the entertainment possibilities of all these features, then a game of 'count the cupholders' never loses its appeal - the GS430 has a fair amount to find.
What to Look For
As with the LS series, there is, amazingly, almost nothing to report. Toyota were determined to make these cars as faultless and long-lasting as possible and it seems they've succeeded. The main worry with a Lexus will be accident damage or mileage clocking. The panel gaps on both LS and GS series cars astound even now in terms of consistency and flushness of fit, so a second-rate repair will be obvious.
If you can, check the car's service records and cross-reference mileage with the dealers who carried out the scheduled maintenance. That way, you'll have peace of mind that the immaculate, low-mileage car you're looking at, really is just that.
(Based on a 1998 GS300) A new exhaust, excluding the catalytic converter will be just over £800. Brake pads are roughly £70 each and a headlamp is around £140.
On the Road
Certainly the GS300 is as fast, as smooth, as refined and pretty nearly as good to drive as the best of its rivals. A glorious 3.0-litre straight six-cylinder engine with variable valve timing gives 143mph performance, while the five-speed automatic gearbox is, in our opinion, the world's finest. Handling is predictable and aided in extremis by a new 'Vehicle Stability Control' which cuts into action with a ringing bell and a flashing light should any of the wheels lose grip. The GS300 Sport is further improved by stiffer springs (meaning a 25mm lower ride height), re-calibrated gas-filled dampers and a set of grippy Pirelli P Zero 245/40 tyres. There are also standard High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps, twice as powerful as conventional halogen units.
The engine offered in the GS430 is the same unit which powers the range-topping LS430, and it's an absolute gem. Powered by a 4.3-litre 32-valve V8 that can muster 279bhp, the emphasis, as with all large Lexuses (Lexi?) is on driveability and smoothness rather than outright muscle. Nonetheless, it's still enough to haul the 2145kg GS430 to 60mph in a negligible 6.3 seconds before being electronically limited at 155mph - a fair way short of becoming breathless.
The Lexus GS series operates in a tough corner of the market, running head-on into astonishingly complete cars like the Mercedes E Class, the BMW 5 Series, the Audi A6 and the Jaguar S-TYPE. Few would finger the Lexus as the best all-rounder in this line up, but if you want a used car that offers peerless reliability, superb ride quality and some of the best gadgets around, you could do a lot worse than test drive a Lexus GS. They won't appeal to those looking for sporty handling or those looking for the most elegant shape, but the whisper quiet Lexus GS series would probably be the car we'd choose if we were in it for the long haul. Sssshhh.
Lexus GS (1998 - 2005) review by ANDY ENRIGHT