In an age now where mid-size luxury sedans are stronger, faster and better than ever before….
How come they aren’t the kings of the family fleet any more?
Way back in the 90s when your scribe grew up, we had a quick way of telling whether the cars lined up for a party in the neighborhood were from parents or the kids. If it was all 4Runners and Explorers, then it was definitely a kid party and time to get wild!
But if it was stately 740iL’s, XJ’s and Lexus LS sedans… then we knew it was a parent party and to steer clear.
As we cross into 2020 and beyond, that distinction would not be nearly as clear. Big boss luxury SUVs have taken the hearts and minds of gentle, mid-aged shoppers almost completely. The high-riding SUV transition seems like a one-way street. People go up into SUVs, but they rarely if ever come back down to sedans afterward.
The Lexus GS finds itself smack in the wrong place at the wrong time for buyer wants. Although this sedan is chock full or core luxury and sport sedan appeal…. It is fighting for its life due to low sales.
We sped around town in this throwback to the boss, rear-drive luxury sedan to see if the magic is still there – regardless of consumer trends.
Short take: does the 2018 GS350 F Sport look hot, premium and exciting?
It does. The fang-like lower grille intakes are intense and are a good match for the darkened trims all around, bright orange Lexus-branded brake calipers and wide-set rubber on all four corners.
The full GS line got a light refresh with the arrival of the GS-F for 2016. Along with the turbo GS200t, the core GS350 and GS450 sedans got fresh lighting, revamped grilles, wheels, trims and tech on the inside.
All of the GS sedans basically mimic the GS-F looks as much as they can, with the new slimline headlights and painted bumper portion between the standard arrowhead LED and the main lamp elements.
The really crucial visual option in our book are the $1200 triple-beam LED low and highbeams. These are so cool and special you will want them on even during the day to set this Lexus above almost all others on the road.
Without the snazzy nose and fancy LEDs, there is a whole lot that is spookily familiar in the design of the GS.
Fenders, doors, roof and more are carry-over for years now, while the 5 series got two redesigns and the Volvo sedan range is unrecognizable versus a decade ago.
There is classic elegance in the GS stance and proportions. And lots of goodness in the F Sport package at doing a good true F-car impression.
But these looks will not feel nearly as fresh this time next year, while the new C-Class or E-Class might still feel pretty modern.
The cabin of the GS takes the same one-step-forward, one-stuck-in-mud approach to the updates.
Yes, we have much to love in the F Sport-exclusive 14-way seats with standard cooling and heating, adjustable bolsters and extendable seat base squab. The dark silver metallic finishes inside are deeply touchable and very classy. As is the sporty, thick steering wheel and awesomely sunken drive position. The enormous central display screen is definitely not yestertech even in 2018 (thanks to the 2016 refresh) – but look a bit closer and there are elements of the GS that are firmly stuck in 2010.
Example? The buttons and touch points have a lot more in common with the previous-gen Camry than they do with the new LS and LC flagships from Lexus. Lots of downmarket elements like the cruise control stalk to remind you this car shares a parent company with more humble machines.
This is a plus for some – the elements are proven to be exceptionally durable and exceptionally easy to use. Nearly all drivers will be able to adjust the radio and climate controls without too much anger or frustration.
But for those looking for an ultramodern experience?
The GS is sorely lacking in goodies. Little things remind you of the age of this vehicle: things like the incandescent bulbs for the overhead lamps versus LEDs. The keyfob is gigantic for unknown reasons.
How does it actually feel though? It feels stellar. The drive positions are nearly flawless, the shift paddles fall right under your fingertips, and the traditional PRNDL shifter will confuse no one. Isolation and comfort on the road are quite good despite this being the F Sport model – thanks to the adaptive variable dampers, no doubt.
The steering even feels meaty as heck for the default drive mode. There are charming elements of the car, for sure. But anything that wasn’t there five or ten years ago? Nope.
We also missed the 4-wheel-steering in the Sport+ drive mode of the RC350 Coupe. Variable-ratio rack is decent but not as gee-whiz fun as expected for a $60k sport sedan.
Has there been a “but…” on the tip of my tongue this entire review? Yes, unfortunately.
Much as we love the F Sport additions for their excellent value at making a lux cruiser into a canyon carver, and much as the looks are baby GS-F in almost every way….
The GS350 F Sport in 2018 is utterly forgettable and without true purpose. Not only has the marketplace moved to crossovers and sport-SUVs, but at the same time there are about 3X more $50k sedan rivals than there were a decade ago.
Even this is not the kicker, though. That is sheer pace.
The GS350 feels very lethargic off the line and anemic in low-speed passing maneuvers. It is not clear whether the fault lies with the transmission or the 311HP V6 engine. But the GS350 feels utterly tortoise-like on full throttle.
The F Sport addition brings the active induction sonics to boost the rev drama of the machine. But the sounds seem slightly silly for a car that feels like a 7.5-second sprint to 60-mph.
Perhaps because the world has gone huge-torque turbo mad? Or perhaps something else entirely.
Whatever the reason is, the GS350 cannot proudly call itself a sport sedan when it is this lackluster on full throttle.
Where does the GD350 F Sport really score versus its mid-size luxury rivals like 5 series and Volvo S90?
GS300 with the turbo four comes in with pricing from $46k, while this GS350 F Sport has a $53k base with lots of standard goodies.
Color heads-up display is $900, limited-slip diff is $500, 835-watt stereo is $1400 and 3M paint protection film for $400 takes the total to $57,839 out the door. Versus a 540i M Sport at $88k, this is astounding value.
These days the kids would have no clue whether they were crashing a kid party or one for nerdy parents. SUVs have taken over the universe nationwide, but particularly so in affluent enclaves like most suburbs.
The GS is an amazing step up in comfort and handling excellence versus anything front-drive. And the looks of the F Sport model here are certainly fresh enough to feel cool in traffic. But in truth we had a bit more fun driving the 2018 Camry V6 than we did in the GS.
That is not a great vote of confidence in a car that is a true top-3 favorite with the big V8 in the GS-F.