We've always appreciated the build quality of Lexus, Toyota's premium brand, but found their sedans to be stodgy. After all, it was only a few years ago that you could still get one with a cassette player. So the redesigned GS350 comes as a surprise — not so much in its physical change as in its attitude. As in, it now has one.
Appearance: The most notable changes are up front, where the GS350 — ours came with the F Sport package — gets the "spindle" grille that draws its inspiration from Lexus' recent LF-LC concept car. The lower fascia also is more aggressive-looking — especially in the F Sport — with pronounced creases and ducts that bring to mind a racer. The headlights get an eyeliner LED treatment. The F Sport also brings 19-inch, five-spoke alloys with a dark graphite finish. These are sharp wheels. The car also gets a wider stance — Lexus says 2 inches worth — but the rest of the body remains mostly unchanged.
Performance: The rear-wheel-drive GS350 — AWD is available — has the same engine, a 3.5-liter V-6, and 6-speed automatic transmission as the previous generation, but tuning gives it an extra 3 horsepower to 306. Because we had the F Sport, it also had suspension, brake and steering upgrades. Those changes are noticeable: The handling is taut, and you can take corners confidently. We did find the steering feel to be a bit too light. Something new that stands out: an actual exhaust note, especially at low speeds. We found the transmission a bit finicky when trying to pass on the interstate or in quick acceleration. It's best to use the paddle shifters and Sport Plus (manual) mode, which make for a better driving experience. The harder you push it, the better it responds.
Interior: Lexus always shines when it comes to interiors, and this one didn't disappoint. It had excellent fit and finish, with sporty black perforated-leather seats and aluminum trim. We loved the 16-way adjustable driver's seat, which has power side bolsters. The GS350 has plenty of head- and legroom up front. In the rear, it's adequate, although there's not much foot room. A huge 12.3-inch display dominates the dash and is the largest we've seen. Two-thirds of it is devoted to navigation and the rest is for audio and other functions. To control that big screen, the car has a mouse — Remote Touch Multimedia Controller — to navigate. It works well, but you may find yourself wishing for a "back" button. The interior is quiet, except for that exhaust note, which is actually a comforting sound. Our tester also came with goodies such as rain-sensing wipers, heated and ventilated front seats, power rear shade and a heads-up display.
Our 3 favorites
Grille: This is the new Lexus design philosophy. I hope it spreads to other design elements.
Exhaust note: A sports sedan should have one, after all.
Heads-up display: It's crisp and one of the best I've seen.
Superb handling: Driving on curvy roads is a thrill.
F Sport seat: Driver's seat has plenty of adjustments and bolstering for those curvy roads.
LCD: The huge display dominates the dash.
The bottom line: We were prepared to not like the new GS350, but it made a new fan in Peter. The F Sport is still more "sporty" than "sport," but it's an all-around improvement that should get the German automakers' attention.