Test Drive: 2015 Lexus GS 350 AWD F-Sport

Driving along in the 2015 Lexus GS 350 F-Sport somewhere between Duncan and Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island, I exited the Trans Canada highway and found myself on one of the Island's famous backroads — a narrow ribbon of blacktop that twisted and undulated along the coastal topography, occasionally skirting the water's edge before diving back into deep, shadowed forest.

It would be exaggerating to say that trumpets sounded and angels sang, but maybe not by much.

Until this point I'd been enjoying the Lexus strictly as a luxury highway conveyance, and it hadn't disappointed: The GS 350 is richly appointed inside, and my driving comfort was assured thanks to the supple leather upholstery, nicely-bolstered heated and cooled front seats, useful head-up display, potent 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, and full-featured infotainment system with a huge 12.3-inch screen that makes reading the navigation system a snap.

What the GS 350 hadn't yet done was engage the driver within me in any particular way, but that was about to change: Seeing the opportunity to test the performance side of the GS 350 F-Sport's luxury-performance credentials on the backroad, I rotated the console-mounted drive mode controller to select Sport+, then rolled on the throttle as I rounded the first gently sweeping corner.

It would be exaggerating to say that trumpets sounded and angels sang, but maybe not by much. Because while moseying along the highway in Normal mode had revealed exactly the qualities I was expecting of the big Lexus, with a comfortable, well-damped ride and relaxed-yet-competent handling, pushing the car along backroads in Sport+ mode revealed a completely different aspect of its personality. Switching to Sport+ mode makes the instrument lighting glow red, tweaks the throttle and transmission response, and firms up the suspension to transform the GS 350 F-Sport into an unexpectedly focused canyon carver that seems lighter and smaller than it really is, feels directly connected to the road, and fairly begs to be pushed. Who'd have thought?

Actually, judging by the GS 350's Canadian sales figures the answer to that question is easy: Very few people at all. The midsize luxury performance segment is dominated by Mercedes and BMW, with buyers snapping up 3,789 E-Class sedans annually (based on 2014 figures) and 2,337 5 Series. Audi comes next, moving 1,113 A6s during 2014, while Cadillac makes a good domestic showing with 1,076 CTS sedans sold. As for Lexus, well, let's talk about Jaguar instead, because it sold 567 XF sedans in 2014. All Lexus managed in the segment was 480 GS models, and only Infiniti fared worse, selling just 128 Q70s. (I'm ignoring the 243 Acura RLXs sold here because I see the front-wheel drive RLX as more of a competitor for the similarly front-wheel drive Lexus ES, 2,726 of which were purchased in Canada last year.) In the U.S., buyers pay a little more attention to the GS, putting it close behind the A6 and CTS, and well ahead of the Jaguar. Still, it's a pretty cool reception for such a surprisingly good car. 

Under the hood, the GS 350 comes with just one choice of engine, a proven naturally-aspirated 3.5L V6 that generates 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. While U.S. versions are available with either rear-wheel drive (which gets an eight-speed automatic transmission) or all-wheel drive (which gets a six-speed), Canadian cars all get AWD. In normal driving the powertrain is smooth, quiet and refined, but the V6 wakes up with a satisfying bellow when you venture hard onto the throttle, and will push the 1,765 kg sedan from 0 to 100 km/h in just under six seconds.

The transmission features paddle shifters for when you want to shift things yourself, and these proved satisfying to use thanks to their reasonably prompt response (there's some lag, but not frustratingly so) and rev-matched downshifts. Fuel economy is perfectly respectable for a mid-size car, with official five-cycle ratings of 12.6 / 9.1 L/100km (city/highway), and an actual recorded average for my test car of 12.7 L/100km in mixed driving, including a few quite enthusiastic runs.

Underpinning the GS 350 is a double-wishbone front suspension and multilink rear suspension, with big confidence-inspiring disc brakes at each corner. Beyond these basics, the suspension can be had in two distinct flavours: the base car has conventional dampers and is slightly softer sprung, while F-Sport versions like my test car get adaptive variable dampers (with driver-selectable mode control) and slightly firmer spring rates. Personally I like this setup, and all things being equal it's the way I'd go, but it does bump the price by $4,250 (or $8,800 if you go with my test car's more comprehensive F-Sport Series 2 package).

Inside, the GS 350 is nicely appointed, well-assembled, and thoroughly sound-proofed. Every imaginable touchpoint is soft-surfaced (including not just the door uppers but the lowers too), and luxurious touches in my test car included a padded, contrast-stitched dash top, handsome semi-gloss aluminum trim with an embossed woodgrain pattern, and thick-rimmed leather-wrapped F-sport steering wheel. The only thing perhaps lacking is in-cabin storage: there's a pair of cupholders and a good-size console bin with a tray, but nothing in the way of small cubbies for keys, cell phones, or what-have-you.

As is typical in the luxury segment, many of the car's features are controlled through the infotainment interface (thus reducing the clutter of switches on the centre stack) and here the GS 350's big 12.3-inch screen gives it a real advantage over its lesser-endowed competitors. For 2015 Lexus has improved things by providing a split-screen ability so you can view and control up to three different functions (navigation, audio, climate and so on) at once.

What hasn't changed is the mouse-style haptic controller long favoured by Lexus, and here the GS 350 gives up something to its competitors because the controller, while slick in concept, takes some getting used to and can be fiddly and distracting to operate when moving (I'm not the only one to complain about the controller, and Lexus has been migrating to a touch pad in some newer models). On a happy note, while the menu system is necessarily quite extensive I found it reasonably easy to navigate, and basic functions like connecting a cell phone were dispatched quickly and easily. On an even more happy note, of the few physical controls that remain, traditional audio volume and tuning dials are two of the most prominent. I appreciate having a real tuning control.

In practical matters, the GS 350 has spacious and comfortable seating for four, but the fifth seat, in the centre rear, is merely okay. The trunk is big enough at 405 litres, and it has a ski pass-through and handy pull-down hanger to keep your cargo organized, but the rear seatbacks don't fold down. Safety is taken care of with traction control, stability control, ABS brakes and multiple airbags, and the GS 350 earned good ratings in IIHS crash testing.

Standard equipment includes everything you'd expect in a luxury car (dual-zone air conditioning, power windows and locks with keyless entry, power moonroof, power operated seats, heated steering wheel, cruise control, 12-speaker premium audio system, backup camera, 18-inch alloy wheels, and so on). Beyond this, a series of available packages allow you layer on additional luxury, adding things like an upgraded 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, rear seat climate controls, heated rear seats, dynamic cruise control, power rear sunshade, power trunk and a whole array of driver assistance technologies including including blind spot monitor, cross traffic alert, driver monitoring system, pre-collision system and head-up display.

My test car's $8,800 F-Sport Series 2 Package included many of these luxury features (the upgraded sound system, dynamic cruise control, power trunk, clearance and backup sensors and driver assistance technologies) and added F-Sport equipment including the variable adaptive suspension with drive mode selector, bigger 19-inch F-Sport alloy wheels, unique front fascia and grille (although sadly the F-Sport loses the option of fog lights), rear spoiler, unique F-Sport seats and steering wheel, aluminum sport pedals and more.

With a starting price of $59,845 including the $1,995 destination charge, the Lexus GS 350 offers competitive pricing within its segment, and while its optional packages can add significant cost they do offer good bang for the buck. By the time you add comparable equipment to some of the German marques— or even the Cadillac for that matter — the Lexus  ends up looking like something of a bargain, and its proven drivetrain and reputation for reliability should help it keep a lid on maintenance expenses down the road.

With its rich interior and responsive, dynamic chassis the GS 350 is a car that manages to achieve a true balance between luxury and sport, and if you're a luxury performance car buyer who has only ever considered the traditional German brands, it might pleasantly surprise you.

Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 6 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Audi A6
BMW 5 Series
Cadillac CTS
Infiniti Q70
Jaguar XF
Mercedes-Benz E-Class

2015 Lexus GS 350 AWD
articles_PricingType 2015 Lexus GS 350 AWD
Base Price $57,850
Optional Equipment $8,800 (F-Sport Series 2 package)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,995
Price as Tested $69,745
Optional Equipment