When it comes to luxury sedans, Lexus has been a solid player since the brand was created in 1989, but as the 2009 model year closes out it's apparent that Toyota's luxury division is only getting stronger. Offering a total of five luxury sedans ranging from the compact hybrid HS to the flagship LS, Lexus' lineup now rivals that of the German luxury marques that are usually the benchmarks of the market. I recently spent some time behind the wheel of the 2009 Lexus GS 350 and afterward concluded that this is probably the brand's most balanced offerings.
Slotting in between the ES and the LS, the 2009 GS is available in three trim levels (GS 350, GS 460 and GS 450h) with a starting MSRP of $44,550, but the GS 350 I drove came with an as-tested price of $47,435. Even at this price, the GS holds a slight price advantage over some of its main competitors including the Cadillac STS V-6, Mercedes-Benz E350 and Acura RL. In a class of vehicles where the difference of the top and the bottom car comes down to the little details, I was able to see how the 2009 Lexus GS 350 stacks up against newer models from Germany, Japan and the United States.
2009 Lexus GS 350 Exterior
Lexus models are generally known for their conservative, yet stylish, vehicle designs, but since its introduction in 1991, the Lexus GS has managed to exemplify this trait without being overly bland. That all changed with the redesigned styling of the third-generation GS in 2005, which has remained about the same through the 2009 model year. The latest GS design is highlighted by its swept roofline that stretches back far enough that it gives the sedan a hatchback-like profile. The short, almost non-existent decklid is magnified by the swooping C-pillars as well as the long, curvaceous hood, helping to give this rather large sedan a sporty stance. One of the more intriguing aspects of the GS' design is the fact that it offers a delicate balance of rounded lines and boxy edges, which somehow helps make the car look larger than it really is (the GS actually has an overall length that is shorter than most of the competition).
Giving the GS its unique appearance, Lexus incorporates the signature quadruple headlight layout that debuted on the 1997 model and a prominent Lexus waterfall grille up front, while the short decklid helps counteract the long rear overhang, giving the back end of the car an athletic, stocky appearance. This test model also came with a stylish set of 17-inch, seven spoke alloy wheels and Lexus' greenish Verdigris Mica hue to finish off its elegant design.
For those looking to spice up the look of their GS sedan, Lexus does offer a handful of F-Sport Accessories that improves the styling and handling of this big sedan, and the accessories include (among other things) alowered suspension, unique 19-inch alloy wheels, performance brake upgrade and a performance exhaust system. The fact that the GS is an unassuming vehicle that would not be considered a sports sedan, a V-8-powered GS 460 could make for quite a sleeper.
2009 Lexus GS 350 Interior
The true intentions of the 2009 Lexus GS are obvious once inside the vehicle. Lexus' attention to interior details is apparent from the soft, perforated leather to the remarkable fit and finish. To keep the instrument panel neat and tidy, Lexus even hides a handful of lesser-used controls (such as exterior mirror controls and the odometer trip button) in a nifty drop down panel to the left of the steering column. If the interior isn't inviting enough, the GS welcomes the driver with LED exterior approach lights when the smart key is detected and soft LED interior lights welcome occupants into the cabin when individual doors are opened. Real wood and aluminum trim finish off the GS' cabin, but we found that the high-gloss wood used on the center console can create a distracting glare most of the time.
Unlike a conventional sport sedan, the GS 350 is just as fun to be a passenger in as it is to drive thanks to its spacious rear seat and front seats that offer 10-way power adjustments with three memory settings and heated seat backs and bottoms. The driver also benefits from power tilt and telescoping steering wheel for more fine-tuned adjustments. The GS feel also uses front and rear floor mats that feature thick, plush carpeting that is equivalent to the carpet in most peoples' living rooms.
As nice as the cabin of the GS is, there were a couple of elements that might prove to be problematic for some drivers. The most noticeable issue is the fact that the driver's side head restraint moves up and down automatically as the driver's seat is moved fore and aft, which doesn't allow for any finely tuned adjustments such as for drivers with longer legs and shorter torsos (or vice versa). More tech-savvy drivers will also note the lack of audio interfaces such as a USB port or a hard drive to rip audio tracks to. While searching for the auxiliary jack hidden in the back of the center console, the fact that the cassette tape player is more easily accessible shows that the GS is targeted more toward older drivers who probably don't even own an iPod. This doesn't mean that the GS is lacking cabin technology as our test car was equipped with the optional ($1,850) navigation system that features a high-resolution touch-screen display.
While the GS' stubby decklid gives it a unique look, it also hampers cargo capacity comparedto the competition. Not only is the 12.7 cubic cargo capacity one of the smallest among its competitors, but the trunk opening is very small as well limiting the size of the cargo. Longer items such as snow skis must pass through a small opening behind the rear armrest since the rear seat back does not fold down. The cargo area does have convenient metal loops built into the floor and a power trunk closer that automatically closes the decklid once the latch makes contact to prevent having to slam the lid shut.
2009 Lexus GS 350 Performance & Handling
Sitting at the base of the GS lineup, the GS 350 uses a 3.5-liter direct-injected V-6 that produces 303 horsepower and 274 lb-ft of torque - both numbers are good enough to make it one of the most powerful cars among its V-6 competitors. The only transmission available on the GS 350 is the six-speed sequential-shift automatic with sport and manual shifting modes. Our test model came with the standard rear-wheel drive layout, but all-wheel drive is optional for additional $1,950. In total, this big luxury sedan gets EPA fuel economy estimates of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.
The GS 350 produces excellent power and acceleration, but the sedan's road manners are by far the most impressive aspect of the chassis setup. The smooth-riding suspension is tuned perfectly to match the luxurious nature echoed in the cabin, but if pushed the GS is capable of impressive acceleration. In spite of the GS 350's 3,795 pound curb weight, acceleration is brisk with Lexus claiming a 0-60 mile per hour run in 5.7 seconds (the GS 450h can get to the same speed in a surprising 5.2 seconds).
2009 Lexus GS 350 Safety
It is common for some newer vehicles to come with a 'not tested'? rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but we found it odd that it doesn't list any safety ratings for the third-generation GS which dates back to 2005. As for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), it gave the GS Good ratings for frontal- and side-impact protection and a Marginal rating for rear-impact protection. Standard safety equipment on the 2009 Lexus GS includes 10 airbags (including knee and thorax airbags for front passengers), vehicle stability control, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist and tire pressure monitoring system.
As some luxury automakers flaunt their flashy designs and high-performance drivetrains, the Lexus GS is sticking with the formula that has made it one of the top mid-size luxury sedans in its segment by providing a plush, spacious interior and a smooth, comfortable ride. This isn't to say that the 2009 Lexus GS 350 is a sluggish land yacht though, as its powerful V-6 engine provides surprising acceleration.
Select photos by Jeffrey N. Ross