(first posted 4/30/2015) Since its introduction in 1989, Lexus has in many ways, become the poster child for success, as far as the luxury car world is concerned. From the its appealing designs and inviting interiors, to its industry-leading levels of quality and customer satisfaction, to its redefinition of the customer service experience, Lexus’ early years were met with success after success and praise after praise, cementing its place in the luxury car field and allowing the brand to be taken seriously against established, high-prestige brands (chiefly, Mercedes-Benz).
In the ensuing years, Lexus continued to redefine the definition of luxury car, with vehicles such as the revolutionary RX crossover, and an early focus on fuel efficiency. To this day, Lexus continues to become more German-like with a heavier emphasis on performance, while retaining the high quality and reliability its customers have come to expect. Of course, even the seemingly golden child has not existed for nearly three decades without a few blemishes on its record. Case in point being the 1993 GS 300.
Sold as the Toyota Aristo in Japan beginning in 1991, the GS 300 was a mid-sized, rear-wheel drive luxury sedan, positioned in the same class as the stalwart E-Class and 5-Series.
Unlike the LS, ES, and SC, which were styled in-house by Toyota’s design studios, the styling of the GS 300 was carried out by Giugiaro in Italy. This resulted in the GS 300 sharing hardly any visual resemblance to other Lexus models. Given the widespread praise of other Lexus designs, it seemed like an odd move, until you consider the fact that work began on the GS in 1988, one year before Lexus reached the market.
Shortly after designing the GS/Aristo, Giugiaro would release a concept for Jaguar in 1990 called the Kensington. Sharing many design elements with the GS, and somewhat even more so with the second generation GS, the Kensington failed to ever see life as a production Jag. Yet the GS and Kensington’s design language would once again appear in the Giugiaro-designed 1997 Daewoo Leganza. It was no different than what Pininfarina had been doing for decades, tailoring the current Italian suit to fit various customers.
Now it should be noted that the primary reason for turning to Giugiaro was in fact to produce a design that stood out, as Japanese designs (especially from Toyota) had a reputation for being overly conservative, and were often criticized for being such, such as the sixth generation MarkII/Cressida.
The end result was a striking departure from any other car in its class or most other cars for that matter. The GS’s wedge-like profile was highlighted by a steeply-raked front fascia, long and low hood, rounded roof line, and unusually high deck-lid (a sharp contrast to that of the Infiniti J30). With what might be described as a “cab-rearward” design, the GS certainly looked the part of a rear-wheel drive luxury sedan. Additionally, the car’s wide stance gave it both aggression and a stately presence.
With that said, the GS 300 was among the more generic aero designs in its class, and it didn’t exude the character nor grace of some competitors. Small wheel openings and wheels tended to give it the elephant in ballerina slippers look from some angles. Despite its mid-size position, the GS was one of the largest cars in its class, coming within about two inches of the LS 400 in length, one inch in wheelbase, one inch in width, and actually surpassing the LS in height by a fraction of an inch. The GS 300 was even longer than a regular-length BMW 7-Series (E32).
With the smaller ES 300 and larger LS 400 largely emphasizing comfort over performance, the GS 300 was marketed as Lexus’s sports sedan. Indeed it did boast a double wishbone suspension, stiffer springs than other Lexus sedans, speed-sensitive steering, and four-wheel ventilated disc brakes. Most importantly to enthusiasts, it was rear wheel drive. But just like strong leg muscles don’t automatically turn a person into an ultra-marathon runner, rear-wheel drive does not magically turn a vehicle into a sports car. A number of other components are instrumental, such as cardiovascular endurance, or in the case of cars, power.
Fitted with a 3.0L I6, Lexus claimed its 220 horsepower and 210 lb.-ft. was capable of propelling the hefty GS 300 from 0-60 in 8.5 seconds. This wasn’t terrible, but certainly not within 535i territory. A 4.0L V8 was available in the Japanese-spec Toyota Aristo, and it’s a shame North American GSs did not receive this engine. The decision to not sell a V8-powered GS was likely to not upstage the flagship LS.
However, as often the case with many luxury car buyers, particularly Lexus buyers, comfort and luxury take precedence over performance. The GS 300 certainly wasn’t lacking in this category, offering an interior that could be equipped to very LS-like levels of luxury.
Things on the inside were more familiar to other Lexus’, with a layout following the design set by the LS 400 and ES 300, albeit a few more curves to complement its exterior shape. Seats sported a distinctive scalloped look with vertical stitching, and genuine walnut accents were applied in a tasteful manner. Overall, it was good enough for its class, although despite being closer to the LS in price, material quality seemed nearer to ES level.
It may have had its imperfections, but the Lexus GS 300 was a respectable effort that given Lexus’ then-stellar reputation and the strong sales of the ES 300 and LS 400, should have gone on to sell in reasonable numbers. Yet over the course of its first generation (1993-1997), the GS 300 sold fewer than 50,000 units. By comparison, the more expensive LS 400 sold over 100,000 examples in that time. Even the less practical and similarly-priced SC 300/400 coupe sold more units than the GS 300 over those five years.
Exterior styling, performance, and interior shortcomings along with lack of family resemblance may have all contributed, but what was likely responsible for the first generation GS 300’s disappointing sales was quite simply its price tag. At the time of its introduction, the GS 300 retailed for $37,500 (just under $61,000 in 2015 dollars), not including destination. By the time popular options like leather, moonroof, and CD changer were added, its price was already over $40,000. By 1997, its base price had climbed to $45,700 (over $74,000 in 2015).
Although the LS 400’s price had also steadily climbed since its introduction, it was still a bargain compared to its German competition, and its base price was never more than a $10,000 premium over the GS 300. Throwing out even more comparisons, a 2015 Lexus GS 350 starts at $48,600 and a 2015 LS 460 begins at $72,520.
Now of course, Japan’s rocky economy from the collapse of its asset price bubble, as well as the threat of U.S. imposed tariffs had a lot to due with the rising prices of Japanese luxury cars in the mid-1990s. But sympathy for an economy half a world away is usually not a major consideration of most luxury car buyers.
In the ensuing years, the GS evolved into a more competitive luxury sports sedan, finding its niche in the marketplace, as well as Lexus’ own lineup. With more powerful engines, more luxury features, and more appealing styling, the GS has easily become Japan’s most formidable competitor in a class ruled by the 5-Series and E-Class. Although it has managed to sell in higher numbers for most years than its first generation, the GS remains a shadow of its German competition, in both sales and prominence. Meanwhile, the similarly-sized, less-sophisticated, and comfort-oriented ES does laps around it in terms of sales, which really says something about Lexus’ brand perception. But that subject has been discussed in another article.
As for the original 1993-1997 GS 300, it was a car that had too many forces working against its chances for success, with the strongest being none other than its price tag. It was merely too little car for too much money, and as a result, buyers went elsewhere.