The German national anthem opens with the line, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” which translates to “Germany, Germany above all else.” In luxury car sales, the Germans are indeed above all else, especially in the mid-size segment. In 2015, BMW and Mercedes-Benz sold more than twice as many of their 5-Series and E-Class models than Lexus and Cadillac could manage with their rival GS and CTS lines. Judging by these figures, it is clear the market prefers the Germans. However, the question must be asked: are the GS and CTS worth luxury car buyers’ attention? Should the Germans be worried? To find out, I rented both a CTS and a GS through car-sharing website Turo and put them to the test.
The CTS and GS have both recently received a modest freshening and some mechanical tweaks, however they remain much the same as these 2014 test vehicles. The real news at Lexus is the introduction of a 2.0 turbocharged four-cylinder in the GS200t, finally giving the Japanese luxury marque a boosted four like the Germans. Lexus was beaten to the punch by Cadillac: my CTS tester was equipped with a 2.0 turbocharged four, while the GS came with Toyota’s venerable 3.5 V6. Both were rear-wheel-drive, although all-wheel-drive is an option on both.
To help determine which of these two luxury sedans was the most satisfying to operate, I enlisted the help of a driving partner, Brandon. So often, car reviews dwell on the handling of a vehicle above all other attributes. It’s only natural this should happen as a person writing a car review is, more often than not, an enthusiast. Brandon, however, possesses little to no interest in cars so his input helped keep things in perspective. After all, a 5-Series rival must do more than handle superbly. It must offer a high level of features, stellar build quality, and a comfortable cabin and ride. So, which of these two is best equipped to tackle the Teutonic titans?
Second Place – Lexus GS350 F-Sport
Pros: Attractive inside and out, capacious cabin
Cons: Busy ride, lacks agility, some low-rent trim pieces
Verdict: A luxury sedan unconvincingly adapted for sport sedan duty. If you want a plush luxury sedan, don’t tick the F-Sport option box.
While Lexus’ controversial new design language has earned the ire of many, Lexus executives can count me as a fan. No longer invisible, the latest Lexus models have tremendous visual impact. As rival Japanese luxury brand Infiniti struggles with an uncertain brand image, Lexus is going from strength to strength and shedding its rather staid image. Lexus has finally introduced a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, quickly rolling it out to most of their models including the GS. Also available on most models are F-Sport performance and appearance packages and, on the IS, RC and GS lines, exciting F performance flagships. With Lexus in the midst of a renaissance, I went into this test drive with high expectations.
First impressions were promising. The GS wears one of the more conservative interpretations of the brand’s “L-finesse” design language, but the F-Sport package adds more aggressive 19-inch wheels and a rear lip spoiler. The effect is subtle but athletic; it’s worth noting the revised 2016 GS’ styling is even more extroverted.
Inside, the GS features Lexus’ horizontally-oriented interior layout. A 12.3-inch screen features prominently in the center of the dash with a controller located on the center console. However, the GS retains physical buttons for climate control. The F-Sport’s sumptuous leather bucket seats feature prominent bolstering, with the bolsters hugging the driver as the seat belt is buckled. The driver is also greeted with simple and elegant analog gauges. My tester featured seats in a vivid Cabernet red, a delightful splash of color that brightens up the interior. However, the moonroof is a standard-sized unit; unlike some rivals (including the CTS), a panoramic sunroof is not available.
Leather adorns the dashboard and center console, an impressively upscale touch. Unfortunately, the interior is where the GS’ flaws first become apparent. The switchgear for the climate control looks as though it came from a 2002 ES, as does the glove compartment lock.
The leather-wrapped dash is a visual and tactile delight, but a vast swath of hard, dated-looking plastic trim surrounding the infotainment screen is an unwelcome interloper on the dash. Finally, those seats look sumptuous but lack lumbar support on long drives. The turn signal stalk also proves to be an annoyance, the turn signals only staying on if you push the stalk firmly down.
Lexus’ Enform infotainment system has received its fair share of criticism, particularly for its use of a mouse-esque controller, but it is fairly easy to use and boasts clear graphics. The controller also features a rest for your wrist, a sensible addition but one that unfortunately resembles a 1980s car phone. The use of a console-mounted controller makes it more difficult to use the system on the fly than rivals’ infotainment units, although it responds adequately to commands. While I found the interface fairly intuitive, Brandon found the controller to be a nuisance and overly sensitive. Scorn was also levelled at the naff cruise control stalk, awkwardly positioned and cumbersome to use.
Stepping into the rear of the cabin, occupants are pampered with ample room in all dimensions: 37.8 inches of head room, 54.1 inches of hip room, and 36.8 inches of leg room, each measurement larger than in the CTS. The back seat is a comfortable place to sit, then. But my GS had the optional $5,690 F-Sport package, the racy nameplate inviting comparisons to the finest sport sedans from Europe (and the US). So, how does the GS350 F-Sport drive?
Alas, the GS is a luxury sedan unconvincingly adapted to sport sedan duty. The Lexus is little fun in the twisties, feeling every bit its 3800 pound curb weight. Its reflexes are too slow, not helped by steering that is heavy and lacking in feel. The paddle shifters are beautiful but the car doesn’t beg to be manually shifted. Twisting the knob in the center console to Sport mode firms up the suspension and steering but doesn’t much add to the sporting experience. Best to leave the car in Eco mode, then, where the 7-speed automatic shifts smoothly.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that a 190.7-inch long luxury sedan isn’t comfortable being tossed around chicanes. How does the GS serve as a luxury sedan, then? Well, the spacious interior and rich leather are nice but the ride is anything but coddling. It feels perpetually busy, failing to adequately suppress bumps and tramlining tediously on California’s concrete highways. Brandon concurred the CTS would have been a more satisfying companion on our road trip from LA to San Diego on account of the GS’ inferior ride quality. The cabin could also be more hushed – particularly from tire noise – but the sound of the V6 is delightful. The 3.5 mill has been around since 2004 but produces a class-competitive 306 hp at 6400 rpm and 277 ft-lbs of torque at 4800 rpm. The GS350 can hit 60 mph in just under 6 seconds, although the engine can feel out of puff at high altitudes such as the mountains outside of Palm Springs.
The GS350’s base price in 2014 undercut the Germans, the Lexus costing a shade under $48,000. But as with the Germans, you have to tick the boxes for option packages to add niceties like my tester’s power rear sunshade, heated and ventilated front seats, rain-sensing wipers and adaptive headlights; the F-Sport package is a further jump in price, too. Rivals with boosted four-cylinder engines, such as the CTS, offer similar performance and with superior fuel economy to boot: the GS350 manages 19/29 mpg (23 combined) on premium, while a 2014 BMW 528i with a 2.0 turbo four manages 23/33/26.
Unfortunately, my fledgling enthusiasm for the GS – and indeed, the reinvigorated Lexus brand – culminated in disappointment. The F-Sport tries to be both a luxury and sport sedan and isn’t particularly convincing as either. Toyota is trying hard to make both its brands more exciting, and I have no doubt future GS F-Sport models will be more cohesive packages. In the meantime, the GS is best purchased sans the F-Sport package. In regular trim, the GS offers an appealing blend of space, pace and grace. Unfortunately, the F-Sport package is writing checks the driving experience simply cannot cash.
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