2012 Lexus GS 350 prototype, an Flash Drive Car Review

2012 Lexus GS 350 test drive Lexus
The 2012 Lexus GS 350 was disguised for our early test drive.

By MARK VAUGHN on 7/22/2011

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What Is It? No, it is not the all-landau-bodied GS. That is camouflage to keep prying eyes away from discovering the truth about Lexus' attempt to get some sales out of its flagging GS line. A total of about 7,000 sales a year is not acceptable to the luxury division, and Lexus hopes that changes to the GS will improve those figures.

Lexus called this prototype a new platform, but it has the exact same 112.2-inch wheelbase as the current car. The new GS is lighter by 157 pounds, at 3,638, and it gets more spot and laser welds to stiffen it up. There are changes to the suspension geometry and to electronic systems such as Adaptive Variable Suspension and Lexus Dynamic Handling. And one model has four-wheel steer. The goal is to make it competitive with sports sedans such as the BMW 5-series, the Audi A6 and the Infiniti M37. We were offered no specifics about horsepower, but Lexus says that the new car's 3.5-liter V6 will have more of it, while getting better gas mileage. The current GS 350 makes 303 hp and 274 lb-ft of torque while returning 22 mpg combined city and highway, so we figure the new car will have at least 304 hp, 275 lb-ft and 23 mpg.

How Does It Drive? Lexus put together a very tidy driving experience for us, combining city streets, an autocross course and a respectably twisty mountain road. In the city, the GS 350 showed that it still had all of the quiet and comfort for which Lexus is renowned. There is more headroom front and rear and a lower hip point for the driver.

On the autocross course, we put the Drive Mode Select into sport-plus and tried like crazy to get the rear end to come out, this being rear-wheel drive and us thinking we were do-rifto kings. But all we could do was make it understeer, even with the current and (we assume) prototype car's 52/48 front/rear weight balance. Despite Lexus's claims that the electronic controls allow more slip in this new version, we were danged if we could get it very much out of line. That's probably good for Lexus buyers, who value predictability and stability above all else. Similar hamstrings kept the IS from being as much fun as it could have been when it debuted.

Finally, we discovered that the off switch for all of that electronic stability stuff was covered under black camo tape on the dash. We peeled it back and held the switch down for three to five seconds, and then . . . a little oversteer. That was because we were in the upscale model of the two GS 350 prototypes we drove, and that model had four-wheel steer. The 4WS does, indeed, keep this car in line very well and increases cornering grip by a huge factor. So we got into the prototype without the 4WS, peeled back the tape, held down the switch, and--woo-hoo--watch out, Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust. With all of that stuff shut off, the car was really fun, hanging the tail out as long as we wanted to hang it out. Although it still took a focused effort to do so, once we got the rear out, it was easy to keep it there, countersteering into the turn like Drift King Tsuchiya himself.

Then we headed up to the mountain road. Again, the 4WS car proved to be much faster through corners, as you would expect. That stability and speed meant less braking entering the corners. On the straights between turns, the 3.5-liter V6 (if that is indeed what's under the hood) responded with alacrity. The new car has the same 5.7-second 0-to-60-mph time as the current model. The controls on the six-speed automatic could be cranked up for quicker upshifts and for nicely matched throttle blips on downshifts.

It was good on the mountains but not great, as if Lexus had tried again to make a decent car great through tuning and tweaking of the electronic systems instead of starting out with, say, a 5-series chassis. As such, it still might fall short of performance sedans in the segment, at least as far as performance goes. Those looking for Lexus attributes such as quiet and comfort won't be disappointed and might be surprised and delighted to find how responsive the new GS is.

Do I Want It? If quiet and comfort are a priority--but you might want to have some fun occasionally--you might like this attempt by Lexus to make the GS more sporty. But if you're a 5-series/A6/M37 buyer, it might not be sporty enough. You decide; you're the buyer.

Look for a teaser photo to be released to the media Aug. 4, the gasoline version of the Lexus GS 350 to be revealed at Pebble Beach, the hybrid at Frankfurt and an F-Sport at SEMA. Somewhere around there, we'll get more specs and pricing and will drive a production version without the vinyl camo cladding, although we kind of liked the camo cladding.


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