Midsized luxury cars are a tough sell these days. The SUV craze shows no sign of ebbing, with new models coming out frequently from nearly every automaker (though if Caterham starts offering an assemble-it-yourself crossover, Iâ€™ll hang up my keyboard for good). Further, these midsizers are squeezed by models upmarket and down â€” the compacts keep adding content, while smaller engines in the full-size models offer space and economy for not much more cost.
Lexus is unique in this space with two very different models: the front-wheel drive ES, and this GS, offered with either rear or all-wheel drive. While the Avalon-based ES is perennially one of the best-selling, this GS lingers mid-pack. Thus, itâ€™s no surpriseÂ rumors have swirled.
The GS is certainly an attractive car, and considering the typically understated styling of the German competition, a few dramatic lines here and there on the Lexus are more than welcome. The signature spindle grille is a bit too prominent here, extending forward from the headlamps and brake-cooling ducts like a pair of buck teeth, but most of the spindle is mercifullyÂ matte black plastic. A big chrome honeycomb grille like the one found on the new LS would be overwhelming.
Beyond the slightly flared front wheel arches, the doors have a very simple convex curve.
The roofline is where the various GS generations resemble one another; the sloping C-pillar leading to a very short rear deck has been a staple of the midsize Lexus for years. The satin chrome exhaust surrounds are a nice touch, though the vertical ridges between them, seemingly meant to resemble a racecar diffuser, are a cheesy touch for an otherwise demure luxury sedan. It works on a Subaru WRX, but not a $52,295 luxury sedan.
The interior is well appointed in perforated leather, with heated and cooled front seats in my Premium Package-equipped tester. While I might prefer a slightly longer thigh support, the seats were spectacular for a long drive. Other than the driveshaft-clearing hump in the rear floor, the rear seat occupants had no complaints. As usual, I attempted myÂ â€œsit-behind-oneselfâ€� rear-seat fit test, and foundÂ plenty of knee clearance for my six-foot-four frame.
I particularly love the metal-look surfaces on the dash, steering wheel, and shifter have a satin finish. Too many cars have distracting chrome brightwork right where the sun reflects into the driverâ€™s eye in mid-afternoon. Thank you, Lexus.
However, I canâ€™t say I love the mouse-like interface for the infotainment system. Itâ€™s identical to the one I didnâ€™t hate in the IS, but Iâ€™ve since experienced some magnificent touch screens in various Hyundai, Kia, and Chrysler products. The inconsistent sensitivity and awkward selection of various features on the 12.3-inch display is distracting at best. The touchpad found on other models, like the RC-F, might be preferable.
I was further annoyed by the touchy turn signal stalk. On several new Lexus models, the stalk returns to center rather than remaining in place until the signal cancels. This doesnâ€™t bother me, but the transition between the lane-change three flash position and the full turn signal is vague. I often found myself driving for several miles with a signal flashing, having expected to only flash thrice for a lane change. This annoyance is compounded by the remarkably quiet signal clicker. A more positive detent between the lane change and the full turn signals would be welcome.
Lexus needs to do some work on itsÂ cupholders, too. I hated the placement of the Big Gulp receptacles in the IS 200t I tested last fall. While the GS doesnâ€™t interfere with passenger space â€“ immediately forward of the shift lever â€“ drinks will block the heated seat controls, and taller cups and bottles can foul the HVAC controls. Furthermore, the removable divider separating the two drinks removes too easily, causing the occasional topple and spill.
The 241-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine drives nicely, with virtually no noise or vibration coming through to the well-insulated cabin. Itâ€™s the same powerplant â€” indeed, the same overall powertrain â€” as found in the IS200t I tested last fall. The extra 200 or so pounds of curb weight in the larger GS do blunt performance slightly, though it’s still an enjoyable driver willing to play on twisty roads.
Indeed, the GS 200t is legitimately fun to drive when the pavement meanders. The ride is firm on the interstate, but expansion joints and potholes sent but a muted thud into the cabin. When I exited for some three-digit two-lanes, I turned the drive mode dial to SPORT and enjoyed the early spring scenery.
Perhaps my vigorous application of the right foot can be blamed for my fuel economy results. While the EPA estimates a combined 26 miles per gallonÂ for the GS 200t, I managed but 23.4 over my week with the turbo Lexus. Small displacement, turbocharged four-cylinders can produce better economy than the larger sixes they replace, but that efficiency evaporatesÂ when driven with any sort of vigor. Keep your toes out of the boost or pay at the pump.
One troubling concern stood out to me while driving the GS 200t: the brakes were unusually weird. On virtually every press of the brake pedal, I bothÂ heard and feltÂ a soft clunk through the pedal. Furthermore, I noted some occasional light dragging noise upon application of the brakes. Having nursed several past-their-prime cars along in my younger days, Iâ€™m suspecting that a brake piston might not be retracting fully in the caliper, or a brake pad itself wasÂ catching on something. With fewer than 3,000Â miles on my tester, itâ€™s hard to chalk this up to wear.
My biggest problem with the GS is simply rationalizing its existence. Lexus offers four sedans: the compact IS, the front-drive ES, this midsize GS, and the full-size LS. The GS and ES are within an inch of each other in every single critical dimension beyond rear leg room, where the front-drive ES offers a whopping 40 inches versus 36.8 inches in the GS:
Other than the subjectively better driving dynamics of the rear-drive platform, Iâ€™d struggle to justify purchasing aÂ GS. Iâ€™m afraid itâ€™s merely a remnant of the perceived need to compete with the Germansâ€™ same-sausage/different-lengths model strategy. One look atÂ GoodCarBadCar shows whatâ€™s happening at the showroom: The front-drive ES outsells the GS by a roughly four-to-one ratio, and has for most of the last 10Â years.
I want to like the Lexus GS 200t. I really do. I appreciate that Lexus is throwing this sporting bone at enthusiasts who need the space not afforded by the (slightly) smaller IS. But Iâ€™m afraid that wonâ€™t be enough to save this very good sporting sedan from oblivion.
[Images: Â© 2017 Chris Tonn]