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2013 Lexus GS 350 F-Sport Review

Here’s the thing: whether you buy a Toyota, a Scion, or a Lexus, almost all the cars made by the Toyota Motor Corporation are beige. Bland. Which is sad, because Toyota used to make some cars that tended decidedly towards the red end of the color spectrum. There was the Toyota Celica GTS, the nearly-supercar-fun Supra, and even the entertaining, mid-engined, two-seater MR2. Toyota used to make fun cars, then they just…stopped.

0-A7rXVQwt4BIukEfvHappily, the company’s CEO, Akio Toyoda, has decided that Toyota needs to start making more exciting cars again and they now make the Toyota GT-86/Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ as a first step towards that goal. That car is rear-wheel drive and moderately fun. You can drive around in it sideways all day at 30 miles per hour. With 200 HP it’s a bit underpowered by today’s sports car standards, but it would’ve been a great sports car 20 years ago—though, tellingly, Toyota needed to go to Subaru for the expertise to make it.

Lexus, meanwhile, has the F-Sport branded cars, which have been breathed on by the company’s in-house racing and performance shop. Their mission has been to make cars like the Lexus GS 350 F-Sport to be more of a match to Lexus’ German competitors in power, sports appeal, luxury, and, sadly, at an MSRP of $52,000, price.

How it looks

Like some other manufacturers, Lexus has followed Audi’s unified center grill design. The way Lexus has implemented it gives the front of the GS 350 a scowly look. But it’s not an angry, aggressive scowl. It’s more of an “I’m having trouble passing my excessively hard and dry stools” kind of scowl. It’s more of a grimace, really. It’s a Lexus, a brand favored by older people, so maybe it’s supposed to give an impression of, “I’m tired of you kids, with your crazy hair and music.”

In any event, it’s better than the goofy, pie-eyed grin that Mazda’s stuck on the front of its cars.

Inside, it’s like the Buchenwald of Cows, with stitched leather on just about every surface to which leather can be stitched; seats, center console, and dashboard. Or, at least, the dash looks like stitched leather. It feels like pleather, though. I imagine actual black leather on the dashboard would dry and crack pretty quickly.

0-3vm6jQNeTp99xVRAThe seats and steering wheel are definitely leather-covered, though, with pretty, contrasting stitching. The leather seat panels are perforated to make them a cooler place to sit in hot weather. For cold weather they are heated, of course. The seats are really, really nice. Very comfy, and bolstered just enough to keeping you from sliding around excessively when you power through corners.

But the rest of the inside is…well…it’s really nice-looking at first glance. But, after looking closer and fiddling with stuff, it’s just…insane. The dash is all soft-touch materials and metal trim. On closer inspection, though, the “aluminum” trim strips are aluminized plastic. So, that’s a bit of a let-down, along with the fake stitched leather. There’s a huge color screen in the dash, which is good, I suppose, but it’s been recessed deeply into an odd hole the size of the Batcave.

Which brings us to the interior controls. The steering wheel is the business, with a great tactile feel and full electrical adjustment. There are lots of fun buttons for the cruise control, Bluetooth, and whatnot. There are aluminum paddle shifters on the wheel. The driving mode switch in the center console is an aluminum dial that switches between the Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ modes. So far, so good.

But here is where it all begins to go terribly, terribly wrong. The air-con controls are just completely unfathomable. You push buttons and…nothing happens. Or something happens that’s so subtle you just don’t notice it. The air conditioner blows out this asthmatic little stream of air, so you punch what you think is the fan button to max, and the weedy little air stream doesn’t change. You actually spend a couple of minutes pushing buttons with arcane symbols on them, waiting for something dramatic to happen that will flood you with a blast of cold air. Eventually, you realize that the air stream, which has all the force of the little round vent above your head on a Boeing 737, is all you’re going to get. It’s nice and cold, though, what little there is of it.

So then you try out the center screen. Why can no luxury car manufacturer make a simple, easy-to-operate center screen? For instance, you switch over to Satellite radio. Does it display “Octane”, “Alt Nation”, “Lithium”, and “Faction” in the favorite stations list for SiriusXM? No. It displays “94.3”, “96.1”, “97.5”, and “101.7”. Why? I’m not listening to FM. I don’t want to listen to FM. Why am I seeing my FM favorites, and not my satellite favorites? So, you end up using the physical radio knob on the dash to change stations, like you’re some kind of dirty animal.

Then there’s the way you navigate the center screen. You can’t make things happen by touching it. Instead, there’s a little, square, leather-covered, joysticky thing on the center console, with a convenient hand rest. The idea is that you rest your hand on the hand rest then use the little joystick with your fingers to move the cursor about on the screen.

Here’s how it works. You want to select “Navigation”, so you move the little joystick and place the cursor over the appropriate tab on the screen. Then you hit a bump, the cursor moves, and you select “AM”. Then loud, Spanish-language music begins to play. Then you move back to “Navigation”, and move the steering wheel slightly, making you select “Options”, bringing up the wrong screen. Then you get a bit irked and really concentrate on the screen. Then you slowly, carefully, move the cursor back to “Navigation” with the joystick. Then you run straight through a curve and hit a tree.

Then you see Grandpa and Grandma if you’re lucky, and an unpleasant fellow with horns coming out of his forehead if you aren’t.

In case you’re wondering whether the joystick is spring-operated and will automatically recenter itself when you release it, no, it does not.

I don’t know what actual user experience Lexus meant to evoke with this setup, but if it wasn’t to make you start banging the controls with your fists in confusion like a maddened gorilla, then I guess you have to mark it as a fail. As nearly as I can tell, you’re paying Lexus fifty-two large to be taunted.

There’s lots of room in the back for passengers though, so that’s alright, then.

How it drives

Once your attention moves to driving the F-Sport, rather than fiddling with the cabin controls, things brighten up considerably.

It’s fast and smooth, putting all 306 HP to the ground with some alacrity, hitting 60 MPH in about 5.5 seconds, going all out in Sport+, and passing the quarter-mile marker in the 13-second range. That’s properly quick. Though it’s a mid-sized sedan that weighs 3,977 lbs, it feels surprisingly light on it’s feet. I drove it back to back with a Jaguar XF, which weighs about the same, but feels weightier. Lexus has done a very good job of making the extra weight go away once you’re moving. It’s also rear-wheel drive, which is always a plus.

There’s still noticeable body roll, though, partly because the weight is still there, but also because the suspension setup is a bit soft. As mentioned previously, there are four drive modes, each of which are supposed to alter the power delivery, suspension setup, and traction control. I’m sure they do, but…well…you can’t really tell on public roads. Even Sport+ mode doesn’t really stiffen the suspension all that much, so it seems that the Lexus is staying firmly on the “Luxury” side of its “Sports Luxury” designation.

As as I said, I drove the Jaguar XF back to back this week with the GS, and it’s just stiffer and more sporty. The GS is noticeably softer all across the range of driving setups. That doesn’t mean the Lexus is worse, because maybe you don’t want to deal with that harder edge on the way to work every morning. And it makes the GS 350 very nice to drive around town. But it does give the Lexus more of a Grand Tourer feel, rather than the feel of a sports sedan. Having said that, the GS has grip for miles, which gives you lots of confidence blazing through curves at a brisk clip. It may seem soft, but it’s certainly willing to play. Still, if it’s the 3-series BMW feel that Lexus was shooting for, they missed the target.

By the way, one of the drive modes on the GS 350 is an “Eco” mode for some unexplainable reason. If you want to drive a car with an “Eco” mode, don’t buy an F-Sport model, because that wouldn’t make any sense. This is a V6 that gets a max of 28 MPG on the highway. It’s never going to be “Eco” in any real sense. A Corolla won’t do 0-60 in 5.5 seconds. A GS 350 won’t get 40 MPG. Deal with it.

The transmission on the GS is your standard flappy paddle setup. It works fine, though there’s a bit of delay on upshifts after you hit the paddle. It’s average for this type of transmission setup. Braking, on the other hand, is better than average, with the big 14” rotors hauling the GS to a stop from 60 MPH in 160 feet. And the braking is smooth and silky, with an excellent ABS setup.

The cabin is very well soundproofed, and isolates you wonderfully from wind and road noise. The downside to that, though, is that it also isolates you from the exhaust noise, too. The GS 350 F-Sport actually has a very nice-sounding exhaust, being all throaty and manly and stuff. You just can’t really hear it very well from the driver’s seat. Back seat passengers are a bit more entertained by it, but I’m starting to understand why BMW and Mercedes pipe a bit of engine noise through the sound system. You really do want to hear a bit more of it. Of course, for some buyers, that defeats the purpose of having a quiet luxury car cabin, so your mileage may vary.

What’s good about it

It’s very comfortable, with a luxurious ride. It’s deceptively fast as well, pulling some fairly sporting duty without drama or complaint. As a sporty luxury car, the driving experience is head and shoulders above the average, beige Lexus. It’s very quiet inside.

What’s bad about it

The interior controls are maddeningly insane. The center screen is unforgivably complex, and generally poorly thought out. Seriously, operating the joystick controller for it will reduce you to tears of impotent rage. I haven’t felt air-con this weak since my old ‘76 Datsun B-210. The very good soundproofing, sadly, keeps you from appreciating the throaty exhaust note. If you want a stiffer, more sporty feel to the suspension, you’re going to need to look elsewhere. That, combined with the hefty weight, detract from the fun a bit.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s a bit soft for a sports sedan, but it’s fast and has a lot of curve-carving capability for its size and weight. So there’s a really nice side to the GS 350 F-Sport’s personality. But the utter weirdness of the controls, and the frustration that comes from trying to do the simplest thing with the center screen, will plunge you into a short, sharp descent into madness. That side of the F-Sport’s personality isn’t very nice at all.

A car that’s this enjoyable to drive to should have an equally nice and easy control setup. Or, alternatively, if you’re going to keep the insane interior controls, then make it full-goose loony to drive. Either of those choices would be acceptable. But this schizophrenic difference between the driving experience and the operating experience is too weird for me to deal with. Not since BMW’s first-generation iDrive system has there been a control setup this frustrating in a car that’s otherwise nice to drive.

Personally, I don’t like the softness of the GS 350 F-Sport’s driving experience. I’d like to feel a little bit harder edge to the chassis and suspension. But that’s entirely subjective, and others’ opinions will vary. But even if you like the softer ride, I can’t imagine that anyone would really like the control setup.

Still, you have to say one thing about the Lexus GS 350 F-Sport: It certainly isn’t beige.

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