Mountain Wheels: All-wheel-drive Lexus GS 350 keeps the weather at bay
SDN Auto Writer
Can a car be boaty and sporty at the same time? That’s a good question when you consider what happens when a luxury brand like Lexus takes a big sports sedan like its GS 350 and amps things up with suspension tuning and a styling makeover – but doesn’t quite go all the way.
Hoping to impart some of the high-powered flash of its speedy IS-F project of more than a few years back, Lexus now offers the F Sport package on a number of its automobiles (read about the pumped-up versions of the larger LS or a recent drive in the zooted-up RX crossover, as recently enjoyed).
In the case of the all-wheel-drive version of the GS, weighing in at 3,980 pounds, the F Sport finery certainly does add more than a bit of panache to both the car’s looks and its ride, though raw performance doesn’t explode: Car geeks can keep their fingers crossed that the company goes crazy in the future and drops the 553-horsepower 4.8-liter V-10 from the LFA supercar, though you best not hold your breath.
Rather, the F Sport GS makes do with the standard 3.5-liter V6, producing 306 horsepower. What the car misses in raw power – though you can still get a sonorous boost of passing blast by flooring the beast – it’s tried to make up in bigger brakes, chunkier anti-roll bars and a user-selectable damping system.
You’ll notice a blend of outcomes: A noticeably stiffer ride, even in the standard setting, and more steering feel, though the big GS still demonstrates a bit too much of its body weight on corners or when snapping into a lane change.
More akin to what happens when you order a BMW or Mercedes parts package (but no M or AMG engine), the most prominent part of the F Sport makeover is the tremendously aggressive, aerodynamic nose package, some very attractive, dark graphite, 19-inch alloy wheels and sportily bolstered but still quite comfortable custom F Sport seats.
Given the late-season snows we’ve been dealing with, I was actually quite happy with the GS’s modest output and more impressed with the all-wheel-drive system. I did not see a lot of vehicles of the GS’s caliber out in the middle of snowstorms, but the car managed its weight and size with a pretty solid feel even on the slickest of roads – even with low-profile Turanza all-seasons. Stops were safe and steady and I was able to put the car’s power to use while passing trucks heading up the passes, never for a second getting any of the boaty sway and swerve I feared I might find.
Deeper snow might have turned that aero lip into a snowplow, but the GS was able to handle mixed conditions with aplomb.
The vehicle’s larger size does produce serious payoffs for rear seat passengers – there’s loads of comfortable, luxurious room, with a fold-down armrest and storage container to split up the space (or to cradle a set or two of skis sent through the pass-through gate, as the seats don’t fold forward for larger loads). The trunk itself is spacious enough for multiple bags.
GS was also one of the first of the line to get the new wave of Lexus interior makeovers, and the results are pleasant, in a black-but-not-entirely-black kind of way. Other models get a choice of various wood trims, but the F Sport is highlighted with glossy aluminum trim that looks like it came from some wonderfully strange metallic tree.
The dash design has also gone to the wide side, with an ultra-wide navigation screen (controlled by the marginally confounding joystick controller on the center console) and an analog clock. Buttons, besides those for the HVAC, are at a blessed minimum.
Meanwhile, for those of you still searching for the ultimate in luxury SUVs, the big GX 460 is starting to seem like a bit of a relic of a bygone age – 17 combined city and highway MPG EPA figure and all.
But it’s certainly solid and well-built, with gracious and ample room, the full complement of Lexus electronics and leather … but ponderous in ways that tend to tax the 301-horsepower output of a “you’d think it would do more than that” 4.8-liter V-8 engine.
The GX is actually only 5,340 pounds but its hesitant starts, heavy weighted cornering and lumbering turns would have you thinking otherwise.
It’s also geared so low that I’m sure you’d have more fun in an off-road setting but really needs to jump up to third or fourth gear to really start moving. Heading up the pass needs a good running start; heading down a long slope also necessitates a lot of manual downshifting to handle the bulk.
You’ll remember the trouble the GX got into a few years ago when Consumer Reports urged readers not to buy the GX based on its rollover risk in high-speed oversteer incidents; the software was thoroughly updated and the safety tools heightened, though – you still want to treat it like a big heavy vehicle, not a sports car.
To that end, high-luxe offroaders do get an amazing assortment of toys for their adventures, with user-adjustable air suspension, multi-modal electronic shock dampers, hill descent control and all of the junior Land Cruiser/4 Runner parts it shares in its underlying parts.
Inside, it’s still Lexus through and through, with unsurprising litany of posh leather (two-way ventilated seats, plus door, elbow, dash and wheel trim), hardwood accents, electronically telescoping wheel and brilliant gauges.
The center stack is blocky in the oldest of old-school ways, though I appreciated actual buttons for climate, audio and navigation – there’s no squiggly joystick to be found on this model. A sliding silver plate also covers up some of the AV controls when you’re not poking buttons. You do get a bit of overload on the center console with four gigantic 4×4 and heigh control toggles and a wood and leather gearshift, but rugged is the name of the game.
The front seats are sportily bolstered and supportive, while curved seatbacks mean ample foot and leg space in the second row. The third row features the most Japanese mechanics ever – seat bottoms power-slide into the floor and then seatbacks can also be powered forward or reclined.
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