Jamie and Barnaby are colleagues in the IT department of a large firm. They are fairly close but have quite individual personalities and tastes. To relax after a stressful day in the office, Jamie plays squash before knocking back a few pints in his local. Barnaby, on the other hand, loves nothing better than to cover his 50-mile homeward journey as smoothly as he can before eating a home-cooked meal accompanied by a glass of wine, then snuggling up on the sofa with his wife and Labrador, listening to classical or jazz. Weekends are much the same, Jamie playing football and then partying in a club, while Barnaby does the country walk and open-fire-pub thing before going to the theatre.
When Monday morning comes, Jamie cuts it fine and dashes around like a headless chicken. Barnaby, however, typically rises early and takes his time getting ready, and then drives to work before the roads get rammed. They both get to the office at the same time, though, which is all that matters, just like evenings and weekends are also ‘horses for courses’. So, who on earth are Jamie and Barnaby? I haven’t the foggiest, but they illustrate a point. Some people like to be different, breaking away from the herd and taking life more slowly – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a bit like choosing a Lexus GS300h.
Five word verdict: Creamily smooth, sportiness debatable, technology-packed | Rating: 4/5
A person doesn’t have to be a loud-mouth or possess mermerisingly unusual features to have presence. Take actor Bill Nighy, for example, who has ordinary looks and a considerably muted voice, but can still command a room or production set. In the E-segment of mile-munching executive saloons, BMW, Audi and Mercedes have always dominated. Lexus has subtly tried to make inroads but criticism has often been levelled that the GS is boring both visually and dynamically. Ever since I first set my eyes on a second generation GS, I’ve wanted one and still do. True, its styling was obviously tilted more towards American and Japanese audiences than European, but I still think its understated, elegant and utterly solid image looks great even today. Fast forward to the latest Lexus GS and the same design spirit is there. I’m glad Lexus’ spindle grille isn’t as huge on the GS as it is on some other models, as walking around with one’s mouth hanging open isn’t always a good look. The GS300h I spent a week with was in F Sport trim and its low stance and exaggerated body mouldings made the front resemble a jet fighter from some angles. Yum. Aside from where the hybrid badge appears as you move your eye down the length of the car towards the rear wheel-arch, the slab-like styling is unusually plain, but the side profile works well. The aesthetics at the rear are somewhat conservative and formulaic, I would agree, but they still manage to bring some flair and sleekness to the table. The GS’s signature front and rear LED lights are tasteful and the F Sport’s 19” alloy wheels further enhance its overall sporty image, although large rims typically result in a trade-off; more on that later.
It’s always interesting to see how the public reacts to test cars and the amount of attention the GS300h F Sport received surprised me, countless people giving it a double or treble take, from corporate types to kids and passing motorists. It commanded attention and radiated great presence wherever it went, which may have partly been down to its white paint job. In fact, I wanted to have a butcher’s as well, which isn’t easy from the driver’s seat, so I ended up hunting down glass-fronted buildings to drive past so I could admire the GS in the mirror, so to speak. Looking at rivals’ styling in the executive saloon sector, there isn’t really a Vindaloo equivalent on offer for the likes of Jamie and yes, it could be argued that the GS300h, even with its F Sport bodykit, is more a Korma (Barnaby’s favourite) than a middling Rogan Josh. A Korma’s still a curry though and can prove a tasty one, at that.
Perfunctory is a word sometimes used to describe the interior of a Lexus, but that label seemed anything but fair when I explored its specification in detail. For starters, you can specify a whopping (12.3” to be exact) LED dashboard screen which is around the same width as the longest edge of a piece of A4 paper. Throw in soft leather with tasteful stitching, an illuminated LED analogue clock every bit as elegant as the one in my Vel Satis, an innovative ‘mouse’ system for operating the extensive multimedia setup, a 12-speaker Mark Levinson audio system which sounds as amazing as ever, plus an electric rear blind, and Lexus’ generosity really shows. With relaxation, comfort and practicality at the forefront of their designers’ minds, so much of the GS’s interior is automated or electrically adjustable, from the steering wheel, automatic headlights, full-beam and wipers to the electric lumbar support, memorised easy access and exit, auto-dimming mirror and the additional assistance built into the rear-view camera for parking and manoeuvrability. All the materials used felt as sturdy and dependable as granite, the buttons were impressively large, saving any fumbling, the volume wheel was beautifully machined and the various damped components functioned impeccably.
Little things can make a big difference. Take the seatbelt height adjustment, the LED interior lighting with lights for each rear passenger and the black inserts preventing keys and other gubbins being lost down the side of the front seats, for example. Not many other cars have carpet all the way down the sides of the central tunnel, but this one did. The only foibles I encountered were the frustrating indicator stalk, the clumsy radio and sat nav menus and the boot lid which felt like it was from a budget car and flopped open with indignity. The actual space available in the boot itself seemed pretty generous, though, despite the GS300h being rear-wheel drive. All things considered, though, the GS F Sport’s interior felt every bit as special as the Audi I tested last week, just different. The Lexus’ interior might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in ‘as tested’ trim, it wanted for nothing.
The entry level route into GS300h ownership is SE trim, which is still crammed full of things its rivals palm off to their respective options lists, the Lexus coming with 17” alloys, an electrically adjustable steering wheel and front seats, an in-car entertainment system boasting not only DAB digital radio and 12 speakers but also a DVD player, plus xenon headlights and cruise control. The next rung on the GS trim ladder is Luxury, which increases the alloys to 18”, adds leather seats, sat nav and a blind spot monitor which displays a warning on the wing mirrors whilst driving. It also alerts you if a car is approaching from the left and/or right when reversing out of a parking space, courtesy of the Rear Cross Traffic Alert system. F Sport trim as tested bumped the review car’s price up to £44,355 and obviously meant 19” alloys and the sportier exterior styling, plus perforated leather seats and Active Variable Suspension. The summit in terms of GS trim is Premier, which bumps the seat adjustment scope up to 18-way and adds LED fog lamps and a colour heads-up display to the windscreen.
In the name of efficiency and safety, Lexus has taken innovation to new heights for the latest GS, in which the S-Flow climate control system only avails itself to seats with bums on and also uses clever technology to moisture occupants’ skin, deodorise the seats and purify the air inside the car. The ten fitted airbags include two for the knees and the Adaptive Front-lighting System fitted to the test car lit up the road wonderfully, swivelling with each bend and turning full beam on and off automatically, which made night driving most pleasurable. The safety of your GS can be beefed up even further if you opt for extras like Advanced Pre-Crash, Driver Monitoring, Lane Keeping Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and Lexus Night View which acts as an extra pair of eyes in the dark and displays the road ahead as an infrared image on the large dashboard screen.
Owning a car as well-appointed as this is all very well but the proposition would rather fall apart if it was as dull as dishwater to drive. Sentiments along these lines have been levelled at the GS300h but it’s partly down to what you want from a car. Take fictitious Barnaby, for example. He doesn’t steam down on the backsides of fast lane occupants and drive everywhere like he’s a getaway driver. Barnaby prefers to feel at peace, relaxed, pampered and refreshed, rather like I do too. Using the electric motor at slow speeds, the way the GS300h shot backwards out of my driveway silently with just a dab of the pedal was rather cool, as was driving off and arriving back home at ungodly hours without waking the neighbours. Sure, in Normal mode and especially when set to Eco, it did feel noticeably less powerful than the previous generation GS450h I’d driven in the past, but it still whisked me around as briskly as I wanted it to, the silence making it feel faster than it was when in urban environments. The lag experienced even after stomping on the pedal in Eco mode was made up for by the absolute serenity of sitting in traffic jams in insulated silence, which was so pleasant I actually opted to turn the radio off most of the time.
The GS300h isn’t a particularly fast executive saloon, taking 9.2 seconds to reach 62mph, but I never felt disappointed or endangered by its relative lack of pace. Eco may prove too weedy on the motorway for some, but smooth drivers who cover vast distances and simply aim to keep up with other traffic won’t mind, particularly in Normal mode, which is the happy medium with a slightly keener throttle response and retained ride comfort. Select Sport S and especially Sport S+ mode and the result is a much more aggressive drive, the Adaptive Variable Suspension making the ride firmer, along with punchier acceleration which actually still felt fairly pedestrian on the motorway, but over-exuberant on B-roads. A nice touch is that the dials cleverly switch from a blue, hybrid-focussed layout showing whether you’re regenerating battery power, driving economically but less so, or using power, to a red, sports-biased, conventional rev counter. Incidentally, the needles are LCD but look like tangible ones, the display is that good. The GS is a large car, definitely tilted more towards comfort on the inside and the washing-machine-like CVT (continually variable transmission) drone resulting from flooring it in either of the Sport modes got on my nerves to a certain extent. Turn sharply into a bend at speed and the handling isn’t bad at all but does fall short of a 5-Series and an A6. Grip is likely fairly decent owing to this 1.8-tonne saloon not being particularly fast. The 19” wheels fitted courtesy of the F Sport trim didn’t make the urban ride particularly bone-jarring, especially when the GS was left in Eco or Normal mode, but when I drove it over a lengthy section of cobbles, the experience was pretty horrible. In terms of steering, the responsiveness, communication and feedback were acceptable rather than impressive, but the big Lexus did change direction reasonably sharply. The brakes were unremarkably fine around town and did also seem to stop it well enough from speed. The electric parking brake worked nicely, although it did groan a bit, which was slightly unnerving.
EV Mode is all-electric but only possible when driving at speeds of 25mph and under, and when enough battery power is available. I generally switched to EV Mode when driving through villages and in congested town queues, but unless the battery had been recharged significantly beforehand through regeneration such as when coasting or braking, I found that EV Mode fairly quickly withdrew itself. Even the slightest dab of the throttle seemed to be deemed as ‘excessive acceleration’ by the system, also causing it to turn off. Having spent most of the 350-ish miles we covered with it set to Eco or Normal mode and purposefully driving conservatively for the majority of the time, we averaged 41.4mpg in the Lexus GS300h F Sport. If you’re into power showers like Jamie, it’s probably not the kind of car for you, but if you’re like Barnaby and like nothing better than to linger in a nice, hot shower, the GS300h would be a good match. Urban motoring and smooth, progressive motorway driving are akin to piloting a hot bathtub around, albeit one which sometimes sounds reminiscent of an underground tube train or a milk float, the tranquillity only being broken by the somewhat clunky gear selector or if one of the 19” alloys encounters a pothole or similar.
The hybrid power behind the GS300h is comprised a 2.5-litre, 4-cylinder, 16-valve dual VVT-i petrol engine which produces 178bhp at 6,000rpm and 221Nm torque between 4,200-5,400rpm, working in conjunction with a 141bhp Lexus Hybrid Drive system that uses a Nickel metal-hydride battery. The combined horsepower is quoted as 220bhp. Depending on a host of conditions and variables such as the battery charge level, the temperature, which drive mode is selected, your driving style and whether the air con is on, the petrol engine stops and starts itself behind the scenes, as it sees fit. It’s just a shame the engine kicked in more frequently than I thought it would, making me wonder if Lexus’ Hybrid Drive system is falling behind the rivals close on its heels.
Lexus aims the GS300h squarely at the corporate market and its headline figures are extremely impressive, with CO2 emissions starting from as low as 109g/km and claiming combined fuel economy of 60.1mpg, which puts it on the front row of the class. These figures are for the entry level SE trim, though, with sat nav and leather seats sacrificed, along with plainer styling. Priced from £31,495, the GS300h SE offers efficient, tax-friendly business motoring at a much more affordable price than a BMW 520d, Mercedes E220 hybrid or diesel, or the most expensive direct rival, Audi’s A6 hybrid (21% BIK) which costs well over £40,000. In the company car world, diesels are currently more heavily taxed than petrol hybrids and in terms of BIK, the Lexus GS300h SE is the star of the show with a current rate of only 13% owing to its emissions of 109g/km. The F Sport version we tested emits 115g/km, sits in VED band C as opposed to B and claims combined consumption of 56.5mpg. Despite intentionally adopting a gentle driving style throughout the week, I’m not the only one who has failed to achieve a real-world MPG figure anywhere near the one on paper. Having said that, although admittedly far less than most equivalent diesels which will return MPG in the mid-50s or higher, 41.4mpg isn’t bad considering the tax benefits of driving a petrol hybrid – and going by the range readout, I could easily have covered 650 miles before filling up.
Despite its slightly spongey acceleration, typical love-hate CVT, handling and performance that fall somewhat short of its sporty exterior and marginally less wallet-friendly statistics compared to the SE version, Barnaby chose a Lexus GS300h F Sport. After all, he may be a methodical, measured and sedate kind of chap, but he still has a penchant for a bit of style, road presence and opulence. He also enjoys standing out as a little different, not following the herd. Jamie’s BMW 520d and another colleague’s Audi A6 petrol hybrid left Barnaby’s GS behind when they participated in a cheeky B-road race across country, but Barnaby has the satisfaction of arriving at work and then back home again every single day feeling utterly refreshed, thanks to his Lexus.
* – without the poo (do an online search for ‘Neal Jalopnik Lexus’)