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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

Still the Model of Lusty Luxury

March 19, 1993|PAUL DEAN

Driving the somewhat lofty, slightly heavy-ended Lexus GS300 stirs thoughts of just how much American cars have improved.

For alongside a few good models from the Rust Belt, Lexus is no longer that impressive.

Make no mistake. Four years after rolling into our phantasms, Lexus, the luxury car division of Toyota, continues to produce quick, elegant, smooth, carefully priced hunks.

But Cadillac is firmly in the contest for the up-market buck with its Stuttgart-styled Seville STS fed by a dynamite Northstar V-8 engine. Last year, Lincoln reshaped its reputation for building beamy waddlers by birthing the splendid, world class Mark VIII. And Lincoln had sufficient confidence in its coupe to stage the media introduction alongside a Lexus LS400 for comparison drives.

Chrysler's LH cars, with their cab-forward spaciousness, Sharper Image chic and Nike nimbleness, have returned Chrysler-Dodge-Eagle from the edge of autopsy.

In truth, none is superior to Lexus, which continues to define the ideal luxury sedan.

But Detroit clearly is snuffling at the door of the leather and walnut league. And as the gap between American and Japanese luxury cars narrows to within nipping distance, novelties must wear thin and levels of public wonderment at Lexus will be reduced accordingly.

That still means most appreciators of fine machinery will nod appreciatively at the Lexus GS300, while connoisseurs will find only nits to pick.

Designed as the third sibling to Lexus sedans--the line also includes a brace of coupes--the GS300 is slotted in price, size and buyer temptations between the entry-level ES300 and that V-8 gunslinger, the LS400.

But the LS400 has shown alarming leaps in price since its 1989 introduction--from $35,000 in its rookie year to $47,000 in 1993. That dilutes its value. That could well set the GS300, with a base of $37,500, as an assailant on the family flagship.

It is a five-person car that is only two inches shorter and narrower--and less expensive--than the LS400.

The sticker price includes all the larger luxuries: air bags to protect the looks of driver and front passenger, anti-lock brakes, automatic internal climate, anti-theft system, the obligatory square inches of walnut trim, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel that does its thing when ignition is keyed, power seats, even a first-aid kit--although Lord knows what could snag flesh or fingernails amid all this smoothness.

The gathered leather interior--a $1,300 option--is deerskin soft and seemingly covers everything that doesn't move. At high speeds the cabin is quieter than a PBS channel at 3 a.m. At stop lights, drivers tend to look at the tachometer to make sure something is still breathing in the engine bay.

Despite this being the Year of the Rooster and the V6--a configuration in 41% of new cars--the GS300 borrows an in-line six from the Lexus SC300 coupe. Therein the first nit.

At 3,700 pounds, the sedan could use an engine a little lustier than 220 horsepower.

Rolling, purring, grinning on the open road, the GS300 is no man's molasses, cruising happily at 120 m.p.h. and turning a genuine 140 m.p.h. and change at full blow.

Getting there is a loaf. A five-speed manual for gutsy getaways is not available. So the car's zero to 60 m.p.h. time is almost nine seconds, cleanly bettered by the Cadillac Seville STS, the Lincoln Mark VIII and premium brands of those LH cars.

The sedan is styled like no other Lexus. Which may be a tribute to one company's originality and pliancy. Or the second nit.

Toyota-Lexus took the GS300 program outside its own studio, and the final shape was sketched in Italy by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

He opted for a muted, minimalist look: very little chrome and semi-matte black pillars, window and light frames. Also a front grille with slope and shape that is uncomfortably Lincolnesque.

The silhouette is implied dumbbell with clumps fore and after, a high deck rear end and a noticeable waist formed by a ventral arc between the wheels. Brooding, maybe. Vapid from some angles. Rather like a dubious blind date.

The interior--save broader seats contoured more for boulevard cruising than slinging the car around corners--is typically Lexus. Which is almost perfect.

Instruments are large, dead ahead, analog and back-lighted for when sunny days disappear or the car descends into the bowels of a parking garage. The shifter is a healthy handful with an overdrive button beneath the driver's thumb for engine braking and tauter power control around corners. Noise is from a seven-speaker, 225-watt audio system--with Nakamichi sound as an option--that will blow the foam off your coffee.

Front and back have ample room for knees, elbows and shoulders, but taller types might find haircuts brushing the driver's-side headliner. Above all, the interior is still as much isolation booth as control room. This detachment from RTD fumes, unmuffled motorcycles, jackhammers and yelps from those who would question our driving habits and ancestry is Lexus at its best.

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