It’s been more than five years since Lexus introduced its sporty, aggressively styled GS sedans, and as we found out in a recent week with a new GS430, Lexus’s first focused sports sedan still ranks high in style, performance, and luxury.
While the GS430’s larger sibling the LS430 remains focused on comfort and technology features, the GS’s hunkered-back silhouette, chunky, prominent C-pillar, and aggressive front-and rear-end treatments all make it clear that it’s a bit more of a sport sedan than a luxury car.
But any sport-sedan compromises are barely noticeable. As the fastest car in the Lexus lineup—and one of the fastest regular-production sedans available from any automaker—the GS430 encompasses several personalities all at the same time. It’s as much an isolating stop-and-go commuter as it is a carver of tight hairpin mountain roads, a sedate highway cruiser, or a high-speed stormer.
Strong, silent type
The 300-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 engine is the strong, silent type, pulling smoothly all the way up to redline without the loud fanfare that accompanies some other performance sedans. With 325 lb-ft of torque, it’s punchy and eager from a standstill, as any good V-8 should be. Floor the gas pedal at any speed, and your head will be pulled back: no fuss, just fast (Lexus’s official 0-60 mph time is 5.8, and it’s on the conservative side). And if you turn off the standard VDC stability control, you can get your childish kicks with a good ol’ fashioned peelout.
The GS430 (and, for that matter, the GS300, too) only comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, which has ideally matched ratios for the 4.3-liter V-8 and seems well mated to the engine. Upshifts and downshifts are smooth yet snappy, and you’ll seldom find the need to shift manually, as it just seems to find the best gear for the situation, quickly. It adjusts shift points not only based on your throttle foot, but also to the slope of the road, cornering forces, and other variables.
2003 Lexus GS 430
And there’s more good news: despite its V-8 brawn, the GS is no fuel-swilling musclecar. Across most of its lineup, Toyota knows how to design an efficient powertrain, and the GS430 is no exception. You can expect fuel economy to be about the same as most competitive V-6s. During a weeklong mix of hot-footed city driving and ho-hum Interstate cruising, we saw about 21 mpg overall, and using the trip computer we saw nearly 30 mpg on a level, cruise-controlled highway stint. Premium fuel is required, though, despite the adaptable valvetrain.
Steering is responsive and direct. Performance-minded drivers will find it somewhat overboosted in tight, low-speed corners, but there’s still good feedback from the road. The sticky summer performance tires tend to catch grooves in the road, though, so you’ll need to keep both hands firmly on the wheel over uneven surfaces, especially when braking.
Despite its aggressive orientation, very little noise and vibration enters the cabin. Wind noise is never noticeable, and engine noise is only a distant V-8 whir, while road noise is under control on all but the coarsest surfaces.
The only real complaints we had of the GS focus around the seating layout. The front seats are comfortable as long as you’re in the six-foot-and-under crowd, but for those taller folks the lower seat cushions are way too short and lack the extensions of—for instance—the BMW 5-Series. After only an hour or so behind the wheel some will be wishing for firmer back support or longer cushions. You’ll need to mind the headroom, too. I had several other tallish friends sit in a comfortable position in the GS, and their heads were all either very close to the moonroof surround or rubbing it. Back-seat passengers said that the GS is spacious in back but that the seats have an odd curvature that tends to ‘swallow’ you, and due to the wide drive tunnel it’s only good for two adults. There’s plenty of space for everyone’s luggage in back, though. The lid opens wide to a surprisingly cavernous trunk.
2003 Lexus GS 430
Interior materials in the GS430 are of high quality, but the surfaces and finishes aren’t particularly trendsetting or nearly as flashy as the exterior. If you’ve been in lesser vehicles in the Toyota or Lexus lineups some of the materials and switchgear will seem very familiar. Assembled in Tahara, Japan, the GS430 is one of the most tightly made cars around, with top-notch attention to detail. We couldn’t find a single loose piece or inconsistent gap in our test car, and it was completely free of creaks and rattles.
Controls and displays in the GS are kept quite simple. The gauge cluster has a traditional layout but it’s backlit in white, making it especially easy to read, and the backlighting automatically adjusts to the ambient light level. The remainder of the controls and displays are backlit at night in a light-green hue that makes everything easy to see.
The GPS navigation system on our test car (a $3250 option) does its job with a delightfully low level of fuss or frustration. As in most vehicles with optional GPS systems, it combines some other audio, climate control, and trip computer functions into that of mapping and navigating, but it does this in a way that’s still intuitive. Most of its operations don’t require going back through the same main screens over and over again—there are hot buttons along the left side of the screen for each function menu like mapping, navigation, audio, climate control, info, and system setup. Regular buttons exist for audio and climate control functions as well for many common functions. Also, the interface is a touch screen (avoiding the scramble to move a cursor around the screen). The only thing it could use is a quick next-turn window in the main gauge cluster. A ten-speaker, 240-watt Mark Levinson sound system is included as part of the nav system package, and it’s one of the best-sounding systems we’ve heard.
2003 Lexus GS 430
We had only a couple of minor complaints about the GS’s controls and switchgear. To this tall driver, the fuel-door release was a challenge to find initially (psst…it’s under the dash ahead of the driver’s left knee, out of the line of sight!), and the power seat controls are difficult to operate with the door closed, as large hands can barely fit into the narrow gap next to the door pocket.
V-rated Michelin Pilot HX MXM summer performance-oriented tires are standard on the GS, so if you live in a wet or cold winter climate we strongly advise a set of separate winter tires. The Michelins are sticky, but as we said above they also tend to be a bit noisy at low speeds. Otherwise, Lexus will substitute Goodyear Eagle GT+4 all-season tires as a no-charge option.
The GS’s large (about twelve-inch-diameter) four-wheel discs are capable of scrubbing off speed quickly and confidently. The brake pedal travels downward a little too far toward the floor without anything happening, but at the point where the brakes engaged, the pedal feel was firm and confident, though the pads tended sometimes to be noisy. Brake Assist, a feature that automatically applies additional boost during panic braking, is also included.
Our test car had two options that are definitely a matter of personal taste, but we could have done without both of them. The optional chrome wheels ($1915 including the summer tires) tended more toward tacky than tasteful, we thought, as they don’t match the rest of the trim on the vehicle; and the rear spoiler (a $440 option) seems suspiciously low to be functional—it just adds clutter and an element of juvenile fast-and-furious styling that’s out of place on such a clean, sexy design.
Lexus has done well with the GS by not trying too hard to fit into specific niches Mercedes-Benz or BMW had already cornered. The last-generation Mercedes-Benz E430 felt heavy and stolid in personality, while the outgoing BMW 5-Series remains a more sharply focused sports sedan. The GS has smartly slotted somewhere in between, with a road persona best described as lean, athletic, yet soft enough for wide appeal. With the new E-Class a leaner, sharper, flashier car, the GS is now in more direct competition.
2003 Lexus GS 430
But overall, there’s a lot to love and there just isn’t much to gripe about in the GS, except maybe for the premium sticker price. For those, the GS300 offers a 220-hp in-line six-cylinder engine, along with the same five-speed automatic and many of the same standard features, for about $8500 less. It’s not quite as ‘warp speed’ as the 430, but it has plenty of grunt to still feel like a sport sedan. Otherwise, the one variant that’s been missing from the GS from the start—which we suspect would sell very well—is a GS sport wagon. Perhaps one is on the way.
The next-generation 5-Series, which goes on sale this fall, offering improved performance, more high-tech features, and a spiced-up interior, will certainly turn up the heat. The GS will carry over for the 2004 model year with only minor changes. While there’s no doubt a new GS in the works, set for arrival more than a year from now, there’s no reason for us to say you need wait. The GS430 is still one hot—and cushy—ride.
2003 Lexus GS430
Base price/as equipped: $47,825/$54,199
Engine: 4.3-liter V-8, 300 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 189.2 x 70.9 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 3715 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 18/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags, front side-curtain airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, stability control, anti-lock braking system, Brake Assist
Major standard equipment: Leather upholstery, heated power front seats w/memory, power windows/locks/mirrors, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, walnut wood trim, dual-zone climate control, seven-speaker sound system w/6-disc changer, power moonroof
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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