1998 Lexus GS400
Luxury and performance.by Mike Knepper
Base Price $37,295
Price as tested $49,355
When the man from Lexus handed me the keys to the GS400 another car in the driveway blocked it from view, so I took the keys and went back to the keyboard without looking at the car. Later, when it was time for a first drive, I walked back outside and my jaw dropped.
Bathed in deep garnet metallic blue, the GS400 was stunning with a sleek aerodynamic shape that ended with a free-standing rear spoiler and five-spoke aluminum wheels. Some critics have charged that Lexus cars, though nearly flawless, are somewhat lacking in character. It was immediately obvious that this GS400 was going to be a Lexus like no other.
From any angle, the Lexus GS400 makes a statement. Just what that statement is, is up to the beholder. From the side, the GS400 presents a dramatically sloping nose with a cab-forward placement of the lower edge of the windshield. Our test car had the optional high intensity discharge headlamps, a $500 option, which offer a unique appearance. These unusual football-shaped headlights sweep up and back into the fender.
A thin, graceful roofline arches back to a stubby rear deck. A chrome strip surrounds the side windows and accents the shape of the glass. This strikes an interesting contrast with the flat black window posts. For engineering reasons, the rear side glass is divided into a third window, which breaks up an otherwise graceful sweep of glass.
Large multi-lens taillights that wrap around to the sides make a strong design statement from the rear with small brake lights in the trunk lid. The $500 optional rear spoiler on our test car heightens the car's appearance as a high-performance sedan; we don't always like rear spoilers, but we liked this one. The bottom of the rear fascia has a gentle race car-like curl between the twin tailpipes for improved aerodynamics.
From a practical standpoint, the trunk lid raises a full 90 degrees and the liftover height is low for easier loading and unloading. At 14.8 cubic feet, the cargo capacity is comparable to other cars this size.
Lexus has redesigned its 4.0-liter V-8 engine. It boasts four camshafts (DOHC) and 32 valves. Its variable valve timing setup allows the engine to deliver strong torque at low engine speeds, while providing healthy horsepower at higher speeds -- usually mutually exclusive benefits. The engine produces 300 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Most of that torque (80 percent) is available at just 1800 rpm, giving the GS400 lots of around town cruising power and allowing it to sprint away from intersections. Lexus says the GS400 can run from 0 to 60 mph in a very quick six seconds flat, yet it delivered an EPA highway fuel economy rating of 23 mpg.
All that power gives the Lexus GS400 a leg up on its performance-luxury counterparts from Europe: BMW's 540i has a 282-hp V-8. Mercedes-Benz offers its comparably sized E320 with a 221-hp V-6 and its larger S420 with a 274-hp V-8.
The base Lexus GS series car is the $37,295 GS 300, which uses a 3.0-liter, 225-hp in-line six-cylinder engine. It can make the run to 60 mph in a quick 7.6 seconds and boasts a 25.0 mpg rating. Its top speed is electronically governed at 144 mph, while the GS400 is governed at 149 mph. The GS300 doesn't have all the features of the $45,295 GS400 and it certainly isn't as fast, but its price is $8000 less.
All Lexus GS sedans come with a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with a console shifter. It features the increasingly popular automatic/manual design: The top half of the shift gate has the familiar PRND (no L) markings. To the left of Drive is M for manual. Pulling the shifter toward the left permits manually downshifting and upshifting using the shift lever. Even more trick are Formula 1 racing-inspired buttons on the front and back of the steering wheel spokes. Pushing either button on the front of the steering wheel downshifts one gear. Pushing the button behind the spoke upshifts one gear. Moving the lever to M illuminates a readout at the bottom of the speedometer that displays the selected gear. Electronics prevent downshifting above the engine's redline.
Like all true high-performance cars, the Lexus GS series cars are rear-wheel drive. The GS400 features anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic traction control and vehicle skid control (VSC on the console mounted off/on button). Skid control uses the brakes to bring the car back on course if it senses the car is going in a direction not consistent with the steering wheel position.
The Inside Story
It's pleasant inside a GS400 and we found ourselves just parked at times, listening to the sound system and enjoying the surroundings. Lots of leather, thick carpeting and tasteful design add to the ambiance. This interior manages to feel roomy and cozy at the same time.
The GS400 instrument panel and dashboard is a refreshing departure from other designs from Japan. Turn on the ignition and a black panel illuminates to reveal gauges with black markings on white faces lighted from the rear. The intensity of the backlighting automatically varies with ambient light. The gauges are a handsome, creative design and they are easy to read.
To the right are the usual controls for climate and sound, logically laid out and easy to use. There are separate controls for driver and passenger heating and cooling. A hydrocarbon air pollution sensor automatically switches to the recirculation mode when contamination is detected.
Order the optional $2250 navigation system and an information screen fills the center of the dash, moving stereo and climate controls to the top and bottom of the display.
Controls for power windows and moonroof are one-touch open and close. A sensor stops the window or moonroof and warns the driver when anything -- such as the head of a child or pet -- is blocking its path. The supplied keyless remote can be used to operate the windows and moonroof. An electric garage door opener hidden in the front map lamp can be programmed for nearly all garage door frequencies.
The view out the front of the GS400 is excellent, but the rear view is restricted somewhat by the rear headrests and wide C-pillars. Both GS models have seat-mounted side-impact airbags.
Ride & Drive
With all that horsepower, right-foot gratification is instantaneous and substantial. In fact, drivers inexperienced with high horsepower ratings may find themselves intimidated the first few times they apply full throttle. The GS400 practically leaps off the road when given full throttle. There is plenty of engine noise, but it is a mechanical business sound rather than the angry noise of a Corvette's V-8. However, the force pulling you back into the seat is very Corvette-like.
Under normal driving conditions, the GS400 is a perfect gentleman. Its sedate and effortless with just the right amount of steering effort to instill a firm feeling of control often missing in luxury cars.
The GS400 rides more like a BMW than a Cadillac. The suspension absorbs road variations, while providing reassurance in tight turns and fast sweepers.
The high-intensity headlamps throw a wide pattern with bright, sharply defined edges. The light sometimes appears blue/white, but is actually a very white hue in a world of yellowish headlights. We liked them, but you'll have to decide whether seeing what's ahead of you better is worth $500 for the latest technology.
Buyers considering a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class should look closely at a GS400. The all-new Lexus GS400 delivers awe-inspiring performance and a head-turning exterior design. There is simply nothing like it on the road today.
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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.