In just three short years Toyota's Lexus division has unseated Mercedes-Benz to become the most popular make of imported luxury cars sold in the United States. With such vehicles as the LS 400 sedan and SC 400 sport coupe, Lexus has earned a reputation for exceptional quality and unequaled value. Yet one of those elements - unequaled value - is missing in the newest Lexus, the GS 300 mid-size sports sedan. The GS 300 is an expensive car that, when compared to its rivals, comes up a bit short on performance and interior room. BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and other European sports sedans offer reasonable alternatives. So do rival Japanese autos from Acura and Infiniti. And some equally priced American cars, such as the Cadillac Seville STS, Lincoln Mark VIII, easily top the newest Lexus. For instance, you get high-performance V-8s in the Cadillac and Lincoln, but only a six-cylinder in the GS 300. One other note: To illustrate how expensive Japanese vehicles have become, the GS 300 is priced higher than the top-of-the-line Lexus LS 400 when that vehicle debuted in November of 1989. PERFORMANCE Mechanically, the GS 300 is the result of a marriage between the SC 300 coupe and the LS 400 luxury sedan. The GS 300's 3.0-liter, 24-valve six-cylinder is the same engine that powers the SC 300. It develops 220 horsepower and runs as smoothly as a sewing machine. All GS 300s come with the transmission that is used in the LS 400, an exceptionally smooth-shifting, computer-controlled, four-speed automatic. No manual gearbox is available, and one isn't likely to be offered, according to Lexus officials. Lexus quotes a 0-to-60 mph time of 8.5 seconds. That seems a little optimistic. The 3,672-pound car felt quick - but not that fast. As with every other Lexus, mechanical noises are so well-muffled, you can't really hear what's going on. That's too bad, because in a sporty car, I like to hear a slight growl from the exhaust and the high-pitched whine of camshafts. It makes the driving experience that much more enjoyable. Fuel consumption was reasonable at 22 miles per gallon on a trip from Miami to Orlando. In the city, the GS 300 returned 16 mpg of premium unleaded. HANDLING Lexus engineers ripped a page out the BMW bible of high-performance suspension systems when they created the GS 300. For starters, the anti-lock brakes on the GS 300 are tremendous. Powerful, strong and fade-free, the four-wheel ventilated discs can make the speedometer needle return to zero in a heartbeat. Of all the features on the GS 300, the brakes were the most impressive. They added greatly to the overall feeling of safety and performance. The same can't be said for the steering, which seemed a bit flaccid. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is what engineers call vehicle-speed-sensitive. That means the effort required to turn the wheel varies with the speed of the car, not the speed of the engine. When you are parallel parking, for example, the wheel is very easy to turn. However, when bolting down the interstate at 65 mph, the steering takes a bit more effort. That helps give the driver a better feel for the road. Ifelt the steering was too light at all speeds. Also, the front wheels did not center themselves quickly after a turn. However, the steering is responsive. There's little play, and lane changes require little more than a slight flick of the wrist. Corners can be negotiated very crisply. The turning circle is a respectable 36.1 feet. As with other Lexus models, the independent suspension system dispenses with most bumps. The suspension is quite firm, but the ride does not punish the driver. FIT AND FINISH The GS 300 is equipped with the same style of analog gauges as the LS 400. That is, they are encased in an instrument cluster that is covered with dark plastic. When you turn the ig ition key, the gauges light up. As in the LS 400, the gauges are classy, easy-to-read, and nicely la id out. Also borrowed from the LS 400 is the electronically adjustable steering wheel. Move a joystick-like switch and the wheel automatically tilts and telescopes. If the GS 300 has a weak point, it would be a lack of interior room. For instance, I didn't have enough foot room when driving. With the cruise control engaged and my foot off the accelerator, I could find no comfortable place to set my foot. Rear seat passengers over 6 feet may find the GS 300 a bit cramped. Leg room in the rear is tight, and rear vision is not good. The high rear trunk makes looking out the back a bit of a chore. What might help is a longer rear-view mirror. Options in the test car pushed the price of the GS 300 into another class. The built-in phone, CD player, leather package and sunroof added a whopping $3,713 to the $37,500 base price. In any case, the front bucket seats were comfortable, but, in general, the interior lacked a sense of warmth. If you compare the GS 300 to the Infiniti J30, you'll see what I mean. The J30 looks inviting, and its classy antique-looking clock helps give that car's interior a bit of personality and class. The GS 300 comes off as a bit cold, maybe it's because there's really nothing new here. Outside, the styling is the strongest of any Lexus sedan. It still demonstrates a Mercedes-Benz influence, but without being too bland. Truett's tip: The newest Lexus sports European styling, and offers decent performance and excellent handling. But, because of its high price, the GS 300 may be the first Lexus that fails to be an overwhelming success.
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