The Lexus GS series suffered the same fate of any sibling caught in themiddle. Caught between the entry level ES series and top-drawer LS series, the GSseries seemed like an ignored middle child. Oh, sure. Lexus tried to excite buyers by saying this sedan was thesporting Lexus. But somehow, it never quite gelled. Until now. With the all-new 1998 GS 300 and GS 400, Toyota finally has endowed thisLexus model with a significant chunk of personality, especially in the 400trim level. And it is all-new. Only front suspension components, crankshaft assemblyand battery were carried over from the previous model. This was a serious rethink, but the design took the existing shape and gaveit a decided edge. The greenhouse is rounded, ending in a very short reardeck. Lighting in front and back is gem-like with the front headlamps styledin a unique post-modern fashion. With the optional rear spoiler and a set ofhigh-performance tires on chrome wheels, this car is no visual shrinkingviolet. The often-heard criticism of "me-too" Japanese design can't be saidof this car. And it's certainly no shrinking violet in performance terms, either. Thisis one Lexus that loves to party hard. The 300 obtains adequate power from its 3.0-liter double overhead-cam six,which pumps out a more than respectable 225 horsepower and 7.6-second 0-60times. But the 400 houses Lexus's 4.0-liter 32-valve V8, with a six-second0-60 time and a healthy 300 horsepower. It's a smooth, seamless power plantwith gobs of guts. Power is fed through the rear wheels courtesy of a five-speed automatictransmission. Shifts are firm and prompt. Speed builds, along with theG-forces, and this car storms down the road with authority. Handling is sportier than in other Lexi and that also means a firmer ride.But it's never jarring, merely fun. Make that fun with a capital F. For control freaks, the automatic transmission features manual-shiftcapability, courtesy of buttons on the steering wheel spokes. It takes somegetting used to, but can be fun. It seems a little unnatural for thoseaccustomed to the usual stick shifter, but it makes the car stand apart fromits brethren. But why anyone would use it is a mystery. The car shifts betteron its own -- and much more smoothly -- when left in its automatic mode. With all this power, keeping it in check is important, so the car comeswith traction control and anti-lock brakes, which together help prevent skids.Even engine power is retarded to prevent loss of control. When everything does go south, the car comes equipped with front and sideair bags, as well as seat belt pretensioners, which reduce seat belt slack tohold you in place at critical moments. The test car came equipped with optional P235/45ZR-17 tires, which providedthe expected performance benefit of quick turn-in and excellent stoppingability. The ride is quite good, with decent road feel. Expansion joints werenot iced, but never harsh, thanks to a firm chassis that controlled the firmride. A car of this standing deserves a suitable interior. With its rowdyintentions clear, the dash makes a different statement for Lexus. The instrument cluster, which consists of three round dials set into hoodsa la a 1971 Ford Torino, are black on white and have a decidedly post-modernlook. A nice touch: Rather than make the speedometer needle opaque in thecenter, one can see the speed through the center stripe. The controls are typical Lexus and by now have been copied by almost everymajor luxury car manufacturer. Perched atop the center of the dash are theautomatic climate controls, with individual settings for each passenger. Belowthat is Lexus' typically excellent audio system, consisting of an AM/FM/cassette/CD player. The CD changer is located conveniently in the glove boxand delivers truly superb sound. The seats are very firm, and some might find them too much so. The driv ingp osition is good, aided by a tilt/telescopic steering column and powerdriver's seat. Room is decent in the back, although this is more of a roomyfour-seater than a true five-seater. Trunk space seems better than theprevious model and is easy to access. Thumbs down, though, for the goosenecktrunk hinges that rob the trunk of some space. Needless to say, this car is fun to drive and comfortable in which to ride.The engine is incredibly quiet, except when revved. This car's lustfulcharacter, speaks of Toyota's desire to break the Lexus image of being avehicle for a more mature buyer. It's enough to bring out the spoiled brat in all of us, whether we're themiddle child or not. And isn't that what cars are supposed to do?1998 Lexus GS400 Standard: 4.0-liter 32-valve V8 engine, five-speed automatic transmissionwith steering-wheel-mounted shift buttons, four-wheel independentdouble-wishbone suspension, speed-sensitive power rack and pinion steering,four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, 225/55VR-16 tires on aluminum wheels, dualfront and side air bags, electrochromatic mirrors, intermittent wipers,outside mirror defrosters, fog lamps, theft-deterrent system with engineimmobilizer, walnut wood trim, leather trimmed interior, memory system,one-touch express power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, integratedgarage door opener, power front seats, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, dualzone automatic climate control, AM/FM/cassette audio system. Options: Power sunroof, heated front seats, rear spoiler, high intensitydischarge headlamps, chrome wheels with upgraded tires, in-dash six-CDchanger, wheel locks, carpeted floor mats, carpeted trunk mat. EPA rating: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway Competitors: BMW5-series, Mercedes E-Class, Cadillac Seville STS
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