For all its strengths, Lexus still had a glaring weakness.

Any Lexus was perceived as luxurious, a vehicle that pampered all occupantswith every gadget and gizmo known to mankind.

But to drive one for a while was to find that Lexus was more sterile thanvirile. Comfy and cozy but keep the stopwatch at home. Any reference about 0to 60 referred to the wait until the age to buy one.

For 1998, Lexus has set out to change the perception that while its carsare strong on plush, they come up short on punch.

To do so, Lexus unveils the GS400, powered by a 4-liter, 300-horsepower,32-valve V-8 that will reach 60 miles per hour from a standing start in 6seconds or less as about 80 percent of the torque kicks in at 1,800 r.p.m. Topspeed is regulated at 149 m.p.h.

How powerful is the steroid-injected GS400 sedan? It goes whoosh fasterthan you can say wow. Versions of the V-8 are offered in the ’98 Lexus LS400sedan and SC400 coupe as well.

The GS400 is the new companion of the GS300, which is powered by a 3-liter,inline 6-cylinder that develops 225 h.p. and claims to cross the line in the 0to 60 run about 1.6 seconds after the 400 arrives.

The GS300 has been a member of the Lexus line since 1993. For 1998 it isredesigned (0.8-inch longer wheelbase, 6-inch shorter overall length) andre-engineered.

Lexus insists its cars have always had power, it’s just that the focus hasbeen on creature comforts and the prestige image. The GS400 is the wakeupcall.

But there is a drawback with the machine. Step on the pedal and you sprint,just as if you were in a sporty Lexus SC400 coupe. But as you pass over theexpander joints in the road, you feel as if you are floating, just as in alarger $50,000-plus Lexus LS400 sedan.

The problem: the tires.

The standard tread is a 16-inch all-season radial that tends to providesmooth, but somewhat soft ride and handling. The 16-inch tire seems out ofcharacter with the performance image. You get the feel of being lulled in atouring sedan rather than let loose in a sports sedan that whips into and outof corners.

“Some will think the car is out of sync with those tires, but lots of ourcustomers want softness, not roughness. Those who want more road feel are inthe minority. We never get complaints that the tires give too soft a ride, butowners scream if the tires give them too firm a ride,” said Lexus spokesmanMike Michels.

For those who drive aggressively and prefer more road feel, 17-inchperformance treads are available as a $250 option. That’s a good price forfour spares. Use the 16-inch all-seasons from late fall through early springand switch to the 17-inchers when the roads clear.

The 17-inch tire better fits the GS400’s personality, though being alow-profile, high-performance tire, you probably wouldn’t want to stumblearound on them in the Snow Belt through the winter.

Michels said some Lexus dealers have arrangements with customers to shodtheir vehicles with all-season tires in the fall, then store those tires andswitch to the performance treads for the summer.

To get the most out of your $45,000-plus investment in the car, we wouldhighly recommend getting the optional 17-inch tires for the motoring season.

Of course, Lexus could solve the problem by offering the 16-inch all-seasontires it now does and an optional 16-inch tire with a little more bite to itand you wouldn’t have to worry about an annual switch to 17-inch performancetires.

In addition to the 32-valve V-8, another plus for the rear-wheel-driveGS400 is the standard Vehicle Skid Control. The system is similar toStabiliTrak at Cadillac. VSC uses sensors, actuators and computer electronicsfrom the anti-lock-brake and traction-control systems to prevent the skids orspins caused by oversteer or understeer that could send a car into the ditchor across the oncoming lanes of traffic.

VSC works on its own. You don’t have to press, pull, twist or turnanything. If you have the wheel pointed north, but the vehicle starts to skidsouth, VSC computer electronics adjust engine power and activate ABS to thespinning wheel to stop the unwanted action and maintain vehicle control.

With dual depowered front air bags, dual side-impact air bags in both frontseats, ABS, traction control and VSC, the GS400 has put all the safety systemsin place.

Lexus, of course, doesn’t design, develop or engineer the folks who buy itscars and get themselves into risky situations, but it has done its part toprovide them with a safe environment to work out of. Avoiding conflict is thenthe owner’s problem.

Neat features include a first-aid kit in the trunk, fuel door and deck-lidrelease buttons under the dash, recessed no-spill cupholders in front and dualholders that slide out from the center armrest in the rear,easy-to-see-and-use controls and integrated garage door-opener in the roof.

And the climate control system uses sensors to read hydrocarbon levels inthe passenger cabin and, if they are too high, the air conditionerautomatically turns on to circulate air in the cabin.

The GS400, however, is not without fault.

Try as we might to appreciate the fashion statement, the styling is ratherconservative, and, at first glance, resembles a Volkswagen Passat. The shortdeck makes it look a tad stubby and pudgy, and as a result, trunk room is abit less than bargained for. Perhaps an optional ($420) deck-lid spoiler wouldhelp styling appeal, though it won’t help trunk room.

We also aren’t a fan of leather seats in a performance car.

With leather, you can offer heated seats, but with leather you tend tosuffer more sideways movement than you do with cloth. With as powerful a V-8as the GS400 offers, we’d prefer to remain stationary in the saddle. Thanks tothe designers, the seat is wide and shell-shaped for very good comfort.

One other nice touch is the instrument panel lighting, which had been blackwith fluorescent numbers and letters in the GS300, but now is white withsilhouette black numbers/letters that’s so much easier to see and so mucheasier on the eyes at night. Small change, big difference.

You’ll have to judge for yourself whether Lexus “E” shift is desirable. “E”shift is similar to Porsche’s Tiptronic. It’s a 5-speed automatic that you canshift manually without a clutch by pressing buttons on the steering wheel–onthe front for your thumbs to use to downshift, on the back for your fingertipsto use to upshift. Doubt you’ll play with it more than twice a year.

Base price of the GS400 is $44,800–high enough to merit a federal luxurytax of 8 percent on the amount of the transaction price that exceeds $34,000.Unlike Rolls-Royce, which eats the tax, Lexus dealers collect the tithe andforward it to Uncle Sam–at least they will until 2003 when the tax finally is phased out.

Take heart that with the 17 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway mileage rating,you avoid a gas-guzzler tax.

One price gripe: aren’t the options–$1,020 for a power sunroof, $1,050 fora CD changer, $1,200 for a sound-system upgrade–rather stiff? And it seems abit nervy to charge $112 for carpeted floor mats in a $45,000 sedan.

Word is that the mats were going to be standard, but a bean counter found away to add $112 to the company coffers. Word also is that those carpets aregoing to be made standard soon now that Lexus realizes the gaffe.

The GS sedans are the first of other changes at Lexus. The SLV conceptsport-utility vehicle built off the Camry sedan platform that was unveiled atthis year’s Chicago Auto Show goes on sale in March as the 1999 RX300.

And Lexus 1997 LX450 luxury sport-utility will be renamed the 1998 LX470 inMarch, when a fresher styled SUV with a new 4.7-liter V-8 arrives. Lexus willcontinue to sell ’97 LX450s until t he ’98 LX470 arrives.

If the GS400/300 sedans meet their 17,000-unit sales projections, you haveto wonder how long Lexus will keep its SC400/300 coupes that account for only5,000 sales annually.