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When did you last see a Lexus GS? This Oriental rival to a BMW 5 Series has had three generations so far, but few buyers in Europe have dared to step out of the BMW/Mercedes/Audi/Jaguar zone of comfort and perceived status.
So much so that this fourth-generation GS nearly didn't happen. The US market stayed the execution, for there the GS has a certain critical mass. So Toyota, which owns the luxury brand, thought it might as well do Europe too.
Widespread acceptance is not the aim. Were it so, there would be a diesel (an engine type unpopular in the US and Japan). Instead we get two flavours of V6, fitted to the GS250 (2.5 litres, 157kW) and the GS450h (3.5 litres and, because it's a hybrid, an electric motor, generating a combined maximum thrust of 256kW).
This petrol hybrid is rated at diesel-like minimalism for its official CO2 output, the figure of 137g/km amazingly low for a car of this bulk, power and pace, even if the likely retail price is a hefty one to pay for your frugality (the South African range and prices are still to be confirmed).
So, what's special about this new GS? It looks sharper than the previous one, with a curious, flattened-hourglass front grille and defined edges to the shapes. There's more room in the back and, addressing a failing of the previous hybrid version, a much bigger boot thanks to the vertical relocation of the hybrid system's battery.
The Lexus luxury approach began two decades ago with exquisite attention to detail, but sadly the dizzy heights scaled by the original LS400 have never since been equalled.
There are, though, neat touches in the GS. The huge information screen shows options receding into the distance as though on a long, straight road; and the air-conditioning automatically shuts off vents aimed at empty seats to save energy, and uses “nanoe” (sic) particles to absorb smells.
But then it goes wrong. You can't see the trip meter from the driving seat; the steering wheel is angled unusually far from the vertical, like a van's, unless you want it in your lap; the head-up display on the windscreen is distorted; the dashboard's vinyl covering, beyond the showpiece leather, is sticky to the touch; and the shaping, grain-matching and fit of the various wooden panels in the centre console is so poor that you wonder if it is meant to be that way, and if so, why.
STEERING A LITTLE STICKY
And to drive? The GS comes in regular and F-Sport guise, the latter far less mad than Lexus's hardcore, V8-engined iS-F but firmer of suspension and fiercer of face than the regular GS. The ordinary GS250 is pleasant enough if you're just cruising, with a discreet growl and a comfortable ride, but its six-speed automatic gearbox can be reluctant to change down and the steering is a little sticky around the straight-ahead.
The GS450h is much punchier, and with its continuously variable automatic transmission you're never left waiting for something to happen when you put your foot down.
In F-Sport form, the GS450h has rear-wheel steering in which the rear wheels steer fractionally in the opposite direction to the fronts at low speeds, and fractionally the same way at higher speeds when meaningful cornering forces act on them. It makes this big car feel very agile. It's unnatural at first, but you soon get used to it.
Then the GS450h F-Sport proves to be a surprisingly enjoyable sports saloon as well as an economical one able to run, briefly, on the electric motor alone in urban driving.
This, clearly, is the most interesting GS and the one to have. But I fear that, as ever, not many people will. -The Independent on Sunday