Gareth Butterfield says Lexus has found its sweet spot with the GS300h
EARLIER this year I drove the Lexus RC Coupe. It looks like the sort of car that would tear your face off and then go and eat your grandmother. But it drives like a car that would rather sit and give you a close beating at a game of chess.
I liked it. It was refreshing to be in a genuine grand tourer which was comfortable, quick and visually exciting – even though it did look a bit “Dukes of Hazzard” but only went a bit “Little House on the Prairie.”
Anyway, barring the insane, inaccessible LFA, it will come as no surprise that what Lexus does best is cars you can relax in.
Its CT hatchback is more comfortable than it really needs to be, the new NX is a lovely thing to sit in and I once did a journey to Yorkshire and straight back again in the latest RX, returning feeling as if I’d just popped to the local shop.
You see, the cabin in a Lexus – any Lexus – is a beautifully machined and exquisitely cosseting place to be. And, as a rule, the bigger the car, the better it is. It’s got the solidity of an Audi, the quirks of a Subaru and the technology of a BMW or Mercedes. It’s a Jack of all trades.
It’s at its biggest and best in the gargantuan LS, of course but, if you can’t quite stretch to Japan’s £100,000 answer to the Bentley Mulsanne, fear not. There’s always the GS.
It’s unashamedly pitched in the sector dominated by the BMW 5-series and Mercedes E Class and, just look at it. It’s a dizzying array of wild angles, gaping gashes and big, bold statements.
It’s not dull inside, either. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s typical Lexus build quality makes you feel instantly welcomed, with beautiful materials, contrasting fabrics and leathers and some of the nicest seats in the business.
If I’m going to try to be critical, I think they’ve overdone the nobs and buttons a bit. There’s a nob for one thing, a button for the other, and a lever for yet another thing. But the real fly in the ointment is the joystick-cum-trackpad that controls the infotainment system.
BMW and Mercedes have perfected the use of a wheel over many years of trial and error, yet Lexus feels we should wield around a square piece of plastic to try and “stab” at what we see on the screen.
It’s a nice idea in theory, and the haptic feedback is good, but it’s not going to win me over. Move on please, Lexus.
The model I’m testing is the GS300h, which is the hybrid version. Hybrid, of course, means petrol and electric combined and, of course, it means better fuel economy. Remember; Lexus doesn’t do diesel.
There’s a pokey 2.5-litre petrol engine and an electric motor which does a reasonable job, working together or separately depending on what you’ve got in the battery pack and how briskly you want to pull away. It’s a system Lexus – and their cousins at Toyota – have honed to perfection over the years and it works brilliantly. Achieving 40mpg plus is very realistic, which is good in a car this size.
It’s not all good news though. Lexus has, for reasons I will never fathom, stuck with a continuously-variable transmission. Any keen driver will tell you this is an annoying and seemingly pointless way of changing gears. Stabbing the throttle results in a scream from the engine but the rising revs do little to propel you.
Acceleration is always comparatively gentle, which is a shame. It’s a pretty quick car. There’s even a set of “gears” on a pair of beautifully-machined paddles but it’s all a fallacy; a cruel trick.
There are no gears, you just tweak the revs a bit and dial in a dose of engine braking. It’s just a bit silly and annoying.
But as I’ve said before, a Lexus is always at its best when it’s responding to smooth, gentle inputs. It might not have the poise of a 5-series Bimmer but it is far more comfortable.
And then there’s the price. The GS range starts at £33,495 but you’ll get the world on a stick thrown in. Spec a similar Mercedes up to the same levels of gadgetry and you’ll be crying into your options list. It’s not just the price, either.
There’s lots of space in the GS, the rear seats are comfortable and the boot is generous – well, for a hybrid.
And then there’s the individuality. Every man and his dog seems to pick the German rivals yet here’s an alternative that’s as comfortable, refined, practical, economical and still looks classy and expensive.
Yes, there’s a Bonkers F version with a loud, shouty V8 engine but this GS300h is Lexus doing what it does best.
It’s standing out from the German crowd and it’s giving buyers a viable alternative to the diesel fleet-mobiles that will make you smile every time you sit in it.