For years, the Germans have ruled the luxury market in the U.S. However, in the late 1980s’, the Japanese created luxury divisions to take on the Germans. Toyota had Lexus, Honda had Acura, and Nissan had Infiniti. However, Lexus is the only automaker that took the U.S by surprise when it debuted the LS400 in 1989. Whereas German luxury cars were notorious for their poor reliability and were expensive to buy, the LS400 represented a change from the norm by providing excellent reliability and luxury with a starting price that undercut the Germans. As a result, the LS400 was a runaway success. Building on the success of the LS sedan, Lexus saw fit to expand its lineup. Seeing that the ES and LS sedans rivaled compact and large executive sedans, Lexus felt the need for a midsize sedan to rival the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Lexus hired the Italian design firm, Italdesign Guigiaro (a designer who is known for designing Italian cars such as Ferrari and Lamborghini) to design the GS. Sold as a Toyota Aristo in Japan and as a Lexus in the U.S., sales were nowhere near that of the Germans. This can be attributed to its underpowered engine, high price, and weird styling. The GS was redesigned in 1997 as a 1998 model. This time, it had both a V6 and a V8, and its styling was more conventional, and it also placed more emphasis on its driving dynamics. This generation was also sold as a Toyota Aristo in Japan.
Just by looking at the front, it is apparent that the GS’ styling is influenced by its German competitors. Lexus said that the quad headlights is supposed to resemble their SC coupe’s headlights, but it is obvious that the Mercedes-Benz E-Class was the source of inspiration. With that in mind, the GS does look classy if a bit bland. The fascia is nicely detailed, and the gold Lexus logos are a nice touch. I like how the hood has lines that are drawn from edges of the grille towards the windshield. The circular kink in the end of the window line does little to add visual interest to what is a pretty dull side profile. A character line or shoulder would have added excitement. The rear tries to carry over the quad treatment, but the two red lights next to the license plate end up looking out of the place. The exhausts are nicely detailed, and the spoiler sets off the trunklid well. The GS itself is a nice looking car albeit slightly bland, but my main gripe is the wheels. They are chrome, and they look cheap and out of place in a luxury sedan. Like the exterior, the interior is bland. The gauges look futuristic, and the wood trim is appealing. One glaring detail that I noticed in the interior was with the steering wheel. Why is there not a chrome Lexus logo on it? In most cars, you have the actual logo embedded, not just a stamp.
Having the opportunity to drive a black 2003 Lexus GS300 (thankfully without chrome wheels may I add) and this Cystal White 2000 GS300, I feel like I have a good sense of the GS300’s abilities. The notion that Lexuses drive like boats is not present in this car. The steering is feathery light during parking, but it weights up nicely somewhat as speeds rise. However, the steering does seem a tad over boosted because it is too twitchy in a straight line. There is decent feedback, and the steering is precise and accurate. With decent grip and restrained body lean, the GS feels agile and capable. However, drive it hard, and its limits are revealed. It starts to plow wide, and its overzealous stability control cuts in, prohibiting you from getting the best out of it. Refrain from driving fast and furious style and you’re treated to a luxury sedan that handles nicely. In keeping with its sporty personality, the ride quality is slightly firm for a Lexus. It’s smooth for a car, but it is firm for a Lexus. Road imperfections permeate through the cabin, but it is not uncomfortable.
The best part about this car is the engine, no doubt about it. If you read this blog often, then you probably have noticed that whenever I do a review of a BMW, I always praise the BMW’s inline six cylinder engine. This GS300 version utilizes a straight six (same thing as an inline six), and the result is marvelous. With 220 horsepower, the 3.0 liter inline six cylinder’s power delivery is silky smooth, and acceleration is effortless. There is a surge in power that starts at low revs and doesn’t end till the redline. I cannot explain how great this engine is. Fun fact: this engine was also used in the Toyota Supra MK IV, and this engine is popular for its tuning potential. The five speed automatic transmission works well, although I’m curious to see what a manual transmission in this would be like. In Japan, many Toyota Aristos have been converted to manual transmissions, especially with the straight six. For more power, a GS400 (renamed the GS430 after 2000) version with a 300 horsepower 4.0 liter V8 engine was available.
Typical of a Lexus, refinement is excellent. The cabin is whisper quiet, and road noise is well suppressed. But like I said the engine is the best part of this car. This is going to sound unprofessional, but my god, it sounds so good. At low revs, it stays muted, but floor it, and it simply purrs.
The cabin is beautifully finished, but its Toyota origins are too obvious with some hard and plastic surfaces present. The dash is soft touch, but the center cluster for the AC and the radio is a hard surface. The buttons are big enough to operate with gloves on, and they are well labeled. The displays for the radio and the AC wash out in direct sunlight though. The gauges are crisp and easy to read. The gear selector in the right gauge is interesting, but the gear selector indicator light can be hard to see with sunglasses on. Cabin storage is decent, and the center console is huge. Visibility upfront is afforded by slim pillars and big windows, but the view out back is obscured by the spoiler. The front seats provide impeccable comfort, but the lack of bolstering means that you’ll be sliding around in the seat when cornering. Finding a driving position is easy thanks to the seat’s numerous adjustment settings and the steering wheel’s telescoping and tilt function. The rear seat should be able to fit two adults easily, although three adults might find it slightly narrow. The trunk is huge, and it should have no problem accommodating a family’s worth of luggage.
As a car guy, I have always had affordable/realistic/non-sporty everyday cars that I would love to own. These cars include an 2004-2008 Acura TL (everytime I see one, I hate myself for not having one), a first generation Mazda6 5 speed or a fourth generation Nissan Maxima SE 5 speed, a 1998-2002 Honda Accord four door EX with a manual, and so on. Ever since I drove that black 2003 Lexus Gs300, I fell in love with it. It was black, and it had a spoiler (the GS looks better with a spoiler in my opinion), and I loved the engine. The only thing that stopped me from putting it on the list was the lack of a manual transmission. Trivial I know, but that’s what made me forget about this GS until I reviewed it. Driving the GS300 again has made me fall in love with it again. It is a shame that the GS never managed to sell as well as its German competitors because this is a truly remarkable car. It strikes a fine blend between sportiness and luxury. It may have its flaws, but they add to its charms. The styling may not be exciting but as least it is tasteful, and the straight six engine is a delight. I cannot emphasize how much the engine completes the car. Call me crazy, but the engine is fantastic. The only thing stopping me from truly loving this car is not because of the lack of a manual transmission, but because of something just as trivial…the chrome wheels. I’ll have my GS300 in black with a spoiler and non chrome wheels please.