LOS ANGELES -- Brilliance comes from desperation.
Since the mid-'90s, Lexus has tried to create a sport sedan with the cachet of the Mercedes E class and the performance of the BMW 5 series. In three generations, it has accomplished neither.
Past Lexus GS efforts have done so poorly in sales and critical comparison tests that Toyota's board was ready to kill the upcoming generation of the car before launch.
This is the last chance for the GS. It is also, by far, the best effort.
The basics: Previous GS attempts were plagued with numb steering, floppy handling and choppy brakes. Yes, they were fast, but not much else. Add in bland exterior styling and vanilla interiors, and it's no wonder the car fared poorly against the Germans.
The new GS 350 has a much tighter feel dynamically, though the electric power steering is still a touch vague. Through an autocross comparison test, the GS seemed more connected to the driver than the Mercedes E350, though it still couldn't touch the accuracy and response of a BMW 535i.
As for the GS 350's looks, the aggressive "spindle grille" fascia will be polarizing, but at least it has some personality. The interior layout is more horizontal than is typical of most center stacks. An analog clock makes a return.
The wheelbase and overall length are the same as the 2011 GS 350, but the car is taller, the front track is 1.6 inches wider and the rear track is two inches wider. The base sedan is rear-wheel drive, and there is an all-wheel-drive edition. This platform also will be the underpinning for the next-generation IS sedans that will come late next year.
For those who miss the thunder of a V-8 engine, the V-6 comes with an intake baffle that delivers a bit more rumble to the cockpit. Not that the engine lacks grunt: The GS 350 goes from 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds.
The double-wishbone front suspension has new geometry and a greater use of aluminum. The changed rear suspension design has moved the spring from a coil-over shock to a more inboard location, which helps with trunk space. An adaptive variable suspension is optional, allowing for stiffer suspension settings. An optional four-wheel steering system uses variable gear ratios to help the GS through tough corners.
Notable features: The GS 450h hybrid generates thrust equivalent to a V-8 engine and gets a real-world 31 mpg. The hybrid's engine has changed from an Otto to an Atkinson cycle for better fuel efficiency, while the electric motor makes up for the Atkinson's flat spot in the torque curve.
Manufacturing advancements include both laser and spot welds in crucial areas such as wheel arches and suspension-mounting points. For certain structural pieces, Lexus developed a type of ultrahigh-strength steel that can only be formed when it is glowing hot.
Weight reduction was a key objective, whether it was the thickness of radiator hoses or the clamps that hold them. Still, all the added technology means the car is heavier.