You have to hand it to the Italians.
With their expert grasp of proportion and design, they can turn common household items, like a toaster, into sleek, sexy and highly functional art that, well, toasts bread.
Most prolific of the Italian designers has been Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose Turin-based studio, Italdesign, has penned 160 automotive models for both production and concept research, plus other products.
Almost every car maker has gone to Giugiaro for help at one time or another: from fledgling companies like early Hyundai (the Pony) to heavy hitters like BMW (the M1) and Volkswagen (the original Golf and Scirocco).
Manufacturers looking for a bold shape could be almost guaranteed a hit by commissioning Giugiaro.
Not surprising, then, that Lexus in its first years made the pilgrimage to Turin, too, hoping to secure an inspired design to punctuate its young brand.
Giugiaro gave the GS 300 a handsome profile that, rumour had it, was originally intended for Jaguar. Lexus stylists tweaked the front and rear fascias, but left the sheet metal unmolested.
CONFIGURATION The GS 300 arrived in 1993 as a four-door sedan exclusively, assigned to fill the big gap between the entry-level ES 300 and the full-zoot flagship, the LS 400.
It was also to be the marque’s first performance-luxury sedan, fitted with a DOHC inline-six powering the independently hung rear wheels, a la BMW.
The all-aluminum 3.0-litre engine produced 220 hp and 210 lb.-ft. of torque, hooked up to, sadly, a four-speed automatic transmission, the lone drivetrain (the autobox received another gear in 1996).
Inside, occupants were treated to an ergonomically correct dashboard, sumptuous seating and enough space in back for three.
The trunk, though, was smaller than one might expect.
Thanks to its front and rear subframes – isolated by liquid-filled mounts – the GS 300 was remarkably serene and composed at speed, in keeping with the lofty standard set by the LS 400.
Unfortunately, Lexus had tuned the car more for luxury than performance, which meant comparisons with the BMW 535i had the GS coming up short.
Lexus vowed to give it a personality transplant with the second generation.
For 1998, Lexus endowed the GS 300 with more aggressive styling, a different inline-six and more athletic chassis dynamics, including stability control.
While the engine continued with the same displacement, new variable valve timing provided five more ponies and an additional 10 lb.-ft. of grunt.
Gone was the unmistakable Giugiaro shape, replaced by a more swollen body that looked slightly odd.
Trying to be complimentary, one owner likened it to a Faberge Egg.
Power-hungry buyers could choose the GS 400, propelled by the 4.0-litre DOHC V8 lifted from the flagship model, making 300 hp and 310 lb.-ft. of torque.
The renovated interior was especially welcoming, with a driver-oriented backlit display and controls that fell readily at hand. The redesign also allowed for a larger rear seat and trunk.
For 2001, the GS series received numerous upgrades to sharpen the steering and braking. The V8 was upped to 4.3 litres, producing no added ponies, but an extra 15 lb.-ft. of push.
The GS cars have been completely revamped for the 2006 model year.
ON THE ROAD The original GS 300, while a looker, did not stir the passions of many drivers. With the emphasis on comfort, it was judged too floaty (“Like a cloud,” offered one owner) to be taken seriously.
Acceleration was not its strong suit, either. Highway velocity came up in 8.7 seconds. Braking was better, requiring 54 metres to stop from a speed of 112 km/h. Road grip was good at 0.82 g.
The second-generation GS 300 was considerably better on most fronts. It was a full second quicker to 96 km/h, stopped a metre shorter – but generated just 0.76 g on a circular skid pad.
The muscular GS 400 could sprint to 96 km/h in 6.2 seconds, stop in an exemplary 51 metres and pull 0.83 g on a skid pad.
More important, the 1998 and newer GS models benefited from steering hardware and suspension improvements that telegraphed more road information to the driver, without sacrificing the Lexus trademark serenity.
“I don’t need a loud, uncomfortable rumble to know I’m going fast. That’s what a speedometer is for,” commented the owner of a 2004 model.
WHAT OWNERS REPORTED GS owners are the first to admit that Lexus may not have outdone the Bavarians when it comes to building a serious sports sedan.
But from the performance standpoint, the gap is narrowing and, in terms of durability, it’s no contest, apparently.
“While it doesn’t handle quite as well as the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, it has much more room and is, of course, much more reliable,” boasted the owner of a 1995 ES.
Lexus has been rated the most dependable nameplate for 11 consecutive years by J.D. Power and Associates.
Owners attest to that, although a search on the Internet did reveal some gripes.
Among the common mechanical hiccups were front-end vibration (usually attributed to unbalanced wheels), faulty radio displays, a few interior squeaks and rattles, and the occasional electrical problem with an accessory.
More endemic to the design is poor driveability in winter conditions, owners reported.
“Absolutely terrible in snow or ice,” said one.) “Traction control is useless and somewhat annoying.” This is one car that definitely needs four snow tires.
Overall, the GS is another long-legged tourer that coddles its occupants in the Lexus tradition.
Buy the V8 model and you may even win the respect of German-sedan worshippers.
The GS may lack the remarkable balance inherent in every BMW 5-Series, but it still manages to do most everything very competently.
Everything, it seems, except make toast.
We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: Cadillac Catera, Nissan Xterra and Chrysler Sebring. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, P.O. Box 51541, RPO Beaches, Toronto, ON M4E 3V7. Email: toljagic @ ca.inter.net.