GS 450h F Sport

GS 450h F Sport

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Lexus, which has never taken the tried and tested route in a region where four-cylinder diesel cars are the norm, thinks its new GS sedan has got what it takes to change buyers' perceptions of the brand.

On the recent launch of the fourth generation model, the Europe-wide 'Creating Amazing' tagline was also unveiled to we, the predictably sceptical media. The campaign is based on bold images that show how a Lexus will look in your rear view mirror but how will real buyers respond? Will the end of modesty in its advertising, combined with an admittedly far more sporty successor to the old GS equal the sales improvement that Lexus Europe so dearly seeks for this car?

The answer to both questions depends on how you define Europe. For Toyota, this means all of Western, Central and Eastern Europe, plus Israel, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia. The last of these is Lexus' top regional market (I checked the figures for myself so see the asterisk below) – remember that a fully loaded LX 570 is a must-have for many a moneyed Muscovite – so the answer to the second question would seem to be yes, the new GS has what it takes to succeed where the old, more anonymously styled car did not.

The third generation GS was a good car but it didn't exactly set the sales charts alight anywhere in this region. In the UK, Lexus Europe's number two market, only 80 were sold in 2011 and a mere 21 in the first five months of this year. Room for improvement there then. To help things along, the UK importer has a new weapon: the GS 250, which serves as the entry level variant (the old GS was a hybrid-only offering in the UK and many other European markets).

The new GS 250 is powered by a 2.5-litre V6, whereas the replacement for the GS 450h again comes with the combination of electric motors and 3.5-litre V6 engine. There's a GS 350 with rear- or all-wheel drive in some LHD European markets but still no diesel. The car's chief engineer Yoshihiko Kanamori gave me his reasons for that omission in a recent interview. Nonetheless, Lexus' own figures show that 81% of cars sold in this E-premium segment are so powered.

The sales target for the European region is 6,000 cars in the GS' first full year, which Lexus says will give it a three percent share. Incidentally, the importance of the markets to Europe's east shouldn't be underestimated: I mentioned the big LX 4x4 but Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan will also be the only countries in this region to take the first hybrid-engined version of the ES sedan, the new ES 300h. You can also buy the Land Cruiser Prado-based Lexus GX in those countries.

To give you an idea of how important the UK market will continue to be for Lexus, we journalists on the car's launch were told that the sales expectation for the GS is 1,150 cars in 2012, 1,475 in 2013 and 2,250 in 2014. The reason for the improvement in two years' time? The introduction of a second, smaller capacity petrol-electric powertrain in the second half of 2013.

Lexus executives weren't giving away any more information about what they referred to as a "low displacement" hybrid unit but I don’t expect it's the powertrain from the new ES 300h - that car uses a front-wheel drive architecture. No, I expect it to be all-new and shared with the next generation IS sedan - Kanamori-san told me the N-platform from the new GS will also be used for the next IS sedan.

Let's talk some more about Lexus sales in Europe as a whole. Before the Great Recession began in 2008, the brand was doing modestly well. Its registrations for 2007 reached a record 15,130 cars and SUVs, compared to only 8,270 in 2011. Last year's tally was, however, a 33% improvement on 2010, thanks mostly to the introduction of the CT 200h, the popularity of which continues to rise. This year, brand sales across Lexus Europe's 36-country region are expected to reach 9,300 units but by 2015, the aim is to return to the days of 15,000 units per annum.

Lexus customers expect a refined car with faultless quality and the latest high-tech features. Over two days' recent driving in Germany and Austria, the GS showed it has both in abundance. Surprisingly, one of the three cars I drove even did a fair impression of a sports model and you couldn't say that about the outgoing GS. Lexus Europe will be hoping that others think the same as me: the high-priced F Sport trim level is expected to prove increasingly popular.

In Britain, the GS450h F Sport will set you back £50,995. If you like the hybrid powertrain but prefer a model subtle exterior appearance package, the same money buys you Premier trim. This does without the sports bodykit but makes up with that with some adjustments to its specification in other ways.

The GS range starts at £32,995. This buys you the GS 250 SE, rising to £35,995 for Luxury trim with the same engine or F Sport for £39,995. And you don't have to pay fifty one grand to get the hybrid either – there's a GS 450h Luxury for £44,995. You can easily tell the V6-engined cars from the hybrids: the former have exposed tail-pipes, while the latter have a blue-tint in their Lexus badges.

When I drive any new model, I want to know if there's anything in the car that I haven't seen before. In the case of the GS, Lexus lists an energy saving air conditioning system as a world first (it speaks of 'nano-e' technology), plus the world's largest in-car multimedia display screen that can be controlled by a slide haptic joystick. So there's three novelties.

Improvements over the third generation car include up to 30mm more headroom in the front and 20mm more knee room for rear passengers. At 5' 10" I'm pretty much Mister Average and there was loads of room in the back for me. The big news is 30% more space in the boot thanks to a repackaging of the hybrid system's battery (it's behind the rear seat) and new rear suspension. The car itself is 30mm taller and 20mm wider, while the front and rear tracks are pushed out by 40mm and 50mm respectively.

Behind the wheel, you feel snug, even though this is a big vehicle. That's helped by the wide and softly upholstered centre console. Detailed touches include LED interior lighting that fades in sequence as the ignition is fired. For some reason, I also liked the sight of an analogue clock that was ringed by LED hour markers. As for the navi system, this was simplicity itself to use and you can even ask it to find you a specific parking space at your destination.

There is so much technology in this car, it's almost too much to list so forgive me if I don't go into detail and merely mention the following as highlights: a pre-crash safety system, automatic braking, a camera that monitors the driver's eyes for drowsiness and alerts him or her with a loud buzzer if they shut for four seconds, adaptive headlights, lane-keeping assistance, an up to 17 speaker sound system, heated rear seats, and a gadget I will admit I loved playing with - an electric sunshade for the rear window that glides up and down in uncanny silence.

I don't want to give an overall impression of this model as being solely a gadget-lover’' dream but if you do love high-tech features, this is definitely now one of the top picks in the E-premium segment. All those electronic safety systems will no doubt do an outstanding job of keeping you on the road if you get beyond your abilities or an emergency situation arises. As for the driving experience, in GS 450h form with the F Sport chassis, this big sedan does a fair impersonation of a sports car, with the silent pull-away on EV power that is such a great part of the hybrid ownership experience.

I can see Lexus hitting its admitedly modest sales targets both in the UK and across its European region with this new car. It's a big improvement over the old model and better in some ways - refinement, mostly - than its rivals the 5 Series, E-Class, A6 (plus in the UK, the Jaguar XF). A GS wagon would sell well in certain markets, not to mention a four-cylinder diesel engine but since neither of those two potential additions are needed in the car's largest global markets - the US, China, Russia and Japan - I'm not going to criticise Toyota for failing to develop them.

Perhaps the best way to look at the new GS is what it says about the evolution of the brand. You still get advanced technology and you know this car will start every time and never let you down. But the car's new-found appeal for enthusiast drivers is something that might surprise anyone who has owned a few 5 Series sedans and fancies a change.

*Lexus global sales in 2011: 403,939. Top five markets were USA (198,552), China (56,377), Japan (42,365), Russia (13,698) and Canada (13,364).

Author: Glenn Brooks