Although Lexus has been doing exceedingly well in the market, taking the top luxury position in the U.S. market for the past five years running (setting a record in '04, with 287,927 units sold), in the mid-luxury sports sedan segment, the brand isn't performing nearly as well as BMW and Mercedes. Its GS sedans (300 and 430) have less than five percent of the segment. In '04 it sold approximately 8,200 units. Meanwhile, BMW with the 5 Series and Mercedes with its E Class are each taking 18% of the market or more.
Another issue that Lexus is starting to come to grips with is that the popularity of its vehicles notwithstanding, it has been criticized for not having a strong familiar look among its offerings. Whereas one can readily discern a BMW—before and during Bangle—as a BMW, regardless of the specific series, Lexus products aren't as distinctive. Part of this, perhaps, stems from the fact that the vehicles are Toyota products in the Japan market, and as Toyota is a considerably large channel in that country, the look of the vehicles is varied. The criticism, it should be noted, is not that which is sometimes leveled at Toyota brand vehicles in the U.S.—that they are unstylish appliances (although how someone could look at, say, a Solara and level that charge, especially when other vehicles in that category are considered, of even the current generation Prius which, notwithstanding its hybrid powertrain, makes more of a statement on the road than plenty of vehicles from U.S. and European builders alike). Rather, it's simply that you can't spot a Lexus as a Lexus unless you see the badge (or know what it is). The design language heretofore has too many dialects for there to be any clear identity.
THE LOOK OF LEXUS. But now, especially as the Lexus brand is being introduced in the Japan market, the company is taking the opportunity to focus efforts, resources, and energies on providing a whole new level of distinctiveness for Lexus products. Lexus will have its own "look."* The first of the products to come out with this enhanced attention to design (the sweating of the details in all other aspects, from manufacturing excellence to exemplary customer care, abides) is the GS. There is a level of confidence that the car will resonate well with the U.S. public such that Lexus group vice president and general manager Denny Clements says that they anticipate reaching an annual sales level of about 33,000 units, or more than 14% of the market, which is a significant increase from its present market performance.
Of course, the sales of the GS are not going to be predicated on the design alone. One factor that may play well for those who are looking at a car in the mid-luxury sport sedan category is that the third-generation GS is, according to Clements, "the fastest Lexus ever built"—with a 0 to 60 time of 5.7 seconds. What's more, he says, it is also "the most technically advanced" Lexus (a distinction which will last until the 400h hybrid SUV is out on the streets—see: http://www.autofieldguide.com/articles/020506.html).**
FASTER, FASTER. As for the first point, the speed. It's predicated primarily on the 4.3-liter engine in the GS 430 (the GS 300 has a 3-liter engine, so you can see where the numeric nomenclature comes from). It produces 300 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 325 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3,400 rpm. The engine is mated to a six-speed sequential-shift electronically controlled automatic transmission (all versions of the GS use a variant of this transmission). The shape of the vehicle helps, too. The vehicle is longer, wider and lower than the predecessor, so that it has a coefficient of drag of 0.27 as compared with 0.29 for the previous GS. According to Mike Watson, Lexus product education manager, University of Toyota (Torrance, CA), the coefficient of drag is equal to that of the Mercedes E-class and is better than the BMW 5 Series by two points.
But what is more interesting from a performance and technology point of view is the new 245-hp V6 in both the standard rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions of the GS 300. This new engine, the 3GR-FSE, was specifically developed for the GS. (There are other engines in the GR family, including the 4-liter engines used in the 4Runner, Tacoma and Tundra trucks and the 3.5-liter version used in the Avalon sedan.) This engine produces its peak horsepower at 6,200 rpm and provides 230 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3,600 rpm. One interesting aspect of the engine is its dual continuously variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i). It uses oil-actuated vane-type controllers to advance or retard the intake and exhaust cams simultaneously. It also features what's called the "Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence (ETC-i)," which means it has a drive-by-wire throttle. This engine (the previous six in the '05 GS 300 has an inline configuration) has fuel injectors installed directly in the combustion chamber to control timing as required by operating conditions and permits using a higher volume of air for cylinder charging.
The all-wheel-drive system includes front, center and rear differentials. The center diff includes a clutch, according to Watson, that's similar to that found in an automatic transmission with limited-slip capability. Wheel sensors detect spin. This information is then used to adjust hydraulic pressure on the clutch pack to transfer torque to the appropriate place. Torque is split 50-50 during starting, accelerating, or slipping; during general operation, the torque is split up to 30-70, front to rear. In addition to which, there is electronic traction control, which, upon detection of wheel slippage, applies the brake to the slipping wheel or wheels; torque is then transferred to the non-slipping wheel on the given axle.
TECH TOUR DE FORCE. Also elevating the level of technological capabilities is the Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which avails itself of the multitudinous systems within the vehicle that deploy sensors that determine what various aspects of the vehicle are doing. To wit:
These systems provide information including steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, brake pressure, brake pedal stroke, and wheel speed. These systems use this information to make the necessary adjustments to the systems that they are tasked to. But VDIM orchestrates and integrates this information (via software). Watson says, "Basically, VDIM constantly monitors all of the variables of the vehicle's intended motion and direction as compared to its actual motion and direction. In other words, VDIM monitors the 'balance' of the vehicle and can therefore anticipate such problems before they occur, rather than reacting after the loss of stability. This is truly a fully dynamic system that takes vehicle stability control to previously unheard of levels."
INSIDE THE GS. There are other tech aspects of the GS, from the "smart" key fob (leave it in your pocket and you can open locked doors and the trunk), which leads to a push-start button rather than having to turn a key. This system is setup so that the driver, with foot on the brake, pushes the button once, and the starter cranks until the engine starts. To shut off the vehicle, the button is pushed again.
The front seats are both 10-way power and heated (cooling is an option). The head rests automatically adjust up or down depending on the seat position.
The instrument cluster perhaps indicates the combination of performance and technology better than any other aspect of the vehicle (assuming that you're not driving it, of course). The faces of the primary gauges are machined aluminum. Because machined aluminum could potentially cause a reflection problem for the driver, the engineers have deployed an electrochromatic device (ECD) over the cluster. Essentially, this is a glass-based system that allows the driver to dial in the amount of diffusion that he or she is comfortable with. Once that is set, then there is automatic adjustment of the reflectivity based on the amount of ambient light (i.e., the amount of diffusion necessary on a sunny day is different than that on a cloudy day).
One more thing. All of this tech notwithstanding, there's wood. Real wood trim. Bird's eye maple or walnut. This is not entirely surprising, but what is is that all of the wood in any given GS comes from the same tree. The appearance must be consistent.
These guys are serious. Now with the launch of the GS and what Denny Clements promises will be an array of additional products, their level of determination will do nothing but heighten.