On the Road Review: Lexus GS200t F-sport

This car represents a new direction at Lexus — build cars that consumers can passionately embrace. No, the brand is not abandoning its luxury initiatives. Lexus wants to be both a sports sedan and a luxury marquee — just like its German rivals.

Back up to the mid-1990s. Lexus was a fledgling premium automaker that was fast surpassing the Germans in the showroom sales race. Lowly Acura (Honda’s Luxury Division) was earning more sporting accolades than Lexus, however, with the lowly RS, a Honda Civic-based coupe, as well as the Ferrari-like NSX sports car.

Lexus countered with the GS series, ‘sports sedans’ based on existing platforms meant to target the BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class. The GS sedans had V-6 and V-8 powertrains, handled decently, but generally lacked the overall poise and sporting performance of the comparably sized German sedans. GS sales faded as the brand’s marketers focused on luxury, crossovers and luxury crossovers.

Fast forward. Akio Toyoda (an heir to the founders of Toyota) arrives to lead Toyota/Lexus and he brings a completely different outlook to the conservative positioning of the company’s products. Akio likes speed, he is passionate about driving and he wants Lexus and Toyota’s products to be more engaging for a new breed of drivers. The big Toyota/Lexus ship plots a new course under Toyoda’s leadership.

Toyota is not abandoning hybrids, Camrys or Corollas. It is, however, eager to insert itself into the sporting segment of each division — especially at Lexus. The Germans, as well as Cadillac, are reaping big dividends from creating sporting versions of each product; Lexus wants a piece of this pie.

This is a struggle for a marquee that lacks the history of such marketing in America. Buyers seeking passionate driving experiences don’t have a lot of Toyota/Lexus history to review. Honda/Acura and Nissan/Infiniti have done a better job creating sporting impressions. Nissan used to sponsor Paul Newman’s racing teams, while selling Z sports cars and GTR’s. Toyota sponsors a successful NASCAR race team, but the showrooms lack any products that lend themselves to spirited driving — at least not much since the popular Supra was allowed to expire a long time ago.

A few years ago, Lexus rolled out the very limited production, almost collector car status really, LFA supercar. Akio wanted to say yes, Lexus could play ball on the big performance stage. One car does not make a reputation — especially if the masses cannot aspire to own one.

Yet the LFA has led to the GS series’ revival as well as an honest sports coupe, the RC. Baby steps, then we will run, Akio says.

The GS comes in three models, all rear-drive with the middle model available with AWD. The GS-F will get all of the attention; it packs a thundering 467-hp V-8 engine, a real anomaly for Lexus. Next is the GS350, a V-6 powered sports sedan that will garner much of the sales. In addition, like its rivals, there is the entry-level GS200t — our sample sedan.

The GS200t uses what is recently a very familiar engine layout — another 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder product, Lexus’s first such offering. Pushing 241 hp and a respectable 258 pound/feet of torque through a new eight-speed automatic with shifter paddles, the GS200t has enthusiasm, but not quite enough to make a 3,900-pound sedan feel robust.

You get selectable drive modes — Eco, normal, Sport and Sport +–plus commendable steering feel, rear-drive handling and a ride that searches for the balance between agility and comfort. Riding on wide (265/35R19’s at the rear) low-profile sports rubber, the Lexus feels like it would be a track warrior, that’s how good the chassis performs on perfect pavement.

In Eco mode, the default setting at every start-up, the Lexus feels almost lethargic. Shift points are quick, meant to get you into top gear as soon as possible in search for the EPA mileage projections of 21/30/24 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended for the mighty-mouse turbo-motor, but again, those luxury car pounds show up to stunt performance.

Click the console knob to Sport mode and performance smartens up. The transmission shift points change, the engine feels more alive, and the excellent sport seat gets to show you what levels of support it can provide as you ply the thick-rimmed sport wheel. Now, we are getting somewhere, quicker.

Interior room is good. It should be; this car is 191 inches long or really the same size as a Camry. However, no Camry looks this good inside. Richly detailed stitching complements the soft leather. Carbon fiber panels and aluminum trim pieces abound and the contrasts create a rich interior that embraces the Lexus luxury philosophy as well as the Germans’ sporting intentions. A huge 12.3-inch info/navigation screen fills the center dash — like Audi, BMW — while the familiar Lexus console mouse pad and controller still balks at smooth interaction between driver and desired icons. This is a learned art to master this mouse, while moving.

Console spaces are at a premium, yet the sport seat, the power tilting and telescoping wheel and the general control layout balance the slight. Some control buttons are hidden behind the thick-rimmed wheel, while the digital dash places the tachometer front and center. A color-HID heads-up display helps relay driver info too.

Outside, the GS200t looks very close to its more muscular big brother. The spindle front end that Lexus has created for its image is becoming more acceptable. It does look better in person; the unique headlamps, LED lamps, and lower front splitter (everyone is offering a splitter now, expensive curb feelers) all exude a certain sporting confidence that is supported by racy dual-spoke wheels, nicely integrated dual exhausts and a rich looking paint job that shouts quality. The GS has presence, and that is important in this segment.

The GS200t starts at $46,545 and carried a sticker of $59,930 as shown. That includes the F-sport package with a plethora of options like rain-sensing wipers, the nice wheels (larger at the rear), the adaptable suspension, rear spoiler, 16-way power driver’s seat with memory, plus several driving aids like dynamic cruise, blind-spot detection, automatic braking, lane-departure warning, and parking assist. Add the 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system, navigation, power trunk, and a heated steering wheel and you have checked all of the boxes.

If the GS was packing the V-8 engine for $60-large, we would all be wowed — as we should be. Will buyers be so moved by a GS sports sedan with a four-cylinder engine could prove to be a salesperson’s greatest challenge.

Will luxury buyers embrace a sporty Lexus with the same verve as they have BMW’s, Audi’s, and Mercedes’ models? Given the brand’s legendary service and reliability reputation, perhaps this is the first sports sedan that derives the most power from its credibility rather than its performance.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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