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1996 Lexus GS300

The Lexus division of Toyota pretty much nailed the quality, silence and comfort aspects of luxury car building from the first crack of the bat.

About the only concern from some quarters was that the cars lacked character, the intangible essence that's an important part of big-buck car ownership.

A major component of character is heritage. But you can't have heritage if you don't have history — five years hardly counts. Lack of history isn't all bad: Lexus had no unhappy customers to

deal with. But neither does Lexus have, for example, any "boring stories of glory days", as Springsteen puts it; no Le Mans victories; no tradition to build upon.

That's at least part of the rationale behind the mid-line Lexus GS300. It's designed to be a "luxury-sports sedan", a car that adds some flair and dash to Lexus's line of conservative automobiles.

To start with, the GS300 was styled in Europe, by Italian maestro Giorgio Giugiaro. One Continental rumor holds that Giugiaro shopped this concept around to various carmakers, including Jaguar, until he found a buyer in Toyota City, Japan.

Whatever, the GS300 retains the smooth flowing lines typical of modern Japanese cars, yet with distinctively different proportions: long and a trifle narrow from some angles.

Lexus also does not seem to subscribe to the theory of sibling resemblance. Unlike BMW or Mercedes, there's little overt external indication that the cars of the Lexus family are directly related.

Inside, though, there can be no mistake. If the large-buttoned incar entertainment and heater-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC) controls, glorious wood and beautiful finish don't spell it out for you, a flick of the ignition switch will, as first the LED-illuminated dial needles light up, followed shortly thereafter by the back-lit instrument cluster. This is about as cool as it gets, guaranteed to elicit an "Oooo wow!" from all but the most jaded car enthusiast.

The steering wheel tilts and telescopes automatically to your previously selected position to greet you, having retracted itself when you got out to ease egress. The electric motor sounds a touch gravelly, however. (Jim, get a grip. Are you complaining the electric steering wheel adjustment is too noisy?)

Those big knobs and buttons for the radio and HVAC look nice, but aren't ergonomically ideal. There's no stop on the air/con mode knob, for example, which would tell you at a touch that

you've reached the last selectable alternative. You still must look carefully at the panel to see what you've got and what you're getting, which defeats the purpose of knobs in the first place.

If your idea of a sports sedan is one you can thrash around Mosport Park, the front seats won't have enough lateral support for you. But for most normal driving, they are both comfortable

and sufficiently gripping. A wide range of power adjustment is provided — I had to set the seat fairly low to obtain enough headroom with the nocostoptional power tilt-and-slide sunroof.

Since the GS300 has every other modern convenience known to mankind, seat adjustment memory seemed conspicuously absent.

You may also wonder where the remote locking is, since there's no bulky key fob, nor even a bulky key. But there, in the top edge of the key head itself, is a tiny button. That's it. Neat.

The rear-drive GS300 is motivated by a 3.0 litre twin-cam 24-valve inline six, producing 220 horsepower. Peak torque is 210 pound-feet at an elevated 4800 r.p.m.

To improve offtheline performance for the 1996 model year, Lexus has lowered the final drive ratio (higher numerically) and converted the electronic fours-peed automatic overdrive into a

five-speed — when driven briskly. It remains a four-speed when driven normally.

This was done by the clever expedient of engaging the overdrive mechanism not only on third gear (which makes it into a four-speed) but also on first gear, which provides the extra ratio for the overdrive second gear.

You'll only encounter this gear when you stick your foot in it. Near the redline, the car will upshift instantly and smoothly, the engine revs will drop only slightly as second (really, "first-overdrive") is engaged, then split-seconds later you'll get another immediate shift into third. It sounds like a very civilized Formula One race car as it blips its way through the box.

At low engine r.p.m. and with light throttle pressure, the transmission's electronic controls will skip this intermediate overdrive ratio, shifting directly from first into third. You'll wonder: Is there really a fivespeed in here? Oddly, shifts aren't as smooth when driving gently.

The result is brisk performance throughout the rev range. Traction control is there to spoil your fun, but you can switch it off if you can live with the warning light glaring balefully from the instrument panel.

Despite the mandate to be a sports sedan, the GS300's chassis is more oriented to ease of driving, comfort and road isolation than apex-strafing. The steering is very light, and detaches the

driver from the harsh realities of the pavement. And if those realities are really harsh, the soft suspension transmits a bit of the harshness to you, something you wouldn't expect in a Lexus.

The question, then, is how different really is the GS300 from the range-topping Lexus LS400? It gives away two cylinders, a litre of displacement and a bunch of power, if not a great deal in actual performance. It rides and feels very similar to its big brother.

And it is only $7,300 less expensive, probably because it can't be a whole lot cheaper to build. Like the LS400 and unlike the Camry-based entry-level Lexus ES300, the GS300 doesn't share a platform with any other car.

The GS300 is difficult to criticize objectively. The car is quiet, solid, reliable: What's not to like? But there's not a lot here to stir the heart. Unless you're in love with the styling, there aren't many compelling reasons to rush right out and buy one. When you're talking $70,000-plus, there better be lots of compelling reasons.

I guess Lexus is still looking for a car with character.

*

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Lexus GS300 (p.H12)

MODELS AND PRICES

Four-door sedan: one model only $72,700

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

Anti-lock brakes; dual air bags; seatbelt pretensioners; traction control; eightway power heated front seats; leather upholstery, shift knob, door trim, armrest; power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel; power locks with remote central locking; power windows with expressdown for driver; theft deterrent system; AM-FM 7-speaker cassette sound system with trunk-mounted 12-CD changer; automatic air conditioning; cruise control; dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors; dual power heated mirrors; remote power trunk and fuel filler door releases; headlwashers; cellular telephone prewiring with glass-imprinted antenna

ENGINE

Standard: 3.0 litre inline 6-cylinder, DOHC, 24-valve; 220 horsepower at 5800 r.p.m., 210 pound-feet torque at 4800 r.p.m. Options: none

TRANSMISSION

5-speed auto; rear-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer's figures: WB 2780 mm; L 4950 mm; W 1795 mm; H 1420 mm; front headroom 937/972 mm (with/without sunroof); rear headroom 903/934 mm (with/without sunroof); trunk capacity — 0.368 cubic metre/13.0 cubic feet; fuel tank 80 L; weight — 1675 kg

PRICE, AS TESTED

$72,700 (excluding extra charges and taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

Power tilt-and-slide sunroof — no charge

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and predelivery inspection — $950; federal air conditioning excise tax — $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax — $250

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags — std.; antilock brakes — std.; meets 1997 U.S. side-impact standard — yes; theft deterrent system — std.; height-adjustable shoulder belts — std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

City: 13.1 L/100 km; highway: 9.2 L/100 km; estimated maximum range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 870 km

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler (2) — $239 each; front fender — $391; taillight lens: $184

WARRANTY

Entire car — 4 years, 80,000 km; powertrain and major mechanical components — 6 years, 110,000 km (no deductible, no transfer fee); rust through — 6 years, no mileage limit; roadside assistance — 4 years, 80,000 km

COMPETITION

Mercedes-Benz E320 — more exciting than Lexus, and cheaper too; BMW 540 — after all these years, still the definitive mid-size sports sedan; Jaguar XJ6 — combine this car's character

and the GS300's build quality, and you'd have a world-beater

RATING

Bold face denote's Kenzie's rating: 1-4: yeah, it's a car; 5-6: underwhelming; 7-8: good value; 9: great value; 10: where do I sign?

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