The cars we loved.
It did not take long for Lexus to establish itself as the new benchmark for luxury in America (and in the many other markets where it was sold). The LS broke new ground in the 1988 by making world-class luxury and engineering more accessible. Suddenly there was a legitimate S Class and 7 Series competitor for thousands less. Now everyone from MTV rappers to Midwestern suburbanites were flocking to Lexus dealerships. The days of putting up with over-priced, fussy luxury cars or poor service were over. Now the old guard would have to work harder to attract and retain customers. A few years later lightning struck again with the ES, putting the E Class and 3 Series on notice.
Possible Segment Leader?
The announcement that Lexus would fill in the gap between the ES and LS with a sports sedan no doubt was a point of anxiety for the luxury car market. What would a sporty Lexus sedan look like? The answer to that question was answered as early as 1990 when the Italdesign Giugiaro designed Jaguar Kensington concept was shown at the Geneva Motor Show. When Jaguar failed to produce the car, Giugiaro managed to sell a design based on the Kensington to Toyota who modified it somewhat to become the basis for the Japanese market Aristo. The design also inspired another Giugiaro car the Daewoo Leganza. For the American market the Aristo easily slotted between the smaller ES and larger LS. With a Cd of 0.31, its shape recalled the rounded jelly bean design cues of the SC 300 sports coupe while its greenhouse resembled the LS 400. Perhaps the most unattractive aspect of the car was the wrap around tail lights that looked somehow out-of-place on an otherwise harmonious design. Like the ES, some GS cars featured a two-tone paint job. The production of the GS would take place in Japan at the advanced Tahara assembly plant.
In fitting with its mission as a performance sedan, the GS would use the same inline six cylinder 3.0 24 valve DOHC engine as the SC300. There were a few engines available in the Aristo, but North America got one with 220 hp in the early years. Despite all the potential of rear wheel drive, the sport part of the GS was difficult to find under most driving conditions. Considering the well over 3,000lb. heft, performance was adequate with high 8 second 0 to 60 times. The smooth shifting 4 speed automatic was the only transmission. Many of the GS300’s competitors offered manuals, but in keeping with Lexus image of refinement, smoothness and luxury, the automatic seemed like a fitting compromise. Think more Monte Carlo than Camaro. Either way the over $40,000 that most buyers paid could have bought a V8 powered BMW 5 Series. More performance could be had in cars costing much less. In fact most of the automotive press made a point of the GS’s low power /high price ratio. The price as well as horsepower would go up over the life of the car, but never would the GS be a segment leader in performance. The car was noted for its robot like percision in various reviews, but it lacked the essence of fun found in the 5 Series or even the Seville STS.
Playing Up Strengths
The ride quality tended to lean towards soft, but its double wishbone suspension insured a composed and compliant ride with minimal disturbance. 16′ alloy wheels riding on 60 series tires offered a balanced compromise between handing and ride with a well-insulated cabin offering isolation from road irregularities. The GS300, like all Lexus featured advance technology expected to insure safety and comfort. The interior was a collection of best practices in automotive ergonomics, although not as direct in its simplicity as in the ES. The rather long greenhouse section provided rear passengers with class leading leg room. Leather seating surfaces were a commonly installed option, but some cars came with synthetic leather like material (much like BMW’s leatherette) at no cost. It may have been difficult to hear much road noise, but there was no denying the sound quality of the Nakamichi stereo, a common option in Lexus cars.
Awards & Honors=Low Declining Sales
The attention to detail seen in the LS was present here also. The 1994 GS300 was on the J.D. Powers Top Ten in Initial Quality list its first year out of the gate. A feat that usually took a model a few years to achieve after bugs were worked out. In all fairness Toyota had some time to work out the kinks as the Aristo in Japan in preparation for America. Lexus would always seem to have a car or a few cars on this list as it had firmly established its reputation for quality by the time the GS300 had hit dealer showrooms. Although the GS could not match cars like BMW’s 5 Series for driver feedback or road holding abilities, it was a much better car for most buyers looking for comfort with some sport pretensions. On long trips the comfortable seats, first-rate climate control and entertainment systems could not be beat. The GS300 was after all a Lexus and as such luxury and performance would always trump performance. That might have been some of the thinking behind the decision not to transfer the Aristo’s all-wheel drive system and V8 power to the GS300. An attempt at a all-out performance Lexus sedan would not happen until 1999 with the compact IF sedan.
The overall look was nearly unchanged through the first generation. Small trim changes and wheel options were the most notacible changes. A major re-skinning happened in 1997, with a Mercedes E Class like round quad headlight design. The GS’s biggest legacy might be that it did not have the same initial impact on its segment as the ES and LS before it had on theirs. Sales started strong, but took a progressive dive until the second generation car was introduced in 1998.The design would continue evolve and would even gain a V8 engine, but it stayed close to the original formula of offering leading technology, safety and comfort with just enough sport to distinguish it from the ES.