The cars we loved.
The GS400 represents a second attempt by Lexus at building a rear wheel drive sports sedan to compete with established benchmarks like the BMW 5 Series. While the Toyota Aristo based GS300 was a noble attempt, it still amounted to a driving experience that equated to a soft riding, road isolating cocoon. Toyota’s solution to spicing up the sleepy GS300 seemed like a uniquely American one: add more displacement. In America, the second generation GS would have both a 300 and new 400 model. Lexus called its new GS400 a High Performance Sedan (HPS) when it was unveiled at the Detroit Auto show in 1997.
While in Japan some six cylinder versions of the Aristo would have a twin turbo setup similar to the Supra, in America the 300’s straight-six would be normally aspirated. The 400 would use a 4.0-litre V8 with 300 hp, similar to what was in the flagship LS sedan. The V8 was unique to the American market, as to imply that Lexus was serious about the American concept of ‘no replacement for displacement’. The new car was a more modern variation of the Italdesign original, this time designed in-house by Toyota. The distinctive headlights were now very much like those of the SC sports coupe, as if to signal a performance connection (or Mercedes E Class influence).
While a 300 hp engine sounds impressive by any performance car standard, in the GS 400 the rest of the car was more of the same. The added performance of the V8 was masked by a hushed and very comfortable interior that reminded you that you were in a refined Lexus. A loaded GS could overwhelm its driver with new technology. An example of options included a touch screen navigation system and a in-dash 6 disc CD changer. While common today, in 1997 navigation systems were still relatively new. With the added emphasis on technology, the 400 remained firmly in typical Japanese luxury car territory. Critics of the day seemed to agree, calling the GS 400 soul less because of the lack of driver involvement. Despite these short comings, the GS offered semi-involvement in the form of a slick 5- speed automatic transmission with a manual sequential mode.
While many of its performance parameters looked great on paper like a 0 to 60 time of 5.3 seconds, it was not as fun to drive as the typical 5 Series. Lexus had the ride quality thing down, while there was still room for improvement in the area of road feel and other subjective measures of driver/road feedback. Driver involvement of not, the GS 400 was fast. For a short period the Lexus could claim that its GS 400o was the world’s fastest production sedan in 1997. Despite a tagline “Something Wicked this Way Comes”, the GS 400 failed to capture the hearts of hard core driving enthusiasts who would accustomed to cars from BMW or Audi with a more established performance pedigree.
Those who a GS cared less about European heritage than the robot-like reliability the Lexus brand had established. Many fell for its looks and refinement vs. performance. While the use of technology was seen as a hindrance to some subjective aspects of driving, the GS400 and later 430 would represent Lexus continuing pursuit of perfection in a slightly new direction. In 2000 a slight re-freshening would bump up the V8 displacement to 4.3 liters prompting a new name 430. While the larger engine had the same power output as before, it had more low end torque, making the GS feel faster when passing at highway speeds or accelerating around town.
There was no denying the solid engineering inside. Awards like Motor Tends Import Car of the Year in 1998 and a three time spot on Car and Driver’s 10 Best list confirm Lexus quality. J.D. Powers buyer satisfaction indexes also suggested that Lexus buyers were more pleased with their purchases over the long term than those of BMW or Audi. They certainly had fewer problems than their German car owner counterparts. While the GS 400 often finished in third place in magazine comparison tests, it was clearly a winner in the sales race. In the end it would seem that the performance sedan market is moving towards the Lexus ideal. Sales of over 30,000 units in 1997 would slowly dimish in following years, but not enough to knock the GS from its class leading sales crown.
Today some critics complain that BMW has lost the hard edge that Lexus was pursuing a decade ago. Now the current GS and 5 Series sedans are closer in performance, thanks to the softening of consumer tastes in the performance sedan market.