Entries in Lexus (8)

Friday
Dec092011

First Drive - 2013 Lexus GS: Ready To Take On Germany's Best

When Lexus first brought the GS to market it was targeted as the “sporty sedan” where the LS was the “luxury sedan”, but somewhere along road, the GS became soft, and the idea of it be comparable to a BMW 5 Series was tossed aside.  With the latest iteration of the GS, Lexus are looking to change that conversation.

Right off the bat, Lexus are saying that they had the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class directly in their crosshairs as they developed the new GS.  A part of going after the Germans with the GS is the debut of the new Lexus design language in the front end.  Like it, love it, or hate it, get used to it, because this IS the new face of Lexus.  

Part of philosophy with the new GS was set forth by Akio Toyoda himself when he said this car must have emotion in the styling, and emotion in the driving.  He wanted the car to be able to stand out, and stand on it’s own, not just blend into the background.  It is this point of view which Lexus believe that they will be able to achieve a 50% conquest rate with new buyers to the Lexus GS.

 

There will be three distinct versions of the GS, a Luxury, a Hybrid, and the F-Sport.  We will focus on the Hybrid first.  The idea with the Hybrid was more a focus on “Performance Hybrid” rather than “Economy Hybrid”.  Think of the Hybrid as a V8 replacement, rather than say the CT200h which is focused on economy.  The Hybrid is also the only GS model that will have LED headlamps available.

The Luxury level is firmly targeted at the E-Class Mercedes.  The ride is tuned a little softer, there will be a special leather used, a three zone climate control system (two front, one back), 18 way power adjust seats and the driving dynamics are focused on a well controlled ride, rather than a “plush” ride.

The F-Sport is exactly what you’d think it would be.  It is going after the 5 Series BMW and M-Sport trimmed 5 Series (not M5) with is multi level suspension settings, active rear steering, and electronic engine and steering controls that greatly sharpen everything when you go into Sport and Sport+ modes.

Power for the GS will be a 3.5 liter V6 that features both Direct Injection and Port Injection, it will provide 306 horsepower and 277 torques, backed up by a six speed automatic transmission.  When asked why a six speed automatic and not an eight speed auto which has become de rigueur in the last twelve months, Lexus responded, that they did not believe they could get the driving dynamics they wanted with an eight speed.  They felt it would “always be hunting for the right gear”.

The Hybrid also uses the 3.5 liter V6 but converts it to an Atkinson Cycle engine, very common for hybrids, and couples it with a an electric motor to give it a combined power rating of 338 horsepower.  The reason for an Atkinson Cycle engine is that it is 35% more efficient and with the Hybrid system, it will return over 30MPG in the EPA combined cycle.  Though Lexus did not have the final EPA numbers at this press intro, they were very confident of the number.

 

Lexus have also worked on the packaging of the batteries for the Hybrid system, allowing a much larger trunk for the GS then in the previous generation.  There is some intrusion in space over the non-Hybrid versions of the GS, but it is far less then before.

There was also a focus on aero and NVH tuning so as to make the Hybrid a quiet as possible when driving on the highways.

The quality of materials in the two cars we spent time with at the launch, the F-Sport and the Hybrid were excellent.  We really like the way the Hybrid was trimmed out with a bamboo trim that felt very substantial.  Most wood trim on cars today is little more then a very thin vernier, in the Lexus it looked and felt more like solid chucks of wood.  This was most apparent in the steering wheel. Again, most wood trimmed wheels have an almost a plastic feel to them, with the GS it felt as though it was a sold piece of bamboo that you were holding on to.

We also drove the Hybrid on the short and tight infield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and it did not disappoint. The car felt very composed around the track which contained both long sweeping corners and areas that put an emphasis on quick changes of direction.  While not a car that you are going to take out for lapping day at the track, it will feel very competent on twisty back roads should you choose to drive in a spirited manner.

The F-Sport is a bit of a revelation.  Driven back to back with a BMW 5 Series that was available for comparison around the race track, the GS was every bit as good, and in many ways BETTER then the BMW.  While the steering may not have felt quite as connected as the BMW, it was much more direct, and the GS had much less body roll!  

There is a noticeable change in the manor of ride, handling and throttle responsiveness with the different settings that are available.  In “normal” modes the F-Sport is more compliant, but as soon as you dial up either Sport or Sport+, things change for the better.

This does not mean that out on the open road the ride is harsh.  We took the F-Sport for a 30+ mile loop which included highway runs and surface streets.  On the day we were driving the GS, it also included 50+ MPH cross winds on the highway.  Lets touch on this last part first.  Number one, there was no way the car was not going to be moving around with winds that strong, however, there were no abrupt movements it felt more like a gentle push.  In contrast you could see the Semi-trucks on the road moving around quite a bit.  In addition the cabin remained very quiet.  You did not hear the sounds of the strong winds making it into the cabin, so Lexus should be commended for their work in the wind tunnel to make these thing possible.

Driving in Sport+ on the highway the ride felt firm and controlled without a hint of harshness.  If you enjoy more of the European firm and sporty ride, then you will enjoy this setting.  Set in standard mode, it smooths things out just a bit, and may be the better call if you have to drive on roads that aren’t in the best of shape.

Also out on the road we got to crank up the 830 watt Mark Levinson stereo system and tried it with some high quality music that we brought along.  If we have one gripe with the Levinson audio systems that Lexus use it’s that they lack a bit of bass.  We are not talking about obnoxious bass that you associate with too loud systems blasting hip hop, it’s more not hearing and feeling kick drums, bass guitar, or in the case of Jazz and Classical music, stand up bass or Cello missing power, feeling and emotion from the music.  That is purely a personal take on our part, but it’s something we noticed.

Out on the road we cranked up a little Allman Brothers Live At The Fillmore and lets just say, if you aren’t paying attention, you will be in triple digit speeds without knowing it.  In the middle of “Whipping Post” we looked down at to see the speedometer touching three digits and immediately got off the gas, even though it felt as we weren’t doing much over 70 on the freeway with a 75MPH limit.

 

On the inside of the car one thing that dominates the dash is the massive 12.3” LCD display.  Lexus have cleverly designed it so that it can be one large screen, or it can be broken up into three smaller ones if say you want audio information, an overall GPS man plus turn by turn directions all at the same time.

There has also been a large upgrade to the quality of feel in the mouse interface.  The new changes make it much more direct, and there is better haptic feedback as you get close to menu items.

 

Also included is the Lexus Enform system.  It will start with apps such as Facebook, Yelp, Pandora, MovieTix, iHeart Radio, bing and Open Table to start.  You will download the apps onto your iPhone, Android or BlackBerry, and then connect via USB to the car.  Enform will use your phones data plan to connect with the cloud and provide you with all the information, the Lexus Enform system in the car provides an nice interface in which to interact with it.

Overall we came away very impressed with the GS, and a quick informal poll of those in our wave for the drive and those who had just finished, were pretty much in agreement that if Lexus can get the word out on this car as it comes to market in mid February, it should have a hit on it’s hands.  The GS will come a surprise to many who view Lexus’ as nothing more than Sub Zero refrigerators, they are very nice refrigerators, but at the end of the day they are refrigerators.  The GS is likely to change that perception, and we look forward to having a chance to spend more time with the car in the near future.

 


Thursday
Apr142011

Reviewed: 2011 Lexus RX 350

 

 

Go to any upscale community, and you are likely to find a plethora of Lexus RX 350s. In fact, they are so ubiquitous, that Audi made a great commercial a couple years ago, about how when you went to look for your Lexus you couldn’t find them in a sea of sameness. The question then becomes, is the Lexus RX 350 so popular because it’s a good SUV, or just because it’s the safe choice. This is what we set out to find out.

Our all-wheel-drive test unit arrived just after a big snowstorm. When it arrived, it was a perfect example of what you would find at any upscale high school soccer match. Our test unit was white with a cream-colored interior. If you were to go to one of the local upscale malls, it definitely would be important to remember where you parked because, you are likely to see 30 or 40 other cars that look exactly like this test unit.

When you look at the styling of the Lexus RX 350 certainly doesn’t do anything wrong, but then again there is nothing to distinguish it either. Like most vehicles that sell well, styling that doesn’t it’s stand out is often a key factor.   For some however, in not trying to offend anyone with conservative styling is in itself somewhat offensive. You could say much the same about the interior of the RX 350 as well. The materials are nice, fit and finish are excellent, as you would expect from a Toyota product, and the whole package itself inside is nice.

When we had the RX 350 in for review, it was a particularly cold week here in Metro Detroit. The extreme cold weather pointed out two glaring issues we had with the interior of the Lexus RX 350. Number one, was that the wood trimmed steering wheel had no heat element in it, therefore gripping it with un-gloved hands, in single digits to below zero Fahrenheit temperatures, was rather uncomfortable. We found ourselves  using the sleeves of our coat to hold on to the steering wheel until the interior came up to temperature. We would gladly trade the wood rimmed wheel for leather wrapped one that had a heated steering unit for occasions such as this.

The second issue, was the fact that the seat heaters took forever to warm up, and on their highest setting of three, is what we would call in any other vehicle a low setting. Again, sitting down on a cold leather seat on a single degree Fahrenheit temperature day is not the most pleasant experience. The fact that it would take five or or ten minutes to feel any heat coming from the seat, this, certainly didn’t win any marks in our books.

With those two exceptions we had no other real gripes with the interior of RX 350. The the ride was very quiet , the telematics system worked good enough, once you got use to the “mouse” for navigation, the stereo was good though not exceptional, and for the kids our test unit had dual rear seat DVD players.

Driving the RX 350 was a rather unremarkable experience. Again, in typical Toyota fashion, it’s not that the Lexus does anything wrong, it’s just that nothing stands out.  The Lexus drives down the road just fine, handles well, sucks up the potholes of Metro Detroit just fine, and transports you to your destination safely and comfortably.

The difficulty in evaluating this particular Lexus is that we don’t follow into its key demographic. Most of the people who drive the RX 350, are upper-middle-class soccer moms, who live in suburbia where conformity is the norm. What we mean by conformity, is that they all send tend to shop at the same big-box stores, watch the same home-improvement shows, and have the same aspirations for their children. If you’ve ever seen the movie Pleasantville it’s kind of like that, just a bit more upscale.

As you can imagine, as a 41-year-old white male with no children, save one large dog,  it’s not exactly the vehicle that with appeal to us. However, we can say, that the RX 350 does do a good job of hauling an eight-year-old English mastiff around. In any SUV that comes to us for testing, this is one of the most important test for us. After all, since we have no children to haul around, no school runs to make, and are more likely to head to the Home Depot or Lowe’s, rather than hardware restoration or the Pottery Barn, these are the measurements that we had.

Fuel mileage for the Lexus was reasonable during our time with the vehicle. In very cold conditions in mixed driving, we saw 22 miles to the gallon. While this is nothing that stands out in the class, it is right in line with the norms. The V-6 engine provides plenty of power, sure, it would be nice to have more, but for 95% of the people who will buy this vehicle, it would be pointless. The RX 350 accelerates away from stoplights just fine has plenty of power for merging onto the freeways, and will roll down those freeways at 80 miles an hour with nary a worry.

Trying to come up with an overall evaluation of the RX 350 was fairly difficult for us. It’s a vehicle designed for people that we aren’t. Lexus’ tend to be for people who view cars as appliances, but like a little bit of luxury with their appliances. Think of it this way, the Lexus RX 350 is like going into Best Buy, and getting a Samsung refrigerator, but buying the stainless steel model, rather than the white one. It’s not a Viking, or SubZero, or a Wolf, it’s just a very nice refrigerator with an upscale finish.

The idea with the RX 350, like most Lexus’, is to offer a comparable non-offensive way to transfer yourself, and your family,  in a bit of luxury. The RX 350 will do nothing to offend you, and for most people that’s exactly what they’re looking for. People who buy Lexus’ are not enthusiast, and therefore you can’t look at the Lexus through the microscope that an enthusiast would. For an enthusiast, it’s hard to imagine buying a vehicle, that doesn’t either excite you, or make you look forward to driving it. For a vast majority of America, they just want something that gets the job done. The Lexus RX 350  certainly does that. If you like to blend into the crowd, want of vehicle that’ll never have to worry about, or not have your neighbors shocked by the choice of vehicle showing up in your driveway, the RX 350 certainly qualifies.

The best way to sum up the Lexus RX 350 as this, it is Häagen-Dazs French vanilla ice cream. It’s very good, it’s much better than the store brand, it’s a great standby, it’s just not something that’s going to get you excited.

If you'd like to see the rest of the pictures of the Lexus RX 350, please have a look in our photo gallery here.

 

Tuesday
Feb022010

Reviewed: 2010 Buick Lacrosse 

When General Motors went through bankruptcy and decided to shed some of it’s brands, not too many tears were shed for Saturn, Hummer and Saab, but the the loss of Pontiac rubbed peoples rhubarb the wrong way, when, it was also announced that brands like GMC and Buick would be kept.  Here was the nasty secret that wasn’t getting out to those people, Buick was paying for it’s self and GMC was making money, the same couldn’t be said for any of the brands that were being dropped.

Lets set the argument about GMC aside for another time and drill down on the Pontiac vs. Buick argument.  Many people lament the loss of Pontiac as the performance division of General Motors, but that history was long dead and buried.  Other than the G8 which was a fabulous car, but didn’t really sell that well till it was heavily discounted in GM’s fire sale to shed inventory, Pontiac was badge engineering brand. This WAS an upgrade though of what Pontiac was before that, the pre Bob Lutz era of GM, and that was the plastic body cladding brand.  Performance at Pontiac was about as was a further memory from GM then the Detroit Lions were from being a winning football team that went to the playoffs.

Somewhere in the mid 70’s Buick lost it’s way.  It was, for most of it’s history, the brand you bought when you really wanted a Cadillac but just couldn’t afford or justify one.  It was a respected brand, and if you drove a Buick, people knew you had had a good measure of success in your life.  What the brand evolved into though was one that catered to Septuagenarian and older crowd.  Dealers liked this to a point because they were loyal buyers and there were rarely any issues getting them financed, the problem was, there were less and less of those buyers every year as they moved on to the next realm of existence.  Buick has made a few efforts to trend their demographic to one less than those collecting Social Security, but until the Enclave came out a couple years ago, it was pretty hit and miss.

The Enclave was a Crossover that signaled two important movements for Buick.  The first was strong turn to focus on being what it once was, a brand for those that wanted a luxury car, but didn’t want, or could reach to the Cadillac price point.  The second was a styling direction to have a fluid look with a rounded look and few hard edges.  This also worked nicely as a contrast to the hard edge Art & Science design of Cadillac as well.  

It’s been said that General Motors want to position Buick as a competitor to Lexus, and most people thing that’s a pretty big ask.  One of the questions we had when the Lacrosse was dropped off for review was could they go toe to toe with Toyota’s luxury brand.

One of the reasons we’ve waited to post this review was we wanted to spend some time crawling around the Lexus ES350 and the best opportunity was going to be at the North American International Auto Show here in Detroit.  We’ll get to our conclusion about how the Lacrosse stacked up shortly, but lets dive in and have a look at it.

From a design point the Lacrosse is a conservative design, but it is also handsome.  It has some lines that are subtle but do give the body some character to prevent it from being Toyota like bland and forgettable.  There are also a few angle from a high rear three quarter view which we weren’t able to capture on camera that are very fluid and quite attractive.  Some people have argued about the placement of the portholes on the car, should they be on the fenders as is the heritage of the brand, is it OK to have them on the hood, I would say get rid of them all together.  Fake portholes and vents have become such a fad, that in trying to redefine the brand Buick needs to stay away from anything hinting of a fad.

When you move to the interior you are greeted by a IP that has a spacious feel to it.  Now, depending on if your first stint inside the car is in the day, or at night, it may have to different feels to it.  During the day the interior has an entry level luxury car feel to it.  Materials are of good quality, fit and finish were spot on and even the wood interior trim was tastefully done.

The controls on the steering wheel and the center console are well laid out and are for the most part pretty intuitive.  To get the full measure of the touch screen system and some of the voice command functions, you WILL need to pull out the manual and spend some time with it.  You can figure out about 70% without the manual, but there were a few things that the manual was needed for.

One of my favorite parts of the interior were the seat heaters.  I know it seems odd that I would choose that as one of my favorite things for the interior but hear me out.  First, most of the seat heaters in cars right now, across many brands, take forever to warm up to the point you can feel them, then, what they call the top setting, I call “I guess it’s on”.  Not so with the Buick.  The seats here come up to temp pretty quickly, important since during our week stint with the car the high temps for the days were in the single digits Fahrenheit!  When the seat heaters were on the high, not only could you tell they were on, they were warm enough that I was tempted to grab my cast iron dutch oven and toss in some beef short ribs for a nice braise!  Part two of this is the fact that not only were the seats heated, but so was the steering wheel.  Almost as bad as sitting on cold leather on a 4ºF morning is holding on a leather wrapped steering wheel.  Why this feature isn’t standard on any car north of thirty five grand is beyond me.  

With all the touch screens and small buttons in new cars trying to do anything with gloves on is a near impossibility.  So while voice commands will work for somethings, there is an actual tactile touch that is needed for others and that can’t be done with gloves on.  So when you grab the wheel then on a cold day before the cabin is up to temp, it’s not comfortable.

When the day turns to night and the lights come on, the interior of the Lacrosse takes on a different feel.  There is a cool blue light that wraps along the wood trim from the doors and through the dash.  I was told third hand that it was supposed to give a bit of the lighting feel of a hip South Beach club to the Lacrosse.  Not being a regular on the South Beach club scene, I couldn’t speak to that, however, I did like this mood lighting implementation better than I have liked similar treatments from Ford.

Out on the road the car drives nicely.  The ride is not the sofa lounge feel of large Buicks of the 80’s and 90’s, but it’s not European firm either.  It’s stuck somewhere in that middle ground that as long as you don’t try and fling it around on a track day you’ll be fine, but you won’t be probably won’t be cutting diamonds in the back either.  For 90% of the way most people drive today, the ride is more than fine.  The engine is strong as well.  Ours had the optional 3.6L V6 with 280 horsepower and 259 lb/ft of torque, it’s a retuned version of the motor in the CTS and Camaro.  While both peak numbers are fairly high up in the RPM band, power doesn’t feel lacking.  The only issue is that there is a good amount of torque steer in this car, so you have to be a little careful at lower speeds when you stomp the gas and the wheel is turned.

Lets circle back and bring up how this car stacks up, at least interior wise to the Lexus ES350.  I have to say after spending a solid 10 minutes in the Lexus touching and feeling all the materials and surfaces, then heading back over to the Buick display to double check some things in the Lacrosse, then back once again to the ES350, that hands down the Buick has a far superior interior on every level.  There, I said it.  Go ahead call me mad, but, before you do, go check for yourself, then let me know.

Finally where I think the Buick Lacrosse can really seal the deal against not only the ES350 but against quite a few other cars is on price.  Our loaded up CXS (the top range model) stickered out at $36,755. I don’t think there were many, if any, options boxes that weren’t checked off on this car.  While almost $37K may sound like a lot of money for a car, and I’m not saying it isn’t, compared with many other vehicles we’ve driven lately for the level of content and quality, this is very well done.

For Buick to succeed going forward they have a big challenge in front of them in changing peoples perception of what a Buick is in 2010 and beyond.  The challenges are many, but there are also some fairly easy solutions, and if GM wants to bring me on full time at a reasonable salary, I’d be happy to point them out. 

The first thing that they must do is get people in the door and behind the wheel.  It is only there that potential customers will begin to understand just how far Buick has come in a short period of time.  The Lacrosse should do for Buick what the CTS did for Cadillac, and that’s redefine what the brand is going forward.

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