If you're a car maker and you position your vehicle in a certain bracket, it's inevitable that your new product is going to be judged based on the competition. That's especially true - and a more difficult job to get right - the higher you go in the food chain. Making a crappy little hatchback isn't a great idea, but if it's cheap enough you'll probably sell enough. But when you creep into the luxury and sport segment, people demand more for their money.
Lexus has been making the GS300 luxury sports saloon since 1993, aimed clearly as a rival to BMW, Mercedes and Audi - a tough market indeed. But while the Lexus quality is certainly its prime selling point, I'm not sure, after spending a few days with it, that the GS300 fully reaches every level for a segment so choked with really good cars.
With its long nose and short boot, it's exterior does promise sportiness. Rakish, even aggressive almost, its shape is also clean and graceful and it stands up to the Germans in style. It might not stand out from the crowd as much as you'd like, but it's certainly come a long way from previous generations of the car.
I just wish they brought that modern thinking inside. Oh, yes, there is a generous amount of leather and the usual luxury appointments, even in this base model. But the layout just reminds me of what the interior of a Lexus would have been like 10 years ago; it's very organic and flowing - and bland. The materials, for the most part, are top-notch (save the silver plastic around the centre console, which looks like it came from a Toyota parts bin), but it doesn't have a sense of style or flair. It's covered in a wood-look plastic that also seems a throwback to older models. And, base model or not, it really should come with a navigation system; its absence seems incongruous in a luxury saloon of this calibre. Oh, while I'm at it, can you please modernise the graphics on the touch screen? Cheesy is a word that comes to mind.
Power with the base model comes from a 3.0L V6; with 228hp, you're not going to win any stoplight grands prix. Sure, it's enough to get around fairly well, and it's smooth enough for the luxury segment, but again, standing up to its rivals, the engine just doesn't seem like enough.
But where the GS is really let down is with its gearbox, one of the most unresponsive, sluggish units I've ever used. It, more than anything else, is what makes this car rather bland to drive. It's a six-speed automatic that always seems to be in too tall a gear, and it balks at dropping a cog when you really need a quick jolt for passing or such, so much so that I found myself planning my acceleration well in advance. Sporty, it most definitely is not, a fact highlighted by the excellent gearboxes found in its rivals.
Handling is also not completely up to par with the competition. It's adjustable dampers firm up in sport mode, but I question why even make it an option? The corner roll firmed up noticeably, but the comfort didn't change enough to make a big difference, so I left it in sport for most of my drive.
Hey, the car isn't all bad, really. The ride is soft and coddling, and it's extremely quiet inside, with road, wind and engine noise kept to a muffled whisper. I love the keyless entry, big sunroof and the 14-speaker stereo system with iPod connectivity. The room inside is more than enough for four people, and the boot is downright cavernous, surprising as it looks so short from the exterior. And said Lexus quality is evident everywhere you look, inside and out - panel lines are thin and uniform while the sparkling white paint is gorgeous.
It also comes equipped with electric, speed-sensitive steering, a reversing camera, brake-assist and electronic brake-force distribution, adaptive headlights that turn into a curve with the car and other high-end safety features. Very nice touches.
I'm sure there will be people who buy this car and who will be perfectly satisfied with it, and I don't blame them; it's a nice looking set of wheels with a balance of luxury appointments and practicality.
But if Lexus really wants to compete with the Germans, it's going to have to broaden its appeal to the more discerning driver; there are just too many better cars in its class at a similar price point.
Price base, as tested Dh214,000 / same
Engine 3.0L V6
Gearbox six-speed automatic
Power 228hp @ 6,200 rpm
Torque 300Nm @ 4,400 rpm
Fuel economy, combined 10.6L / 100km