2020 Lexus GS350 AWD Review: An Ode to Aristos Gone By

In decades past, Lexus’ midsize GS sedan was the de facto choice for Lexus buyers who wanted something a bit bigger than the compact ES but smaller than the full-size luxobarge LS. Based on the Japanese-market Toyota Aristo, the 1993 GS300 debuted as a Giugiaro-designed rear-wheel drive sedan powered by the now-legendary 2JZ inline-six. As time passed, the 1UZ V8 was added to the options list for those wanting more power.

And now, four generations later, Lexus has discontinued the GS altogether. Their portfolio has grown from three models in 1993 to 11 today, and Lexus has put their money into iterating on sedans that aren’t the GS. So then, Lexus sent me one of the final examples to evaluate. Does the 2020 Lexus GS350 AWD still belong in a modern world?

2020 Lexus GS350 AWD Matador Red

What Is It?

This is a 2020 Lexus GS350 with all-wheel drive, the final model year of the fourth and final generation of Lexus GS. The fourth generation of Lexus GS went on sale for the 2012 model year, and received a facelift in 2015. The GS hasn’t changed since then. Though Lexus saw fit to offer a turbocharged four-cylinder, a (relatively) economical hybrid, and a shouty 5.0 liter V8-powered GS F throughout the fourth generation, most of the 3,300 or so sold last year came equipped as a V6-powered GS350.

That’s not to say the GS350 is a slouch. Powered by the same 2GR-FKS 3.5 liter V6 seen in several other Lexus models, as well as a Toyota or three, the GS350 produces 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. That 2GR V6 drives either the rear wheels or, optionally, all four. In rear-drive, buyers get an eight-speed automatic. All-wheel drive buyers make do with an older six-speed unit.

Though all-wheel drive is becoming more common in every segment, the GS350’s system is full-time, not a “slip and grip” setup seen more frequently. The transfer case splits power in a rear-biased 70/30 fashion, but can send up to 50 percent of power to the front wheels as needed.

My loan came standard with driver assistance technology – adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, and lane keep assist – as well as Lexus’ older (arthritic?) Remote Touch infotainment that does not support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Though the standard CD player was highlighted by a strip of brushed aluminum across the dashboard, the GS350 also supported USB and Bluetooth connections for music streaming. And oh, what a sound. Lexus has partnered with Mark Levinson for quite some time, and it shows. The 835-watt, 17-speaker sound system was incredible.

MSRP of my 2020 Lexus GS350 AWD came to about $57,000.

Rear-Biased Means Sporty… Right?

Other variants of this fourth-generation Lexus GS sound like a riot, frankly. The GS F produces 467 horsepower from its Yamaha-derived V8 and sends it all to the rear wheels. Even this GS350 in rear-drive F-Sport form could be fun to toss around a bit. But my particular GS350 was a bit lacking in the “fun” department.

Admittedly, the V6 makes a pretty good sound when you wind it out. And even with “just” six ratios, the transmission is a smart-enough partner. If you mat the throttle, the GS350 isn’t slow, per se. It’s just not a car that really wants to get up and boogie.

2020 Lexus GS350 AWD engine

Where the GS350 F-Sport gets adjustable dampers, a Torsen limited-slip differential, dynamic rear steering, and bigger brakes, the normcore GS350… doesn’t. Nor does it get the extra-bolstered sport seats. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the overall vibe of the car is pretty relaxed. Twisting the drive mode dial to Sport makes the throttle more jumpy but otherwise changes nothing.

Sure, that all-wheel drive is rear-biased, but the GS350 AWD is not a car that encourages maximum hoonery. I enjoyed the GS most when I ignored the paddle shifters and hung out in the right lane with the excellent Mark Levinson sound system cranked up. The GS350 is a cruiser at heart, and it’s good at it. The seats are comfortable and are automatically heated or cooled with the climate control – a neat trick. The non-adjustable dampers are tuned for a calm ride, and they deliver. With the windows up, it’s appropriately quiet inside.

No, the GS350 AWD isn’t “sporty,” but it’s not a bad car to drive as a whole.

2020 Lexus GS350 AWD rear

Embrace Your More-Popular ES350 Overlord

Not every Lexus has to be sporty – most, in fact, are not. The early GS was a “sporty” rear-drive platform because Toyota used what it had overseas to help build out their new luxury brand in the States. But even if the current GS350 AWD isn’t the most fun or nimble, why is Lexus pulling the plug?

The GS is the victim of its sibling’s success. Once the smallest car in the Lexus lineup, the ES has grown up. It’s about the same size as the GS, but starts at a lower price and weighs less. It can be had as a hybrid, a four cylinder, or in spicy F-Sport guise. Yes, it’s front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive optional on that entry four-cylinder, but I’d argue that the vast majority of Lexus’ midsize sedan buyers simply do not care which wheels are driven.

Lexus sold roughly 51,000 ES models in 2019, compared to just 3,300 GS sedans in the same period. They’ve spent the most money developing and marketing the ES, and it’s been a success to the point of encroaching on the GS entirely. Lexus doesn’t need two midsize sedans, especially not in a world that clings to crossovers over all else. It was simply time for the GS to bow out and let the ES shine. There’s rumors of a Toyota Mirai-based replacement for GS, though at this time they are just that.

For those clinging to the idea of a rear-drive Lexus sedan as a sort of reliable BMW alternative, the compact (and now, entry-level) IS has just been updated for 2021. We’ll look to get our hands on that one in short order.

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