The Lexus GS could have been so much more, but it was the right car for the time

Now that we know the Lexus GS is not long for this world, it’s time to reflect on what it meant. In the US it was seen mostly as a middle-tier luxury sedan, a competent but unassuming rebadged Japanese Toyota that returned in reliability what it gave up in performance compared to its German rivals. In reality, it was much, much more, and we are sad to see it go.

“The Best”

The car was introduced in Japan on Halloween of 1991 as the Toyota Aristo, filling the niche for a luxury sedan slotting above the Chaser and Cresta at Toyota Auto and Toyota Vista showrooms, respectively, in the company’s byzantine Japanese dealer network. The first generation shared a platform with the V8-powered Crown Majesta, which was sold through the altogether different “Toyota” branded stores, positioned between the timeless 6-cylinder Crown and the sub-Century flagship, the Celsior (aka Lexus LS400).

The Aristo killed two birds with one stone. The first was supplying a range-topping model for whatever dealers that didn’t get the Crown Majesta during Japan’s wild Bubble Economy. Anything with a hint of luxury was selling like Super Nintendos, and all of Toyota’s dealer chains wanted a piece of the action. The name, Aristo, was derived from the ancient Greek aristos meaning “the best” and the name of the philosopher Aristotle, “the best purpose”.

The second dead bird was perhaps much more significant in establishing the car’s legacy. It became an international competitor to BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class for Toyota’s nascent premium marque when the Lexus GS began production on February 22, 1993. Built at the Tahara, Aichi plant that birthed Celsior and LS sedans, they were some of the most meticulously-assembled cars on Earth.

The exterior was penned by Italdesign Giugiaro, the design house responsible for everything from the MkI Volkswagen Golf to the DeLorean DMC-12 to the BMW M1. That it resembled the Jaguar Kensington concept, also by Italdesign, from the 1990 Geneva Motor Show was officially deemed a coincidence by the design firm, which claimed that work on the Aristo began before the Kensington. Judge for yourself.

In any case, its shape was a break from contemporary Japanese sedans, even sports sedans, which were traditionally more long and square (think 1980s Nissan Skylines or the aforementioned Mark II/Chaser/Cresta triplets). It was less formal, designed specifically to appeal to more than just the Japanese market.

This included the biggest car buying base in the world at the time, the United States. There, Lexus needed something to slot between the V6 Camry-based ES and the brand’s crown jewel, the LS. A streamlined, mid-size, rear-wheel-drive sedan with an inline-six fit the bill perfectly. The 3.0-liter 2JZ-GE made 225 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque, fair numbers but nothing that would set your hair on fire. Instead, the GS300’s claim to fame was that of a baby LS, which by then had already established a reputation for unrivaled excellence.

What Could’ve Been

In Japan, it was quite a different story. The base Aristo 3.0Q was offered with the same engine as the North American Lexus GS and was rated at 230PS (226 horsepower). However, Toyota also offered a 3.0V trim level equipped with the venerable 2JZ-GTE, the same twin-turbo straight-six that powered the legendary A80 Supra Turbo. In the Aristo, it also produced 280PS (276 horsepower), which upon release catapulted the Aristo to the position of fastest production sedan in Japan.

Furthermore, in October 1992, Toyota added the 260PS 4.0-liter V8 from the Celsior to the Aristo lineup. It was paired only with all-wheel-drive and became the highest grade trim level. Commercials touted the sportiness of the Aristo with a tagline loosely translated as “To adults who have forgotten to run,” targeting a more sophisticated customer, perhaps someone who would’ve had a Soarer in the 80s but is now trying to rekindle their passion for cars with something powerful and sleek but not an outright coupe.

As such, it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Toyota had sold these higher-spec Wangan wraiths in the US. While the twin-turbo Aristo was limited to 276 horses in Gentleman’s Agreement Japan, there would be no such restrictions in the US. Taking its Supra sibling as reference, the GS would have been spec’ed at 320 horsepower, putting it in direct competition with the 311-horse E34 BMW M5 and the 325-horse Porsche-tuned Mercedes 500E.

While the GS’s 4-speed automatic and softer suspension would have likely put it behind the M5 in a head-to-head track battle, it could have still established itself as a formidable contender in the segment. At launch the Lexus GS300 sold for about $37,500, while the approximately-equivalent-in-features Aristo 3.0QL in Japan sold in 1993 for ¥3.96 million. Extrapolating from that, the ¥4.75 million Aristo 3.0V would have sold for $45,000 as a Lexus. By comparison, the Bimmer rang in at $61,000 and the Benz at $82,000. (Just for giggles, the ¥5.19 million V8 AWD version would have sold for $49,150.)

That would have made it a tremendous value proposition for a car that’s a darn close in outright performance, and we all know that extracting additional power from a 2JZ-GTE is about as easy as falling down. However, with the 1993 LS400 stickering at $46,600, a pricier GS would have tread too closely to the flagship’s toes.

The Prime Timeline

The lack of powerful GS options stateside may seem like a tragedy, but we are going to argue that Lexus made the right choice. Toyota spent the better part of a decade defining what a new-generation luxury car would be. That philosophy was a luxury car that was uncompromisingly luxurious in the vein of the Toyota Century. Somehow, over the years, the idea that a luxury car also had to be a rip-roaring tire shredder has muddled the term’s meaning.

In contrast to Lexus, Infiniti started out as a performance-oriented luxury marque, but when initial sales didn’t pan out as they’d hoped, they quickly switched gears and tried to follow Lexus’s path. Sadly, the lack of commitment to a single brand identity confused buyers and the brand never achieved the status of Lexus (or their sales). The turbo Aristo would have made more sense as a Toyota, maybe a replacement for the Cressida, but Americans were already balking at the notion of a “$40,000 Toyota” with the LS.

In those early days, Toyota had the seemingly impossible task of establishing an entirely new luxury brand from scratch. Today, that feat is immortalized in auto journalism and business school textbooks alike. Part of the recipe for success was how disciplined and consistent the cars were. The LS set the tone for the entire marque, and the GS and SC very much fell in line with it. If they had just started sending over turbos — which were not very well-regarded in luxury cars to Americans at the time — it would’ve been a lot more messy and hard to take for a new marque.

Lexus’s focus was on refinement and quality, to an extent unlike any other company. This was the central philosophy of the brand, what enabled them to catch lightning in a bottle, eventually become the best-selling luxury brand in the US, and justify the LS’s astronomical development costs. Then, as well as now, Toyota is in a difficult position because it has to use the Lexus brand to market both luxury and high-performance cars. Unfortunately, most consumers are too unsophisticated to understand brand essence, wanting easily digestible tiers and horsepower figures instead.

Full Circle

The second-generation Lexus GS evolved into a proper sports sedan while remaining a proper Lexus. In the US, keeping with the turbo-shy luxury-sports ethos of the time, the it got a naturally aspirated 300-horsepower V8. In Japan, on the other hand, the second-gen Aristo in Japan lost the V8 option but kept the twin-turbo 2JZ. It was no longer built on the Crown Majesta platform, instead riding on an all-new FR platform that would become the basis for future rear-wheel-drive Toyotas like the 11th-generation Crown.

The V8-powered GS400 was clocked with a 0-60 time of 5.4 seconds by Edmunds (5.7 seconds by Motor Trend). It was astonishingly quick for the time, prompting Lexus to call it the fastest automatic production sedan in the world (a contemporary and manual BMW M5 was rated at 4.8-5.2 seconds).

It wasn’t just power, either. The chassis was suspended by double-wishbones at all corners, and the new GS certainly held its own in driving dynamics. At the wheel, the driver faced three semi-circular “Optitron” gauges backlit in yellowish white, a unique take on the trademark Lexus electroluminescent instrument panel. Despite newfound power, handling, and a uniquely wicked style that eschewed that of the old world sports sedans, the V8 GS still possessed the refinement and impeccable build quality of a Lexus. This was Toyota’s vision of a luxury sports sedan.

The car’s performance chops also resulted in some interesting trivia. A favorite among VIP tuners, at one point the second-gen Aristo was the most stolen car in a famously crime-free Japan. The Nikkei Business newspaper once reported that Toyota CEO Hiroshi Okuda took an Aristo 100 mph on a Japanese expressway. “Speed is a drug,” he explained.

When the second-gen’s run came to a close in 2005, so did the name Aristo. That year, the Lexus brand was finally introduced to Japan, and from then on the beautiful third-generation was sold only as the Lexus GS.

We won’t dwell on the newer cars too much, but we do find it ironic that after initially passing on what would have been an easy high-performance GS in the US, Lexus is now, 30 years later, doing exactly what the original Aristo could have. Today, Lexus offers a breathtaking 471-horsepower V8 GS F, a glorious sounding, blindingly fast, high-performance executive saloon that’s one of the best on the market — just as sedans are falling out of fashion in favor of stupid high-performance luxury crossovers.

The Lexus GS F is the last of its kind in more ways than one. With the death of the GS also comes the death of the big Japanese sports sedan. As such, the legacy that the Lexus GS leaves behind will probably just be that of an expensive, reliable car that’s largely unappreciated. It’s a sleeper, though, a wicked something to those in the know. We’d bet a lot of owners are probably surprised by its capabilities.

Images courtesy of Toyota

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23 Responses to The Lexus GS could have been so much more, but it was the right car for the time

  1. Lupus says:

    The Mk2 was availible (at least here in Europe) also as GS430 with 4,3 V8 from 2nd gen LS.
    And IFAIK the Mk2 had a V8+AWD option in Japan, or am i wrong?

    And to be honest – even the base GS300 with naturally aspirated 2JZ CAN be a “rip-roaring tire shredder” (awesome sentence by the way 😉 ) by simply turning off the VDC assist system and locking the AT at 2nd gear. I’m just reaching mere 1k km behind it’s wheel, but i’m already impressed by it’s performance. Of course it’s something totally differnt then Subaru Legacy in therms of agility and overall dynamics, but i really like the straight line power it offers (comes in handy while overtaking on narrow european roads) and the smoth transition between neutral –> oversteer –> neutral. Subaru’s driving expirience is more hectic, like neeuutraal->UNDERSTER>BANG>OVERSTER->neutral. 😉

    Somthing else worth mentioning – my GS is equipped with touch sensitive control panel on the dashboard. It’s a ’98 machine, and this screen still works fine, even in thick tactical gloves. Show my any modern day touch screen that last’s for more then 5 years…

    • Ben Hsu says:

      Yes, the GS430 was available in the US too, but in Japan the second generation was only inline-six (NA and TT). I agree, that smooth transition from neutral to oversteer is a RWD Toyota trademark. I have an SC300 and I love the way it handles. Alas, the new Supra does not continue that tradition, no matter how much Toyota says they calibrated the handling. You can only do so much with the hardware given.

  2. Legacy-san says:

    The tradition of the sport sedan GS may still be alive in Japan. The previously mentioned Crown Majesta (1991-2018) was exclusive to Toyota Store, along with the Crown and Century, and the Majesta shared its dimensions almost exactly with the Century. Grandpa was chauffeured by a company supplied driver in the Century, and his younger son had the more modern Majesta. Now that the Majesta is history, lets not forget the recently introduced Gazoo package being shopped for interested buyers on the all new Century, maybe the replacement for the Majesta. Mr. Toyoda seems to like his GR Century.

  3. dankan says:

    Is that Gazoo package a real thing? I know Akio had one done for himself, but I thought that was a one-off.

    The thing that stands out for me with those early GS’s is how colour sensitive they are. Most of the photos are light silver/beige/white, and it doesn’t suit at all. But in black…

  4. james says:

    What a shame.I honestly didn’t think that day would come.I think the 1st gen GS(Aristo) was the best looking one.

    • Lupus says:

      Agree with You on that. The 2nd gen kept the overall shape, but gained weight here & there 😉
      And the quad head lamp design “borrowed” from Merc is a matter of taste…

  5. Long Beach Mike says:

    No photos of the current GS?

    Thank you!

  6. MikeRL411 says:

    That last photo really emphasizes the design similarity to the Infiniti J30 series. Might there be a same design house hiding in the wings?

    • Ben Hsu says:

      I think soap-bar organic styles were just the “in” thing back then!

    • Long Beach Mike says:

      GS was penned by Italdesign Giuigiaro. The J design work was done in-house. But, yeah, there might be some common design dna there. Both were designed about the same time and I’m sure the team at Nissan Design International got early looks at Italdesign’s work.

      • MikeRL411 says:

        Or they used the same design software, Both Nissan and Toyota were hiring from California in that time period.

      • Ben Hsu says:

        The automotive design industry is very small. There are only a handful of schools, and a few dozen car companies in the world. Designers jump around from company to company all the time, but still talk to ex-colleagues and friends, and as a result trends tend to “migrate.”

  7. Ricardo Robinson says:

    I have a 2018 GS350 FSport. I love the car and will never get rid of it.It may be a collector piece

  8. Tygerleo says:

    This vehicle was designed to complete with 5 series and E class, and failed. In the last two decades, the three German bands, Audi, BMW and Mercedes dominate the luxury market in US and China, two largest car markets despite thier temperamental reliability. GS only merit end up to be an expansive reliable appliance because Toyata only uses dated and proved technology in US market. It also becomes long in tooth when Toyota pulls the plug.

  9. Derrick Patin says:

    I HAD THE PLEASURE OF DRIVING A 1993 GS 300 BACK IN THE EARLY 90s and thinking it was the best i had ever driven at that time!!!!!!! Now I have the 2014 gs f sport and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think its a mistake to shut the gs line down but we will see because it was and will always be one of the most consistent driving machines in the world.

  10. Shaiyan Hossain says:

    I never liked the look of the 2nd gen GS and not much the 3rd either when compared to the first but they seemed like good values compared to their german counterparts which all have tanked in value and reliability, but that’s to be expected lol
    that being said, the current gen, while nice in its own right, pales in competition with its german rivals, which offer the latest tech and creature comforts in a class that increasingly favors those qualities
    even the GS F, while imo its the best sounding in its class because its the last of the NA V8s, is slower than an m550i or an E53, and it costs as much as those too
    it has no chance over something like an F90 M5 or a W213 E63 AMG, which are leagues ahead. though it will probably fare better in the future reliability wise, and might become a future classic as a relic of what sports sedans once were
    if they ever do an entrant to this class again, they need to learn from their mistakes, and their competition, cause at this rate, even the new Genesis G80 has Lexus beat

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