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2016 LEXUS GS 200T FIRST DRIVE REVIEW

Lexus built its empire on reliable, high-quality luxury, and it’s served the company well in the U.S., its primary market. In just over 25 years, it’s become the second-best selling luxury brand in the U.S. for 2015, behind powerhouse BMW, just ahead of Mercedes-Benz, and well ahead of the rest of the class. Until recently, that success had little to do with design or performance, but now Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda wants to take the brand in those directions, and why not? It’s working for Cadillac, and whether you fall into the love it or hate it camp, sales are up since the introduction of the “spindle grille.”

While every new Lexus features the polarizing maw (I’m in the hate it camp, for what it’s worth) and credible performance is on offer from the F division, none of that means Lexus is abandoning its core audience. Rather, Lexus will cater to both crowds, and that means building cars for people who value quality and reliability over speed. This leads us nicely to the GS 200t.

Being the base engine offered in the GS, the 200t is also the frugal choice. At $46,555 to start, it’s roughly $5,000 thriftier than the GS 350.

It’s also important to note that the GS 200t is quite competitive in its class. Take a BMW 528i, for example. Power and fuel economy are nearly the same, but the BMW needs just 6.2 seconds to reach 60 mph from a stop to the Lexus’ manufacturer-estimated 7.0 seconds. The Lexus, though, is about $5,000 cheaper. The numbers, then, are mixed, but it’s not a bad showing at all for the GS 200t.

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Out in the world, how you feel about the GS 200t will depend entirely on your driving style. If, like many Lexus owners, you are a retiree or happen to drive like one, you’ll find the GS 200t perfectly suitable. Cruising the streets of Palm Springs, I found the little engine perfectly acceptable, offering smooth, creamy acceleration away from stops with good mid-range grunt for overtaking even-slower drivers. The car got up to freeway speeds quickly enough to eliminate any worry of merging below the speed of traffic. Here, again, it offered enough mid-range power to make a typical overtake. The engine is never particularly loud in the cabin and the noise it makes is inoffensive. It was a relaxed and relaxing driving experience, and perfectly pleasant if you’re not in any great hurry to get somewhere.

Should you be in a hurry — or just a more aggressive driver — you will feel differently. While the GS 200t wafts away from a stop under light or moderate throttle, trying to jack rabbit away with heavy throttle will only end in frustration. Nail the pedal, and you’ll find there’s nobody home under 2,000 rpm and nothing really gets interesting until 3,000. If you’re expecting a burst of acceleration, it’s going to feel like ages before the engine responds. This is turbo lag, and it’s ugly.

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It’s not much different on the top end, either. The GS 200t runs out of breath around 5,000 rpm, and the power delivery seems to plateau from there to redline. This is the limitation of a small turbo trying to deliver as much power down low as possible. What all this means is if you’re planning to drive this car quickly, you’ll need to keep it solidly in the middle of the rev range. Let it drop below 3,000 rpm, and it’ll be a big dig back out (just downshift), and there’s not much point in winding it out. This also means that if you’re planning an uphill pass or you’ve got a short window to overtake, you’ll want to plan ahead and build up a good head of steam before you leave your lane, or it’s not happening.

The eight-speed automatic, for its part, does the best it can with what it has to work with. Understanding the size of the car and the size of the engine, it does a good job of keeping the engine in the power when it’s needed, only dropping to low rpm when you’re cruising at a steady speed. Once you’re down in those fuel-saving revs, understand it’ll be two downshifts and a bit of turbo lag before you get any serious response from the engine.

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That’s not to say you can’t have any fun with this car. Put it in Sport S or Sport S+, and the transmission will keep you right in the engine’s sweet spot. You’ll be working the little motor hard, and you won’t be rocketing out of the corners like a GT-R, but it’s enough to be entertaining if you use the brakes as little as possible and keep your momentum up.

This speaks to one of the GS’ best attributes, the chassis. It’s among the best in the class, and certainly better than the aforementioned BMW. Body motions are nicely controlled and bumps are handled with confidence and control. This car doesn’t mind being pushed around a bend at all, and rewards a driver willing to do so. All the while, the ride quality remains luxury-car plush, if slightly stiff by traditional Lexus standards.

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Jan 20th, 2016