Photos courtesy of Toyota
The Lexus GS430 with moonroof, navigation system, backup camera and other extras has a suggested retail price of $58,334. The car boasts a 4.3 liter V8 engine that offers 300 horsepower.
A sport coupe is fun to drive solo on the backroads, and SUVs are fine for trips to the mountains.
However, there comes a time in your life when the appropriate car is a comfortable and elegant four-door sedan that will take two couples out to dinner at a nice restaurant, or down to Carmel for a weekend getaway.
When you get to that stage of life, it's nice to know that Toyota/Lexus has two cars in their line-up to choose from - both recently updated - the Toyota Avalon and Lexus GS.
We've had the opportunity to drive both of them during the past few weeks and they had an interesting effect on us.
While we normally like to test cars near their limits to evaluate their road-handling and performance, a few minutes in either of these cars and we found ourselves settling back to simply enjoy the drive and the scenery.
These models are quite similar in the pleasant experience they offer to both driver and passengers. They've got a long wheelbase and wide track that creates a comfortable interior with more than 3 feet of legroom in both the front and the rear seats.
They both have excellent suspensions and body construction, underlaid by Toyota's excellent build quality so that they're smooth and quiet over even the worst sections of Highway 101.
Both cars have been given more powerful engines for this model year. They're by no stretch of the imagination performance cars, but the added power provides a confidence in driving that accentuates the feel of luxury that these cars are intended to provide.
However, they are quite different in one respect: price.
The Avalon Touring model we drove was stickered at $30,449, including moonroof, upgraded sound system, floor and trunk mats, and delivery fee.
By contrast, our test Lexus GS430 with moonroof, miscellaneous convenience accessories, and a Mark Levinson audio/navigation system complete with backup camera, plus delivery fee, had an MSRP of $58,334.
With that price differential, clearly these cars will be competing in different markets.
What differences would justify the differences in list price?
For starters, all models of the Avalon now come standard with Toyota's 3.5 liter V6, which produces 280 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. This engine is one of the major upgrades from the previous version of the Avalon and addresses one of the few flaws in that model, responsiveness.
With the larger engine, the Avalon now can get from 0 to 60 in less than seven seconds, a capability that matches many smaller sports sedans.
With the five-speed automatic transmission, the power comes on progressively, lending to smoothness in normal driving. Equally important, the car never falters when asked to merge or pass at highway speeds.
The Lexus GS we tested was fitted with the larger 4.3 liter V8 engine, which offers 300 hp and 325 pound-feet of torque. That amount of power produces performance that is easily comparable with other luxury sedans in its price range.
In wet or snowy areas, buyers might wish to opt for the smaller 3.5 V6 also used in the Avalon, but available on the Lexus with all-wheel drive.
In the Lexus GS430, the power was transmitted to the wheels through a new six-speed automatic transmission which offered the exactly appropriate power at all speeds and changed gears so smoothly the transitions could only be noted by carefully watching the tachometer.
We were impressed with the quiet smoothness of the Avalon's suspension, which uses a traditional engineering design with MacPherson struts and stabilizer bar front and back. This system is tuned to absorb pavement bumps, but as a result the car will exhibit some roll on corners if they're taken too fast.
To provide premium ride quality as well as balanced handling, Lexus has invested in a more high-tech suspension system which employs gas shocks and an electronic system called Adaptive Variable Suspension. The system automatically tightens the suspension as speeds increase, and the driver also can choose the sport mode for a tighter, more precise feeling when desired.
In addition, the GS430 introduces Toyota's new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system. The company's written description of this system runs to three pages of prose only an engineer could love. More simply stated, VDIM incorporates every state-of-the-art technology of movement sensing, traction and braking control so that the car is unlikely to skid or spin even under most extreme driving conditions.
Our Lexus included the optional Mark Levinson audio/navigation system. It's a little pricey at $4,000 but it integrates a DVD-based navigation system into one of the best sound systems in the auto world.
One neat part of this system is the backup camera mounted under the center stoplight, which displayed the view to the rear of the car when it was shifted into reverse. Given the ease with which children can run behind a car, or perhaps just leave their tricycles there, we'd like to see a system like this in every large car on the road.
Both the Lexus GS and the Toyota Avalon have been restyled in the model update, and in both cases we agree that the few changes have enhanced their curb appeal.
Auto stylists use the terms "sculpted" and "character lines" to describe the beveled edges and flat areas that accentuate styling lines. With cars offering the opulent interior spaces that these do, the sheer size of the car could be overwhelming. However, the Lexus and Toyota designers have made effective use of these subtle touches to replace the feeling of bulk with one of elegance.
On the Lexus, the designers have chosen to lengthen the window area and shorten the rear deck, which does increase rear headroom. Unfortunately, the result was to make the trunk opening smaller, making it difficult to get larger bundles into the trunk.
Luggage space is also a little less luxurious in the new GS and Avalon. In both cars the previously incredible amounts of trunk space have been whittled down to sizes that are simply acceptable on a five-passenger car.
However, these were small limitations in what are otherwise well-executed upgrades to these luxury sedans.
Offering all the interior space and comfort that anyone wanting a five-passenger luxury sedan could wish for, now combined with a little more power under the hood, these two cars make the journey as pleasurable as the destination.