Motoring: Life begins at Sporty

The verdict; Is the Lexus GS300 Sport a mid-life crisis on wheels? We put it to the test. By Michael Booth. Photographs by Teena Taylor
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oyota, in its tunnel-vision quest to build a rival to the Mercedes- Benz E-Class, has at least got one thing right with its Lexus brand. Actually, it's got several things right, but perhaps most importantly, as with the famous three-pointed stars from Stuttgart, the appeal of a Lexus has always tended to be a slow-burn thing. They grow on you. The more you drive them the more you come to appreciate their engineering and design integrity, the way they go about their business without fuss or noise, and how well they are put together.

In that context, the new GS300 Sport is a touch schizophrenic - a sheep in wolf's clothing. Instead of oozing the brand's trademark cool anonymity, Lexus has designed the Sport to shout its presence with gigantic 18-inch alloy wheels, lowered suspension and spoilers front and rear. All very un-Lexus.

Why a sheep? Well although it wears a racer's clothes, the Sport is actually no faster than the standard GS300. With a top speed of 143mph and a sprinting capability of 0-60mph in 8.2 seconds it's fast, but not fast enough for a super saloon costing pounds 38,000. That's nearly pounds 7,000 more than the standard car; which seems rather too much for a few bolt-on body bits and a nice stereo.

It is a nice stereo though. Better than the one in my living room. Come to think of it, the inside is probably a nicer place to be than my living room generally, there's certainly more legroom and the climate control works a treat. Nice leather too, there's even some stained wood trim and the seats are heated - which they aren't in my house. The sunroof's electric as well, and both the seats and the steering wheel adjust electrically, in all directions.

On the move, no car I've yet driven can match the Lexus GS300 Sport for grip. Whether that's down to the excellence of its traction control system, or just a fantastically well-sorted chassis doesn't really matter. What I am sure of is that this car simply can not be unstuck, which means you can corner about as fast as your blood pressure will allow.

As befits a car aimed at the more mature boy racer it is blissfully easy to drive around town thanks to progressive steering and an automatic shift so frictionless that you barely notice changes. At high speed the brakes are superb and pull the car up without a hint of fuss. See, I told you it grows on you.

With its lowered suspension the Sport's ride can be a touch thumpy over pot-holes, and it tramlines (when the wheels appear to become stuck in ruts on the road) badly at times. Road noise is also far louder than in a standard luxury saloon, while, conversely, engine noise isn't loud enough - I'd like to hear much more of that three-litre straight six.

So, who would buy this? Not your usual Lexus buyer that's for sure, their demographic is too old. The GS300 Sport is more a car for the man of rather more advanced years than he would care to admit, but he's still a man goddamit and he still likes to think he has a little juice left in the tank. A mid-life crisis on wheels it may be, but if this is what the cars are going to be like when I get there, 40 doesn't seem that bad a prospect after all

Dr Victoria Bardsley, 29, pathologist, from Norwich. Currently drives a Peugeot 106

"It's very smooth isn't it? And it feels very long so I'd never be able to drive it along country roads. It looks a bit like a Mercedes. The brakes are more sensitive than I'm used to. I prefer smaller cars that are a bit more environmentally friendly. This is a gas guzzler, a status symbol, and I'm not into that. It's a flash consultant's car, a bit vulgar. It screams conspicuous consumption and that much money in a car is disgusting. There's something a bit more classy about a Mercedes. I don't think a woman would buy a Lexus, this is for the kind of man who always wants to go business class."

Sue Prutton, 56, school secretary, and her son Robert Moore, 31, computer professional, both from Norwich. Currently drive a Mazda 323F and a Ford Escort Turbo Diesel estate, respectively

Sue: "I wouldn't buy an automatic even though the change in this is seamless, because I take pride in my driving. It is certainly in excess of my price bracket but I wouldn't buy it anyway."

Robert: "It's amazingly smooth and very quiet, although there is a lot of braking noise. The suspension is firm, but it does tramline. You've certainly got the power to get out of trouble. It's very aggressive looking, the wheels fill the arches nicely and the interior is very functional although there's no beauty to it."

Paul Davies, 41, and Belinda Davies, 35, both biomedical scientists, from Norwich. Currently drive a Vauxhall Astra and a Nissan Micra respectively

Paul: "It's so quiet to drive, it would be a great long-distance cruiser. There's an awful lot of torque but it could do with an extra 50bhp. It's quite big and bulky. I would be worried about the cost of those low-profile tyres. It's lovely and plush but I'm not sure I'd spend pounds 38,000 on one. I'd want something a little more exotic for that sort of money. I don't think many people even know what a Lexus is."

Belinda: "It's certainly more comfortable than my Micra but the interior is a bit dark and grey and I could buy a fleet of Micras for what this cost. This would be a nightmare down the single-track lanes I drive to work on."

Amanda Ayers, 36, full-time mum, and her daughter Rhianne, 3, from Great Plumstead, Norfolk. Currently drives a Volvo 440

"I've never driven an automatic before but this seems nice and smooth to drive, it's very quiet, you kind of glide along. It's very spacious in the back, even for big teenagers, but I can't reach round to pick up toys from the back floor or check my handbag while I'm driving. For a car this size the fuel economy is good, we regularly drive to Portsmouth and this would be good for that kind of journey as you don't feel like you're doing any speed. But I wouldn't pay pounds 25,000 for it, let alone pounds 38,000. I'd probably go for a Mercedes soft-top instead. This is more for a young MD or a lottery winner. I'd feel conspicuous doing the school run in it."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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