Lexus GS 430: Who's a big boy now?

The Lexus GS boasts a hefty build, velvet-smooth engine and shapely exterior. Mercedes and BMW should be worried, says Michael Booth

What would you say are the early warning signs of the onset of middle age? Hairs sprouting from unlikely orifices? Agreeing more with Peter, than Christopher Hitchins? The sneaky feeling that, one wrong move, and you might pull something?

I suspect coveting a Lexus has to be one. Reading the press reviews of the new GS series you could be forgiven for thinking this is the greatest car since the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Testers have heaped superlatives upon its hushed concert-hall ambience, its redoubtable build quality, its creamy power and glittering arcade of gadgets. The stereo is even signed by a man called Mark Levinson - how cool is that?

Well, one thing the Lexus is not, is cool. I suspect the rave reviews of the GS have as much to do with the fact that, almost without exception, car reviewers are male, middle-aged and - how can I put this politely - a bit nerdy. It is a sorry state of affairs, I admit. Imagine if all the fashion writers, book critics or rock-music reviewers were like this. We'd all be shopping at Army and Navy, reading Bravo Two Zero and, erm, listening to Coldplay. Sadly I am starting to become all these things myself (although I was male to start with, I can't blame that on the job), which is why, when the GS first arrived outside my house, I hurled myself face down before it and sobbed with untrammelled joy.

It's taken them some time - 16 years in fact - but Lexus has at last built a car that doesn't look like it was styled by a computer programmer. It does seem odd, though, that they spent all that time and money trying to convince people Lexus wasn't just a posh Toyota, only for them to design a car that looks precisely like a posh Toyota. That said, the new GS's hunched curves and prowling snout won't look too out of place in the executive car park next to the Beemers, Mercs and Jags. And the 4.3-litre V8 that powers the GS430 I tried is one of the most magnificent engines ever made - velvety-, chocolatey-, George Hamilton-smooth - plus it has more torque than any of its rivals. Not since Herbie has a car been this effortless to drive. And, as you would expect of a make that routinely tops customer-satisfaction surveys, you can't fault the quality. The wafer-thin shutlines, heavyweight furniture and sheer, monolithic presence of the thing all demand nerd-worship.

But something in me resists the siren, pipe-and-slippers song of the Lexus. Perhaps it is the half-timbered steering wheel, or the very fact that they deem it necessary to plaster the interior of a cutting-edge super saloon with wood at all. I wouldn't dream of insulting your intelligence by complaining of a "lack of soul" or other such guff (cars stopped having soul around about the time Mick Hucknall did, when platform sharing and robot accountants took over the automotive world), but Lexus as a brand still seems to be struggling for an identity of its own. Hence the Jaguar-esque interior, the Mercedes-esque exterior and the BMW-esque engineering.

What the GS does, for now, is render Lexus's flagship car, the LS, wholly redundant. It is more desirable and, simply, better in every way; it is a thoroughly, deeply impressive machine with the presence, power, build-quality and, at last, the badge prestige to give ailing Mercedes a real fright. And I'm sure it looks even better through bifocals. *

It's a Classic: Toyota Crown

In fact, the Japanese have built a fair share of more characterful luxury saloons in their time. One of my favourites is the Toyota Crown, a lavish, glitzy, luxurious saloon that actually started out as a budget two-door compact saloon. That original Crown bombed spectacularly - it just wasn't built to cope with the demands of the all-important American market - but subsequent Crowns, each more tacky than the last, built a steady following among more mature buyers. Crowns have always been lathered with chrome and packed with electronic gizmos - the 1971 variant had an anti-skid braking system and an electronically controlled automatic gearbox, both firsts. Toyota eventually got the build quality right, too, so that, though Crowns have never been style leaders, nor remotely engaging to drive, they have invariably been built like bank-vault doors. Forget the DS, this has to be the coolest set of wheels for the Soho ad executive with an overdeveloped sense of irony. That said, buying a new Royal Crown (as it is currently called in Japan) would be taking things too far.

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