Sporty Lexus GS350 takes on the Germans

It seems odd to compare Popeye (the cartoon character, not the chicken) to the genteel and refined vehicles from Lexus.

However, Popeye’s calling card of “I yam what I yam” applies well to Lexus, at least on one level. The automaker is what it is: the manufacturer of refined, comfortable, and dependable luxury cars.

So don’t expect Lexus to follow others’ leads and start targeting rivals in ads, such as Cadillac calling out BMW’s 3 Series and Ford’s C-Max going after Toyota’s Prius.

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Such activity just doesn’t seem part of Lexus’s DNA.

However, today’s test car, the 2013 Lexus GS350 sedan, definitely is looking to get some consideration from the buyer who normally opts for the German midsized luxury sedans from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

The redesigned Lexus GS350, the fourth generation of the vehicle, has a lower look, wider track, quicker steering, and better handling. A revamped suspension retains the Lexus ride comfort while eliminating some of its softness in favor of improved handling.

Lexus luxury comes at a price. There’s only one trim level for the GS350, and it starts at $50,325 (including destination). The price goes up quickly when you start adding options and packages.

Our test car had several, including:

• Cold Weather Package ($340): Heated steering wheel, windshield wiper de-icer, water repellent front door glass, high intensity heater.

• Navigation ($1,735): With a 12.3- inch split-screen display.

• Premium Package ($1,400): Rain-sensing wipers, heated and ventilated front seats, power rear sunshade.

• Intuitive Park Assist ($500), 18-inch alloy wheels ($865), and sundries (wheel locks, trunk mat, cargo net) brought the bottom line to $55,407.

Options we DIDN’T have included a Night Vision System, Heads Up Display, Blind Spot Monitor, and the Lane Keep Assist/Lane Departure Warning. Also available are adaptive cruise control with a pre-collision warning-mitigation feature.

Standard was the electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system, rear view camera, 10-way power front seats, keyless entry with pushbutton start, leather trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, L-shaped (for Lexus) LED driving lights, and LED interior illumination.

Power comes from a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that produces 306 horsepower and 277 pound feet of torque. It goes through a six-speed automatic transmission and the AWD system that can vary the front-to-rear torque balance from 50-50 to 30-70. The GS350 also is available as a rear-wheel-drive sedan.

We had a choice of three driving modes, Normal, ECO, and Sport. Normal seemed fine in all circumstances. ECO puts a blue bar on the dashboard and makes you feel as if you were turning the Lexus into a Prius without getting the same 50 mpg by revising throttle mapping and climate control output. Sport (a red bar in the driver information area) makes the Lexus feel much more like one of “those” German sport sedans by revising throttle and transmission operation.

For the record, there’s also a GS350 F Sport trim level with a sport-tuned suspension, larger brakes, and unique front and rear styling.

Fuel economy in AWD trim is rated at 19 city, 26 highway, and 21 combined. Our travels netted 23.7 mpg.

The suspension upgrades have the ancillary benefit of increasing trunk space. Lexus calls it capable of handling four golf bags.We call it cavernous.

Rear seat space is OK for two large adults, but riding in back is a reminder that this is a midsized, not large, sedan.

One afternoon Mrs. G was staring at the 12.3-inch display. At the time, I had it configured to show the navigation map on the left side and the audio display on the right. There are steering-wheel controls, but the displays are most easily adjusted via an upgraded RemoteTouch,a mouse-like device on the console that quickly becomes comfortable to use.

What had Mrs. G mesmerized?

“I can’t find the clock,” she said. “Most cars move the time around with different displays.”

Afraid to speak, I just pointed at the analog clock in the center of the dash, a retro touch with a modern design.

Fortunately, just about that time we were passed by another GS350, this one in black.

“Oh, it looks great in black,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many silver and gray cars that they’ve all started to look alike. This car looks great in darker colors.”

And so it did.

Lexus has retained its luxury-dependability trademarks while giving drivers the option for more spirited driving. I yam thinking that DNA is evolving.