A Stately Sedan With A Wild Streak

The Next Lexus. That's about all the TV ads say about the fifth model to emerge from Toyota's luxury-car division. What the ads don't say is that the new GS300 is a different kind of Lexus, a cross between the carmaker's sporty coupes and its stately sedans. It's aimed at older baby boomers who might prefer a high-performance coupe but who would rather not go through the contortions that are needed to install a baby seat in the tight rear quarters of a two-door car.

With its high tail end and bubblelike roofline, the GS300 doesn't look like a Lexus. Once inside, however, there's no mistaking its pedigree. The ergonomics, including the arrangement of controls, are perfect. Walnut inlays on the doors and center console, plus optional leather upholstery and trim ($1,300), endow the GS300 with the same rich, comfortable look and feel of the larger, more expensive LS400 sedan. Dual air bags and antilock brakes are standard, as are automatic seat-belt tensioners, which trigger in collisions to cinch the front belts tight.

TIGHT STEERING. Options include a moon roof ($900) and, for cold climates, heated front seats and a traction-control system ($1,600) to help prevent skids. For about $2,000 more, you can get a cellular phone in the center console that can respond to 20 voice commands, such as "call home." It snaps out to become a portable phone that fits in your pocket.

What's missing is the tomblike silence and isolation from road vibration of the other Lexus four-doors. This one is clearly sportier. Crank on the engine, a V-6 borrowed from the SC300 coupe, and you can actually hear it. Steering is tighter and more agile than in the earlier sedans. The four-speed automatic transmission supplies the same barely perceptible shifts that it does in the LS400. A bothersome difference: The high rear end and the wide pillars for the back window sharply reduce the visibility.

The GS300 is priced to fill a gap opened up by the dizzying sticker spiral of the LS400. The GS300 is tagged at $37,500--more than the LS400's price when it was introduced 3 1/2 years ago but $9,500 less than the current version. At a slight premium to the Acura Legend and the Infiniti J30 but well below the similarly sized, sportier Mercedes 300E and BMW 5 series, the GS300 returns Lexus to the middle of the luxury car market.

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