Words: Francois Steyn | Photos: Francois Steyn and Toyota SA
Lexus GS 350 EX
In the E-segment (large luxury sedans), the Lexus rarely features as a contender in comparisons dominated by boring Germans. To me, Beemer’s Five looks so close to the Three (especially in white) that I don’t see the point in spending an extra few hundred Gees. Audi sedans need to have R or RS in the name to have any sort of personality and the phrases ‘E-class’ and ‘head turner’ bring up grammatical errors on my MS Word. So, would Lexus’ GS be any different? Being the premium brand for a manufacturer famous for dependability and conservatism does not initially conjure up any kind of enthusiasm.
The GS is a big car, but look past the Car of the Year Finalist sponsor stickers on the test unit I drove and you’ll notice the coupé style, elongated teardrop greenhouse from the side and sharp looking High Intensity Discharge (HID) auto-levelling eyes on either side of the trapezoid grill up front. The 18-inch alloys and dual exhausts integrated into the rear diffuser hint at the sporty side of a car that seems all business initially.
Looks and interior
The elegant interior treats you to lots of leather and a soft-touch facia. I liked the minimalistic centre console with a classy timepiece sitting atop a DVD slot that has only one knob on either side, and the easy-to-use dual climate control below. Everything else is controlled by the flat floating ‘joystick’ to the left of the gear lever. Modulating the movements of the cursor on the world’s largest (at 12.3”) electro multi-vision (EMV) screen that’s housed in the dash takes some getting used to as it’s rather like a laptop mouse that is set too sensitive or too slow. To steady your hand, a leather-clad armrest is positioned so that you only need to move a finger to operate the satellite navigation, on-board computer and vehicle settings.
Safety and performance
Like the competition, safety is a given with all the acronyms present: ABS, EBD, BAS, VSC (Vehicle Stability Control) and TRC (Traction Control). Airbags are aplenty, with side airbags in the front and rear, as well as knee airbags in the front to complement the usual front and curtain balloons. Just to the rear of the 6-speed automatic gearbox’s lever is a knob for the drive mode. Eco mode changes Normal into a fuel saver, claiming 9.4 l/100 km. I managed a tad better driving sedately, but turn the dial to Sport for a quicker throttle response and see the revs rise with ease. In Automatic mode, the gearbox is super smooth, but you have the option of paddling through the ratios via the shifters behind the steering wheel. What surprised me most was the lovely sound of the engine. Though the cabin is very well soundproofed, the exhaust note somehow gets in and has you stepping on the accelerator more than is needed, just for fun. With 233 kW available at a racy 6,400 r/min and torque of 378Nm, this large family saloon will reach a 100 from standstill in 6.3 seconds. That’s maybe not breathtaking, but it is rear-wheel drive and much more playful than the appearance suggests.
Not only is the GS 350 EX a contender for the Wesbank South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Car of the Year competition but this premium brand once again topped the US JD Power ranking for build quality. And when you consider that the German equivalents cost between R679000 (for the standard BMW 535i) and R726 000 (for the Merc E350 Blue Efficiency), R584 900 sounds cheap too. That said, if price is not an issue you’d be silly to forget about Jag’s XF.
Big Brands, Small Cars
Toyota Etios 1.5 and Toyota Yaris 1.3
Before the era where cheap Chinas replaced the faithful (and also cheap) old Tazzs, Citis and Champs, Toyota introduced the Yaris in South Africa. Then the Tazz disappeared and suddenly the ‘cheapest Toyota’ did not really fit the description that well anymore. Last year, however, Toyota launched the oddly named (and weird to pronounce) Etios. Though its roots are in India, this entry-level runabout is still sold with a big Japanese name and once again you can buy a brand new Toyota that will swallow the whole family (only just) for just over a hundred grand. That is almost what the top of the range outgoing Citi Golf cost a few years back.
Looks and interior
The Etios does not get too many compliments in this area, but it grew on me after a while. Its shape is fairly generic and will thus not age too quickly. However, the interior feels and looks cheap and the centre-mounted speedometer reminds me of those back-to-school newspaper adverts with large numbers on a white background. The air con vents also look like they were just put wherever a place could be found. On the other hand, the new (launched a little over a year ago in SA) shape Yaris looks good from all angles and a soft-padded dash and sporty analogue instrument directly in the driver’s view lends a quality feel to the interior. The new front seats in the Yaris offer better comfort thanks to higher side cushions, but thinner seatbacks have increased the rear legroom by around 30 cm. This feels much more upmarket than the Etios.
Although price ranks fairly highly in this class, safety these days is more important than ever. In the Etios, ABS with EBD is standard on all models, as are SRS (Supplemental Restraint System) airbags for the driver and front passenger. The first generation Yaris was famous for achieving 5-star status in the Euro NCAP safety tests and this model is no different. It is also rated 5-star against the new (higher) standards of these tests.
The 1.5-litre, 16-valve petrol engine in the Etios has been developed from scratch and adapted to meet the specific needs of the South African market. It develops a healthy 66 kW, will do 0-100 in just over 11 seconds and top speed is a claimed 165 km/h. Though this might not sound quick, it is rather nippy and I had fun driving it. Matched to a five-speed manual gearbox, fuel economy is quoted at 6 l/100 km. The steering is not as direct as that of the Yaris and it does feel a bit looser on the road, but as an everyday car the Etios is more than comfortable enough.
I drove the 1.3 petrol Yaris with Dual VVT-i. This new engine is lighter and more compact than the old one, and also delivers 16% more power. With 73kW available at 6,000 r/min, you’ll reach 100 from standstill in 11.7seconds. That’s a tad slower than the Etios, but then again the Yaris does weigh a bit more. The Yaris is much more planted than the Etios, the steering better weighted and gear shift much smoother.
All new Etios models come with a two year / 30,000 km service plan, whereas the Yaris is double at four year / 60,000km. The Yaris’s prices range from R124 000 (1.0 Xi 3-dr) to R203 700
(1.3 XR 3-dr) and the Etios from R115 800 (1.5 HB Xi) to R126600 (1.5 SD Xs).