Anyone who has spent any time perusing TTS can tell that we are generally partial to German cars – or at least European, as I do like the occasional Italian.. That said, we are also geeks for engineering and technology. I recall all too well when my father – Mister PhD in mechanical engineering – went from being a tried-and-true Mercedes guy (The Best or Nothing) to a Lexus guy. Price played a small part, as we were shopping a W126 300SE against an LS400 because the V8 Mercedes were substantially more expensive, but it was really about the quality of the machine. The Japanese took a great formula and made it their own, and the industry never looked the same again. I can still hear him saying “there is really no comparison.” At the time I was heartbroken, but as I’ve gotten older (and wiser?) I understand it – and him – a little better.
I recently found myself in need of a new daily driver. I’d been driving a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL that I bought sight-unseen in Wichita, KS and drove home to Northern Virginia, family in tow. I bonded with that car, and I like it a lot. Sadly, my daughter’s 1994 Mercedes E320 wagon recently died of old age, meaning she needed a car. Now, as much as I LOVE cars, I hate shopping for them when it is a necessity. When I don’t need one I am happy to poke around and I can find all sorts of things I’d like to drive. Heck – that’s basically the reason we started this site! In any case, we decided to give the 560SEL to my daughter (and she is quite pleased with the upgrade from the wagon!), so I needed a new daily driver.
It’s worth noting at this point that, as you might expect, with the demise of the ’94 wagon and having been fiddling with a 26 year-old 560SEL for a few months my tolerance for old, needy cars was not at its highest. Still, I made a short list of cars I’d like to own: BMW 3-series or 5-series, Mercedes E55 or even another ML just to have something different, I even briefly contemplated a Porsche 996, but 1) I have a perfectly good sports car in the garage, and 2) a good one was just a little more than I wanted to spend. So I obsessed over websites like CraigsList, Cars.com, AutoTrader, and eBay in search of the right car. I wanted something at more-or-less local because I just didn’t feel like playing “I wonder what the seller lied about” this time around. And there was basically nothing decent to be had.
We looked at a lot of crappy cars. There was a Mercedes CLS500 from a dealer we’d bought two other very good cars from, but apparently his definition of “really clean” and mine are not quite the same. It did drive really nicely despite its cosmetic, um, *issues*, but my wife hated it. Admittedly, I’ve spent time in the back seat of a CLS and found it a bit claustrophobic, so scratch that. The other real contender was an E90 325i Coupe. Again, really liked the way it drove, and tried very hard to convince myself it was “good enough.” This is what happens when I get worn down from this process. My wife even told me later that had I pushed for it she was going to just go along with it so the pain of car shopping would end.
After looking at the BMW, I wanted to stop at the Lexus dealer. It was on the way home, and I’d seen what looked like a pretty clean 3rd generation GS430. I’ve always kind-of like the GS because – at least the first three generations – they don’t look like everything else on the road. In fact, I look at them as being very Japanese. They are built to the same quality standards as other Lexus (Lexuses? Lexi? Lexum?), but with a character all their own. My mother has the same basic engine (the 3UZ-FE) in two other vehicles – her LS430 and my dad’s old Tundra pickup, and has never has the slightest of reliability issues. So I thought it couldn’t hurt to look.
My first impression was that this car – a 2006 model with an early 2005 build date – had about 1/4 of the indicated 85,000 miles. The CarFax, however, detailed services at this dealership every 5,000 miles, so it had clearly been babied and it showed. Additionally, it had just been through the shop for a full service and new tires. My interest was growing. It fired right up, and actually made more engine noise than I’d expected. In 2005 this was probably a very quiet car, but in the modern day of silent electric cars and BMW (and the like) that have to pipe recorded engine noises into the cabin it made a decent rumble, especially under hard throttle.
The electrically-adjustable suspension coupled with 18″ low profile tires makes for a rough ride over imperfect surfaces, but there is a solidity and confidence that I’m not sure I would’ve had from a similar vintage Mercedes. It accelerated briskly – contemporary road tests put it at about 5.6 seconds 0-60mph – and hit super-legal speeds in no time at all thanks to its 300 hp and 318 lb-ft of torque. I was initially put-off by the traction control that cannot be fully defeated and engages automatically over 35mph. However, I quickly realized that on the back roads, at least with the brand new Michelin Pilot Sport A/S plus tires, I could drive this car at or near its limits pretty much nonstop. I’d hate it on the track, but let’s face it: that’s not what you buy a car like this for.
Controls are all very logical and legible, save for this handy-dandy little drop-down panel above the driver’s left knee. Actually, it makes perfect sense, as it houses lesser-used functions, but it takes some getting used to – and you can’t just leave it open because you WILL hit your knee on it. And it will hurt. Ask me how I know. This is most definitely one of those very Japanese touches that give this car it’s unique character, and I like it.
Other neat touches include the ability to engage sport or comfort suspension and sport, normal, or snow shift modes from switches on the center console. It has a dated navigation system, but I was able to get a current map off eBay for $9.95, so it is perfectly functional. It does have handsfree Bluetooth for mobile phones, but the system is a little flaky. I would like to install an iPhone/iPod connection that hooks-up to the SAT button on the factory stereo, but haven’t done my homework on that just yet. Most importantly, it has seat heaters and coolers, so – as an old friend would say – my posterior will be coddled as it should. And how can you argue with that? All I can say for now is vive la différence!