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Every so often, a car comes along that revolutionizes the concept of luxury: the tailfinned, '59 Cadillac Eldorado, the sporty BMW 3-Series and the lavish Mercedes-Benz S-Class, to name just a few.

Fifteen years ago, a new player entered the luxury market, and Lexus didn't play by the traditional rules. Its original LS400 was unexpectedly affordable, surprisingly well equipped and uncannily quiet. It may have been, as critics contended, plain vanilla, but the sedan made a quick connection with increasingly affluent Baby Boomers raised on Japanese imports.

These days, Lexus is the U.S. market's luxury segment leader, something of a surprise, actually, when you consider that the automaker has had a dearth of new products in recent years. It hasn't introduced a new passenger car since 2001, nor a light truck since 2003. In today's hotly competitive market, that's a potentially serious disadvantage, but one that Toyota 's highline marque is determined to address.

The coming months will see a flood of new vehicles, including the world's first luxury hybrid, a version of the brand's popular crossover/ute dubbed the RX400h. An updated IS sedan is in final development, Lexus intent on tackling the segment long dominated by the BMW 3-Series.

Such a goal once might have seemed pure hubris. The typical Lexus was solid, reliable, and luxurious, but surprisingly soulless - by no means "the ultimate driving machine." Yet one thing the Japanese automaker has proven repeatedly is that it shouldn't be taken for granted, something another new entry from Lexus underscores.

When there's a foot of snow on the ground in Detroit , it's hard to refuse a chance to go wandering around the Palm Springs desert in a pre-production version of the 2006 Lexus GS430. Never mind that heavy rains washed out some of the main desert roadways, while snow and sleet were falling in the mountain passes nearby. But the skies cleared on the morning of our drive, a bright Winter sun quickly chasing off the morning chill. It wasn't difficult to warm up to the look of the new GS, either.


First of a new design direction

Until recently, Lexus was a sort of corporate afterthought, the brand selling vehicles actually developed for other Toyota brands in the Japanese market. Recently, however, Lexus debuted in the home market, prompting Toyota to finally give it a separate styling studio. GS is the first production application of the "L-Finesse" design theme, which is meant to "set the standard for all Lexus sedans to follow," explained chief engineer Shigetoshi Miyoshi.

The GS has a simple, uncluttered look, emphasizing understated luxury. In practical terms, the new car has longer front overhangs than the old GS, with a rounder and more sculpted shape. It features a high beltline, with a long, swooping roofline that sweeps into a high rear deck.

It's a handsome vehicle, though it is likely to feel a little more familiar than Lexus intended. The nose is vaguely reminiscent of the old SC-series coupe, while the fast tail is in line with the latest M series from Infiniti.

The new body is an inch longer and wider than the old GS, the wheelbase stretched a full two inches.

The visual sense of sportiness is entirely intentional, as the GS benchmark was the BMW 5-Series. That's a bit of a shift for Lexus, which traditionally seemed more intent on mimicking Mercedes-Benz.

On paper, the GS430 certainly seems to deliver. Thump the throttle, and you'll watch the speedo needle sweep past 60 in an impressive 5.7 seconds. Top speed is a solid 149 mph.

Specs can be misleading, of course, but not in this case, as we pleasantly discovered during a day's driving up and into the San Gabriel Mountains. The new GS is not only fast, but uncannily responsive. Steering is precise and quick, a subtle yet effective speed-sensitive system constantly adjusting the steering ratio.

The narrow and windy mountain passes constantly toss new challenges at you, and it's easy to get in over your head. Yet the GS seemed to almost anticipate the road's contour, correcting driver errors so quickly as to be almost imperceptible. It's the sort of a car that can make even an average driver feel ready for track time.


Alphabet soup works wonders

Give credit, Lexus officials explained, to the new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System. VDIM takes its cues from a whole range of sensors designed to measure such things as steering angle, yaw rate, brake pressure, and acceleration. The data are used to control a whole alphabet soup of traction systems, including Anti-lock brakes (ABS), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TCS), Brake Assist (BA), and Electronic Throttle Control with intelligence (ETC-I).

Add an electronically variable suspension system, with both throttle and brakes operating by-wire. The new GS is even able to detect and adjust automatically to side winds.

Indeed, it took more than an hour to get briefed on all the electronic and electromechanical systems mounted on the new GS430. But what really matters is that they work. And well, with surprisingly little sense of intrusion. Most of the time, you won't even realize when the car digs itself out of trouble.

If things get a little too far out of hand, the GS is also loaded with a variety of safety features, including the Pre-Collision System (PCS). Similar to the Pre-Safe technology found in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it takes steps to prepare passengers for a crash, including cinching in their seatbelts. But Lexus goes a major step further.

PCS is connected to the same forward-looking radar system used for its Active Cruise Control, which allows you to set a desired speed, but adjust automatically if slower traffic gets in front. If Pre-Collision determines an accident likely, it switches the electronic suspension to its stiffest, Sport mode, turns on brake assist and, if the driver is slow to react, even begins applying brakes.

Those brakes, incidentally, are huge and can bring the sedan to a stop quick enough to give you a nosebleed. But it does take awhile to get used to their grabbiness in routine driving conditions.


Safety blankets, too

There are plenty of other safety features, including dual-stage front airbags, front knee bags, front, seat-mounted side airbags, head curtains for all rows, and seatbelt pre-tensioners for all outboard seats.

Lexus has even automated the parking process. There's a rearview camera, its image displayed on the large navigation screen, and the Intuitive Parking Assist system shows both the angle of your front wheels, while suggesting the best angle to make your turn.

The nav screen dominates what, as you might expect, is a very high-tech interior. There are the requisite 10-way heated and cooled power seats, with their numerous memory settings, the dual-zone climate control, even a DVD video system for watching movies - as long as the car is parked, of course.

The top-line, optional "infotainment" system is arguably the best on the road, featuring the latest custom-designed hardware from Mark Levinson. The base system is a 6-CD-in-dash, 10-speaker, 130-watt affair. The premium package boasts an 11-channel amp, with a total of 330 watts driving 14 separate speakers. It's able to handle CDs, DVDs, and a variety of newer media, including ultra-high-fidelity DVD-Audio disks. You may find yourself going out to your car to listen to your favorite tunes.

The nav system, audio, and climate control systems anchor what can best be described as a "panoramic" dashboard. It enhances the spaciousness of the cabin, though it's not quite as sporty as the more cockpit-like BMW 5-er. Even the instrument cluster is high-tech. The three, deeply-set gauge pods feature variable transparency lenses that operate sort of like those self-darkening sunglasses, but designed primarily to reduce glare in harsh light.

Technology aside, those gauge pods weren't quite as sophisticated looking as we'd have expected, and while the overall interior is incredibly well-apportioned, we were surprised by some small, disappointing details using the sort of cheap black plastic normally found in entry-level automobiles.

Our single biggest disappointment emerged during our drive through the mountains. The seats are incredibly plush yet supportive during normal driving, but when you're weaving and bobbing through the tight-and-twisties, you'll find yourself tossed around a bit too much. There's a desperate need for more lateral support of the upper torso.

That said, the biggest challenge with the new GS430 is simply finding something to criticize. The 300-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-8 is everything you expect, and the new 6-speed automatic is responsive enough to mute our request for a Lexus stick shift.

For those who don't need quite that much power, there's also an all-new, 245-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 in the GS300. It's still quick, turning 0-60 times of 6.8 seconds. Better yet, the six can be paired with an optional all-wheel-drive package, priced at a reasonable $1950, a figure that includes standard Run-Flat tires.

The GS430 sedan is fast, fun and as lavish as anything we would have hoped for. There are plenty of advanced electronic systems onboard, but unlike so many Japanese high-tech cars of the past, the technology remains largely out of sight until it's needed, and then comes into play quite unobtrusively.

Lexus planners are hoping to more than triple the modest sales numbers of the old GS series. If our experience in Palm Springs is any indication, they're likely to make that target. Though the new GS430 won't transform the luxury segment like the original LS sedan, this is a car that should help redefine the staid image of Lexus.

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