About once a year we take a trip from our home in Southern Washington state to visit Bill?s family in Helena, Mont. Over the years, we?ve discovered that flying is not as efficient as driving the 645 miles, once you consider the airport waits, so the last few years we?ve made the trip by car. Besides, with as much flying as we do annually, a nice long drive is a treat and it gives us time to listen to an audio book or two or three.
This spring, we decided to take a few extra days and a different route spending time visiting Yellowstone Park on the way.
Making plans, we checked what cars were available in the northwest press fleet for a longer than normal test drive (usually we stay at 500 miles or less). We wanted a car that would be comfortable, relatively fuel efficient and equipped with all-wheel drive. From previous experience we knew driving to Montana in the early spring could likely mean snow and bad roads.
It turned out Lexus had just the car available for the trip. The 2014 Lexus GS 350 AWD F-Sport had all the features we were looking for along with a nice serving of luxury features as an added bonus. It was also a car we hadn?t driven in a long time, so it was perfect for the road trip.
The GS 350 is one of the unsung heroes of the Lexus lineup, with more attention going to the flagship LS models and some of the smaller models, hybrids and SUVs. Nevertheless, it?s one of the nicest midlevel luxury sedans on the market competing favorably with cars like the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Infiniti Q70, Hyundai Genesis and Jaguar XF.
The fourth generation Lexus GS debuted in 2013 and the four-door received even more changes for 2014 including a new eight-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for the rear-wheel drive models along with improved throttle response and fuel economy for all the models. The all-wheel drive version still has a six-speed automatic also with shift paddles. Some of the other available features for 2014 include a full color Heads-Up display, Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert and power trunk opener.
The engine is a 306-horsepower 3.5-liter direct injection V-6, but it feels much more powerful than the horsepower and the 277-lb.ft. of torque numbers would suggest. The GS makes a 0 to 60 mph run in just 5.7 seconds according to buff magazine numbers. Unlike some luxury models, the GS accelerates with a nice throaty exhaust note that adds to the performance flavor.
Fuel economy was listed at 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. We averaged 21.3 mpg overall for the 1,700 miles we drove. A couple of segments we averaged just over 25 mpg on areas where speed limits were 60 or 65 mph instead of the 75 mph limits we enjoyed in much of Idaho and Montana.
An interesting new feature of the new-generation GS 350 is the Drive Mode selector which allows the driver to change basic vehicle set up for normal driving, economical or sporty driving. The F Sport, which we drove, takes the system to a fourth mode, Sport S+, which changes throttle mapping and transmission shift priorities like the others but add adjusting the Adaptive Variable Suspension, steering and Vehicle Dynamics Integration Management for more aggressive driving. It was nice to be able to switch to this mode on some the better ?twisties? we encountered and then back to a normal or ECO mode when we were just cruising.
Leaving our home near Portland, Ore., early Saturday morning we drove east on Washington State Route 14, which is also known as the Lewis and Clark Highway. Even though we often drive this route, we were in absolute awe at the beautiful bright green fields and forests punctuated with the massive rock outcroppings that accent the area where the Columbia River has cut through the Cascade Mountains. Spring is definitely prime time in Gorge.
Highway 14 is also an excellent route to sample a car?s handling prowess with all types of corners and elevation changes. It?s also an opportunity to test passing power around trucks and scenery gawkers. The GS passed with flying colors ? literally. A typical pass in would start at 50 mph and finish with Lexus pulling back into the lane at 90 to 100 mph. That makes passing much safer with less time spend in the wrong lane.
Our planned first day drive was to Boise, Idaho, about 420 miles. We made brief stops in several Oregon cities to look around and soak up some of the local color. One of the most famous is the cowboy town of Pendleton, Ore., home of one of the country?s top rodeos, the Pendleton Roundup.
Other stops included historical Baker City which has lots of interesting architecture and the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is just five miles out of town. Ontario is a thriving rural community noted for its wheat and onions, which grow well due to the arid climate. Ontario is near the Idaho border where the time zone changes to Mountain Time.
As we stopped to take photos of the Lexus in several of the cities, we notice people checking out the lines of the F-Sport trim. The 2014 GS 350 has a distinctive look with its sweeping, four-door coupe styling and short rear deck. The F Sport package adds an exclusive styled front bumper and mesh grille inserts. The rear end has distinctive exhaust outlets and with centered aero fins designed to control underbody airflow. There?s also a rear lip spoiler on the rear edge of the trunk lid. The black-tint 19-inch alloy wheels contribute to an even more aggressive look.
The $5,695 F Sport package adds a lot more than cosmetic upgrades. In addition to a comprehensive chassis makeover there is a special sport-tuned suspension with firmer springs, larger front brakes with high-friction brake pads, an Adaptive Variable Suspension damping system, thicker stabilizer bars, variable gear ratio steering system and specially tuned bushings. What surprised us was, despite the excellent handling, it still produced a very comfort and luxurious ride.
Inside, the F Sport package adds unique perforated leather upholstery, black headliner, aluminum pedals and a three-spoke F Sport steering wheel.
Our first night was spent in Boise, Idaho and that turned out to be our favorite city on our trip. The Idaho Capitol City was just waking up from winter and the signs of spring were everywhere as the trees had started to blossom and the surrounding foothills were turning green.
Boise is also the largest city in the state with the population of nearly 220,000, with more than 600,000 in the metropolitan area. The city has received top ratings for its quality of life has been popular with a growing number of technology companies and it?s a big outdoor recreation area. It?s also the home of football powerhouse Boise State.
See?2014 Lexus GS 350 AWD Road Trip – Part 2 for the rest of the trip.