Everyone wants a seat at the Cool Kids’ Table that is the high-performance luxury sedan segment and now Lexus is taking a stab at the big, fast sedan game with the 2016 Lexus GS F. Will they get a seat or will they be forced to spend lunch eating with the choir teacher?
Despite attempts from newcomers from Cadillac and Jaguar, that category remains dominated—at least in sales—by German competitors from Audi, BMW and Mercedes. With Lexus arriving relatively late to this party does the GS F really have the chops to challenge the rest of the field that have had a healthy head start?
The answer is a resounding... maybe.
(Full disclosure: Lexus needed me to test the new GS F so badly that they flew me to Madrid and stuffed me full of every pork product imaginable for two days straight. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. I haven’t been able to poop right since.)
Lexus first attempted this in 2008 with the debut of the IS F. While that car was eagerly anticipated, it fell somewhat short of expectations. The excellent 5.0-liter V8 was let down by a mediocre suspension that was a bit on the rough side and electric steering that felt as if you’ve just left the dentists with a head full of Novocaine. That being said, it wasn’t a half bad first effort.
Next up came the spiritual successor for the IS F, the RC F. (Having trouble keeping all the letters straight yet?) Sitting on an all “new” chassis (it was actually three different model chassis bolted together), this two-door coupe shared its predecessor’s 5.0 liter motor, but not much else. Currently, Lexus has no small sedan to do battle against the BMW M3 and its like.
Skip forward to this past weekend where Lexus brought a few of us journalist types out to the historic former F1 track, Circuito del Jarama, 30km north of the Spanish capital, Madrid, to sample their new offering, the GS F.
Although the GS F is in the top tier of Lexus’s F performance group (currently a group of three), its $84,440 base price and 467 horsepower engine make it a closer match to its competitors’ mid-level sporty options rather than the big dogs.
The Audi S6, BMW 550 M Sport and the Caddy CTS VSport all come in at around the same price-to-performance ratio as the GS F (except the Caddy which undercuts everyone by almost $25,000.) As the Lexus has only 2 options (the Mark Levinson sound system and Orange painted brake calipers) GS F buyers should be able to get out of the dealer without breaking the bank with endless upgrade options like with some manufacturers (I’m looking at you Porsche.)
Now you know where the bar is set. Time to sample the goods.
The first thing that struck me as I wandered out of our hotel early morning smack dab into the middle of the dozen or so assembled GS F’s was the design. Love it or hate it (and I love it), the styling of the GS F is not subtle. In fact it’s more like the third cousin twice removed of subtle.
And in what has to be the greatest act of doubling down in automotive history, Lexus will offer this less-than-subtle car in a color called Molten Pearl, which is the equivalent of the original McLaren Orange if it were radioactive. And on fire. And on the sun.
At last, the masses have the screaming bright orange big V8 performance sedan from Lexus they’ve demanded for years!
Of course, it’s this car that I chose to drive around the sleepy villages that ring Madrid as subtle and I don’t get along very well.
Sliding into the driver’s seat furthered my suspicion that subtlety was not high on the design manifesto for this car. The two tone cream-and-black seats are an assault on the eyes, but once you get past that the GS F’s cabin is on par with my current benchmark in the luxury performance sedan category: the RS6. In some areas, it even bests it.
The dash is a nice mixture of analog and digital gauges that work well in concert with each other. The large digital tach is a font of contextual information and is very easy to read at a glance and navigate through. This is very appreciated at speed on unknown roads.
Additionally, the large central navigation screen is integrated very well with the dash and definitely shows up all of its German competition with its readability and ease of use.
For me, the true measure of a car’s electronic gadgetry is if I can get in the car and drive off and operate all the major functions without resorting to reading the instructions. Or swearing. Or both. The big Lexus held up.
The rest of the cabin is a really pleasing mix of Alcantara and Carbon trim with the pedals, switches and knobs all well placed. The only black mark on an otherwise stellar interior is a steering wheel that, even when covered in perforated leather, looks more at home on a 4 Runner than a luxury sedan.
So after continually slowing down to let what felt like every school kid in central Spain take pictures of the car, I eventually made my way into the hills just outside Madrid for some “spirited” driving. Clear of the quiet towns I could let the 5.0-liter engine run all the way to its indicated 7,100 RPM redline and soak in the sound of what looks to be one of the last normally aspirated big block performance sedans on the market.
My head knows that the move to turbocharged engines is inevitable. The performance, fuel economy and environmental advantages are just too great to ignore. But that being said, there is nothing that makes me all tingly in all the right spots as the sound of a good, well tuned NA motor at wide open throttle. And this is one of those motors.
Assisting in this ear-gasm is the Lexus’s Active Sound Control which augments the engine sounds through the front and rear speakers. Several manufacturers are now doing similar things in their performance cars with varying degrees of authenticity and success.
This is my first time driving a car with such a system and I admit, while I was very skeptical when I first read about it, in practice it actually works quite well and does a great job in augmenting the good bits of the engine note while canceling out the bad ones. Additionally, the sounds from outside the car are just as good so its not like your tooling along thinking your cars sounds like a badass hooligan when in reality you sound like something your great aunt drives to her weekly Canasta gathering.
The engine sound was so good I all but ignored the super premium Mark Levinson audio system in the car until I was on my way back into town. Which was a shame as when I finally did fire it up, it was one of the best sounding car audio systems I’ve heard. Mark Levinson uses what they call Clari-Fi Music Restoration Technology which apparently analyzes digital audio files during playback and“rebuilds”what was lost in compression. Despite the cheesy sounding name it works awesomely. (Full disclosure: My sister is an exec at Mark Levinson’s parent company, but I promise I’m telling the truth here about the sound quality. I’m willing to risk an awkward Christmas dinner over an honest review.)
Initially, I was concerned because the GS F doesn’t come with an active suspension, and the Spanish roads aren’t exactly the smoothest ones in the world. The thought of spending hours in a stiffly sprung performance car bouncing off every ripple in the road was not appealing. Active suspension would also be a big help in managing car with a claimed 4000+ Lb curb weight.
However, I needn’t have worried, as the Lexus engineers got the suspension tuning just right with a blend of stiffness and compliance that made the car easy to drive quickly but doesn’t punish you on the roads in between the twisty bits. It works well, but if it were my money I’d still want at least the option of active suspension, weight penalty be dammed.
As much as I was enjoying my romp through the Spanish hills I eventually had to make my way back as Lexus had set up some track time for us at the Jarama Circuit. I don’t miss free laps and driving a car at its limits on the track reveals so much that you can’t get out on public roads.
One of the main features of the GS F I was looking forward to experiencing is Lexus’s new Torque Vectoring Differential (TVD). The very simple explanation of TVD is that it is basically an open diff with electronically operated clutch packs on each output shaft with an overdrive gear that allows each wheel to be turned faster than its counterpart.
Many cars on the market today come with their own version of TVD that use the brakes to slow one wheel allowing the other to spin faster and increase (or decrease) steering response. But using the brakes to go faster is as oxymoronic as it gets, and most of those systems fall short pretty quickly once you start driving them hard.
The Lexus system, however, is not reductive and instead increases the speed of the desired wheel to aid in cornering. There are two drawbacks with this type of system: weight and cost. Is it worth the trade off? I say absolutely. Adjusting differential settings is one of the most powerful tools a racecar engineer has to work with to get the maximum performance out of a car and Lexus makes the most of their system.
The Lexus TVD is an active differential in that it responds to the various inputs from the driver, and makes the determination of how best to apply power based on those inputs. It works remarkably well on track, allowing the driver to turn in quicker and get to throttle more aggressively while still maintaining good balance and traction.
There are three individual modes that can be selected to tune the dynamics of the car. Normal which is, um… normal. Then there’s slalom, which gives the driver increased turn in response, and Track, which emphasizes maximum grip for maximum performance on—you guessed it!—the track. The differences between the three are quite distinct.
Normal and Slalom settings are interesting but not very useful on track at Jarama. The Normal setting tends towards understeer (which is exactly what you want on the street) and Slalom aims more for reprobate levels of oversteer (fun but not much use for going quickly). Fortunately for the person who named it, Track turned out to be a perfect match for the car on track.
Keeping the handling party going, the GS F’s beefed-up suspension over the base GS worked well over Jarama’s tarmac which clearly hadn’t been resurfaced since the last F1 race in the 1980s. Lexus has additionally upgraded the suspension geometry and tuned the shock absorbers, spring rates and suspension bushings over the base GS. Additionally, they’ve used aluminum control arms to keep the unsprung weight down, which helps suspension response.
Lapping the twisty Jarama Circuit also gave me a chance to exercise the big Lexus’s eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission, the only option on the table here. (Sorry, manual fans.)
The gearbox comes with a torque converter lockout clutch that directly connects the engine to the transmission aiding performance. The engineers at Lexus equipped the GS F with a low 1st and 2nd gear for quick launches and acceleration (0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds and 12.8 seconds for the ¼ mile). Then gears 3-8 are relatively closely spaced, which matched well with the power curve in the NA engine.
The rest of the GS F was well suited to track duty as well. The superb Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (255/35ZR19 front – 275/35ZR19 rear) that seem to be fitted to every performance car on the planet these days did their normal exemplary job in keeping everything going in the direction I intended.
The same goes for the ubiquitous but massively effective Brembo brake system (15 inch front - 13.6 inch rear), although the mandated ride-a-long
baby sitter instructor didn’t seem to have the faith in them that I did (or maybe it was me he didn’t have the faith in!) because he insistently told me to brake 100 meters earlier than required for Turn 1. Every. Frickin’. Lap. Apparently, professional drivers at manufacturer launches are a new thing.
You tell me how I did out there:
Overall the GS F acquitted itself well on track, considering its primary purpose is as a luxury people hauler. Performance sedans will never be my go-to preference for the track but it is quite impressive what this current crop of cars can achieve when pushed.
Alright, now we need to talk about who’s going to buy the damn thing. BMW buyers? Mercedes buyers? None of them, I think.
All of the assembled journalists in Spain could declare that the GS F is the best performance sedan ever and I could say that it lapped Jarama 5 seconds quicker than a McLaren P1 and sales might skyrocket by a whopping 3 cars.
Buyers in this segment have massive brand loyalty, and I think Lexus knows that they are not going to convert huge numbers of these owners right away. The fact that they only plan to sell 2,000 a year of these in the U.S. is confirmation of that.
Lexus seems to be playing the long game here, and steadily building their reputation in the performance segment is part of that long view. The GS F doesn’t break any new ground but it does move the brand a very solid step closer towards their competition.
If I were Audi, BMW, and Mercedes I’d be keeping a close eye on my mirrors, as objects may be closer than they appear.
Robb Holland races in the British Touring Car Championship for Rotek Racing. He’s a Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year. You can play as him in Forza 6, which is more than you can say for the other jokers who write for this website.
Photos credit the author, Lexus