First drive: 2016 Lexus GS F [Review]

First drive: 2016 Lexus GS F [Review]

When Lexus finally announced late last year that the GS F was going into production, the general consensus among the majority of car enthusiasts was something along the lines of, “It’s about time.” Rumors of a performance variant of the Lexus GS sedan had been circulating ever since the smaller IS got its big V8. It was a great formula; why not take it to the next level?

So when Lexus invited us to test out its long-awaited new F sedan in the Palm Desert, offering us the chance to put it through its paces on the road and on the track, we couldn’t turn them down. Read on to see how it fared.

F-olution

The Lexus “F” brand made its debut in 2007 with the introduction of the IS F and LFA concepts alongside the F-Sport line of performance accessories. The IS F was the first genuine attempt by Lexus to hang with the M3s, C63 AMGs and CTS-Vs of the world. On paper, its credentials seemed solid. In the era of V8 sport sedans, its 416-horsepower, five-liter V8 hit the sweet spot.

On the road (or track, for that matter), it stumbled out of the gate. The initial suspension setup and lack of a limited-slip differential relegated the automatic-only IS F to second-tier status in the sport sedan segment. Even when these issues were rectified in later model years (a revised suspension and Torsen limited-slip rear differential were eventually included), the skunkworks effort never quite cracked the segment open the way Lexus hoped. It didn’t help that it was introduced late in the IS product cycle, when the platform was already a bit long in the tooth.

When Lexus overhauled the IS lineup, the F model was dropped. Some saw this as a sign that Lexus was abandoning its push for a genuine performance brand, choosing instead to simply cash in on its very profitable F-Sport lineup. But with the announcement of its new coupe model, the RC, Lexus did right by the F-brand faithful, announcing that the 5.0L V8 would return for 2015.

Rumors of a larger F model had circulated for years. As the economy recovered, Lexus remained publicly open to the idea of such a model, teasing its development from time to time but taking quite a while to fully commit. It wasn’t until the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit that it became official: The GS F was on its way.

Better late

A ~400hp, naturally aspirated V8 made a compelling case for itself as a high-output engine in a mid-size luxury car five or six years ago, but it’s pretty clear that the segment has since moved on. A quick glance at the competition will cement that notion. Cadillac CTS-V: 640hp. BMW M5: 560hp (more, if you get the comp package). Mercedes-AMG E63 S: 577 horsepower. Audi RS6/7: 560hp. This is a segment utterly dominated by forced induction.

The package

To be fair, the 5.0L Lexus V8 has evolved too. It now makes 467 horsepower and 389 lb-ft of torque. And the GS F is not the bank-vault-on-wheels that many competitors tend to be, weighing in at a svelte 4,034lbs. Lightweight or not, though, the power deficit is difficult to ignore.

The rest of the package is promising, however. The GS F comes standard with a mechanical torque-vectoring differential. While it is electronically controlled, it’s not a brake-based system. The same diff is offered as an upgrade to the standard Torsen rear end on RC F models, if that’s any clue to its capability.

The same eight-speed automatic transmission that debuted in the IS F is found here too. It’s a traditional torque-converter automatic at heart, but employs very aggressive lock-up tuning to make it feel (and perform) a lot like a sequential manual unit, in some cases even delivering quicker shifts than some of the dual-clutch transmissions on the market.

The chassis is fairly conventional for the midsize luxury segment. Up front is a double-wishbone suspension; out back you’ll find a multi-link setup. The GS F employs Brembo brakes all around, with six-piston calipers up front and four-piston units in the rear.

On the track

Lexus invited us to the Palm Desert for the express purpose of putting the GS F through its paces. Our handlers also scrounged up a couple of RC Fs so that we could compare them back-to-back and get a feel for the progression of the Lexus F line.

Chuckwalla Valley Raceway is a relatively flat and low-speed course just north of I-10. The nearest landmark is “Desert Center,” which, so far as we could tell, is not so much a town as it is a navigational aid.

Lacking elevation change to work with, the course designers opted to keep things tight and technical so as to prevent weekend warriors from developing acute highway hypnosis. In the configuration we utilized, it’s 17 turns and 2.68 miles, with the longest straight measuring just a hair over a quarter mile.

A tight course with a lot of turns is hard on a car’s braking system, so it should come as no surprise that we were paying a great deal of attention to the GS F’s Brembos. We’re pleased to say that they delivered consistent lap-after-lap stopping power, giving us the confidence to push the rest of the car as the session went on.

The GS F remained graceful and composed. The suspension was clearly engineered to strike a balance between performance and comfort. The result is a car that responds fairly crisply to inputs, but incorporates enough suspension travel to remain incredibly predictable. Translation? Yes, there’s body roll, but not too much of it, and what is there makes the GS F very communicative and forgiving.

After a few stints in the GS F, we switched over to the RC F so that we could get a feel for what the two cars do differently. Not only did this provide a nice comparison opportunity, but more importantly, it gave us a context for the performance and handling characteristics of the new GS F. Rather than simply testing it in a vacuum, we had a reference point.

Both the GS F and RC F were equipped with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, so the amount of grip on offer by the two was very similar. The RC F, being smaller and more firmly sprung, was twitchier near the limit, offering less warning before ultimately breaking traction. It also had a much firmer, less communicative brake pedal. It would still haul down from speed just as effectively as the GS F, but lacked the latter’s linear, confidence-inspiring feel.

Ultimately, the GS F felt a little less focused than the RC F, but in a way that may be a plus. The RC F’s compromises may afford it slightly better overall performance, but depending on the buyer, that may not necessarily be a good thing.

Despite its excellent showing, we felt the GS F would be far more at home on a faster course. At the end of the session, we concluded that the RC F would be the better tool for setting the quickest lap time, but the GS F would encourage us to push our own personal limits more freely, affording a safer and potentially more productive learning experience.

On the road

With our track session in the bag, Lexus sent us on our way in the same cars to get a feel for their on-road performance. We were fortunate enough to score a GS F for the 70-mile haul back to the hotel. Here, the larger sedan’s comfort and convenience features made us feel entirely justified in our choice of road car.

We found the compliance that made the GS F so predictable and forgiving on the track also made it a comfortable and confidence-inspiring cruiser. In addition, even with all of the sport accouterments dialed back to their “normal” driving settings, the engine and transmission were still plenty responsive enough to deliver quick, authoritative highway passes or inner city maneuvers.

Our quibbles were few and minor. For one, the sound enhancement system is silly. This is a frequent complaint when it comes to cars with artificial engine/exhaust sound systems, so we won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say that the GS F employs the audio system to correct/amplify both engine and exhaust noise, and it seems a strange and entirely arbitrary thing to incorporate.

And despite the GS F’s robust performance credentials and its admirable showing at Chuckwalla, it’s really more at home on the street than on the track. It’s a few rungs above Audi‘s S-cars in terms of track-ready performance, but in a couple of key ways they have a lot in common. They exist in that compromise zone between the big-engine luxury cruisers and the all-out performance machines.

Leftlane’s bottom line

The 2016 Lexus GS F lacks the outright speed and harder edge of some of the segment’s hotter offerings, but makes up for its shortcomings with nimble handling and approachable limits. Whether the two back seats and more forgiving ride are worth a $20,000 premium over the RC F coupe is entirely up to the buyer.

2016 Lexus GS F, base price: $84,440.