Lexus lobs into the large super sedan segment with its V8-powered, rear-driven GS F, without a logical rival in sight. But does it deliver on the promise of blending luxury, high performance and driver engagement?
At $148,800 plus on-roads, Japan’s latest large-bodied super sedan, the 2016 Lexus GS F, land price wise in the barren middle ground between the sub-$100K Aussie buck-bangers from Ford and HSV and pricier, big V8 rear-drivers from Germany that ask for a $185K entry point with BMW’s M5 Pure Edition.
Lexus Australia claims that its latest high-performance figurehead has no logical rival and, true, it's tough digging up a parity package of luxury, size and go-fast aspiration – M3s and C63s are smaller mid-sizers, and Audi’s S6 lacks the GS F’s high-performance genes and vibe, and Jaguar’s stable is bereft of a suitable feline substitute until the XF R arrives.
It’s a party of one for Lexus, then, and this situation could well be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is, of course, owning a niche all to yourself. The curse, though, is that the GS F is circled by quasi-rivals that all, in different ways, offer benchmark measures of luxury, performance, driver enjoyment and value. The risk the GS F runs, then, is that it’s adequate in many areas without really excelling in any.
The underlying impression of the GS F at its Australian launch – a mix of urban, twisty Adelaide Hill back roads and hot laps around South Australia’s Mallala race circuit – is that Lexus got it mostly right across the board. As a luxurious, commodious and exciting model amply able across various driving disciplines, it’s a jack of many trades without really demonstrating mastery anywhere.
Its showy appearance fits the brief, though its not terribly handsome nor resolved in the flesh – it just gets away with integrating Lexus’s confrontational nose job with its dignity in place. None of its choice of eight body colours – including the strange, Lava Mica orange hero hue – particularly flatter the sport sedan’s aesthetics. Smatterings of carbon-fibre and those quad exhaust tips tick requisite boxes, though there is an odd combination of ‘F’ branding that sees the monstrous brake calipers painted orange, the badges, engine and interior stitching in signature ‘F’ blue, and wing mirror caps in grey…regardless of which body colour you opt for. Yes, it trying hard and, to my eyes at least, barely gets away with it.
Not that it lacks muscular vibe. That 351kW 5.0-litre V8 is utter petrolhead ear candy and, true to fine naturally aspirated form, sounds gutsier and more sonorous the closer the tacho needle swings to the 7300rpm redline/cut-out. Some electric trickery, dubbed Active Sound Control, does add some synthesised sonic fanfare though, even with this function switched off, the soundtrack is truly wondrous.
Its workmanlike 530Nm of peak torque clocks on well up at 4800rpm then drops off beyond 5600rpm – there’s no thick slab of low-rpm shove like you’ll find in force-induced V8 alternatives. And at times the engine feels a little strained in launching the 1825kg sedan towards the horizon. That said, Lexus’s claim of 4.6sec for the march to triple figures seems, judging by the seat of the pants at least, fairly genuine.
The smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic, a slightly recalibrated version of the unit found in the RC F coupe, too, is reasonably accommodating rather than surgically co-operative when self-shifting, but is quite the handy ally when fully manualised. It is, however, an extremely smooth operator anywhere for a leisurely cruise to the heat of battle.
The Aussie version gets the full gamut of hardened, undiluted performance hardware of the version we drove at the international launch – for a full rundown on specification, read here. Everything from paint choice to the sunroof is standard fitment, the only real cost options being the choice of semi-Analine leather accented trim with heated/cooled seating, which raises the price $2900 above the heated-only Alcantara/leather pews.
The bells and whistles treatment goes as far as a 17-speaker 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system and the Lexus Safety System Plus (integrating pre-collision, active cruise control, lane-keeping and adaptive high-beam sub-systems), though I can’t help but feel that pulling some of the lavish spec out and dropping the price point somewhat might otherwise make a hypothetical ‘stripper’ GS F quite an enticing proposition (Lexus denies such a variant is in consideration).
The cabin, anchored by GS’s mid-life spruce-up, is upmarket enough to match the car’s price point, though it’s a little fussy and has a frenzied approach to button count and placement. The electric handbrake switch, annoyingly, seems to be hidden on purpose. There’s a huge, clear 12.3-inch infotainment screen, with excellent rear-view camera implementation, but the whole-system interface via the ‘Lexus standard’ haptic controller is slow, clunky and distracting.
While the front seats look and feel fantastic and are functionally supportive – a deft blend of comfort and purpose – the heavily bolstered rear seats virtually render the GS F an effective four-seater, such is the pronounced hump separating the outboard rear seating and the humongous tailshaft tunnel. Four-up, though, the GS breed is amply roomy.
The GS F hardly lacks inherent comfort and refinement. If there’s one area that cops a hit, however, it’s the ride quality of the passive single-mode suspension, which is reasonably pliant if a bit jiggly on rough country roads, and susceptible to thumping over potholes and square-edged road imperfections at low speeds. Like many big, heavy cars, this Lexus’s ride becomes more tempered the higher the road speed.
Isolation from road noise is pretty decent, though tyre noise does seep in, and it’s pleasantly quiet if you keep the V8 burbling in the low end of its rev range. It makes a fine and generally serene open-road tourer, if one that in myriad, small positive and negative ways reminds you of its high-performance intent. Essentially, though, the more you stretch its legs, the more satisfying the GS F seems to become balancing comfort and performance.
The famed Adelaide Hills driving roads are no place for vigorously punting a device lacking chassis control, poise and accuracy. And, when pushed, the GS F demonstrates an almost surprising level of dynamic competency. Grip from the front and drive from the rear are both excellent, and its broad 255 and 275mm front and rear Michelin Pilot Super Sports hang on tenaciously regardless of whether the tightly wound road course becomes smooth or pock-marked and lumpy. The nose of the car is quite accurate for such a large car and it’s easy to place and hustle along even some narrower back roads that offer little breathing room between the hot-mix and road-side trees, rock walls and fences.
The electric power-assisted steering is direct if a little inert for feedback, with quite light weighting that becomes only marginally heftier transitioning from Eco and Normal through to Sport and Sport+ drive modes. The throttle pedal, too, is lightly sprung, and the car can hunt a little in tandem with small right foot movements, particularly when the V8 is at its punchiest around the 5000rpm peak torque mark.
The GS F demands the driver to dig into the engine’s 5000-7000rpm sweet spot – torque delivery is such that it struggles to drag itself out of hairpin corners at low rpm - but it’s a characteristically rewarding car to punt hard…unlike many forced induced V8s out there playing in the super sedan field.
Like the RC F coupe, Lexus claims that the GS F is dynamically tuned for fun factor catering to a broad spectrum of driver skills. It’s probably the immense strength of the brakes and its planted, grippy nature that anchors this ethos best and makes the car eminently friendly once the red mist descends. There’s plenty of engagement and fiery vibe – it’s a soulful beast – to provide decent thrill factor without having to dip far into the dark side of the speed limit, which is, in my book, very much a positive. The flipside is that it’s probably not as quick, point to point cross country, as what $150K might otherwise buy in bent-eight high performance.
On one hand, it’s a potent and rewarding powertrain (in Sport+ and manual shifting, at least) hamstrung by the heavy GS format and all the kit the F variant brings. Apart from dulling acceleration, it imposes handling limits unearthed without too much provocation in tighter corners. Trickery such as the three-mode (Standard, Snow, Track) active torque-vectoring rear diff compensates for the ever-present large luxury car heft, impressively so to a point where, on occasion, the GS F can be a surprisingly grin-inducing.
Next up, track time. Three laps – only one of them at full noise – around the Mallala circuit’s sun-scorched and slippery tarmac (in desperate need of resurfacing) merely hints at the GS F’s unchained capabilities. Those hints, though, are mostly very positive indeed.
The GS F is happier carrying speed and loading up its weight in the corners than the point-and-squirt demands of the Adelaide Hills. And once inertia overcomes rear tyre grip, it can be lairy hoot to throw around, often with its tail hanging in the breeze, as demonstrated to maximum effect by Lexus ambassadorial hot shoe Neil Bates. Again, it’s a good-vibe machine…though one I suspect that wouldn’t top the timesheets in the presence some Aussie or European super sedans (or wagons for that matter). A test for another time, then…
The prediction is that the GS F is perhaps a little too luxurious to compete with, say, Audi’s RS6 Avant for red raw performance. Conversely, it’s a little too rambunctious – particularly in the one-mode suspension tuning – a muscle car to set any benchmarks for on-road comfort, be it long-haul country driving or around town commuting. Equally, it mightn’t be the first port of call in driver engagement when shopping around at this price point.
But the GS F delivers amply across the board where it counts the most. And it does so with that indicatively Japanese/Lexus execution that, in many ways, is so unlike Aussie or European alternatives. This alone is this V8 rear-driven super sedan’s strong suit, one that will no doubt be an ideal fit for the tastes of many buyers.