In this great big wide world of ours, there are only few things that are pretty hard to get wrong. Pizza springs to mind, as do large-capacity, V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive cars.
So it should come as no surprise to hear the 2016 Lexus GS F is a bit of a hoot. Yes, you heard right. The terms ‘Lexus GS’ and ‘entertaining’ can finally coexist…kinda.
It is a pretty foolproof recipe. Shove the 351kW/530Nm 5.0-litre quad-cam V8 from the RC F sports coupe into a big, comfy sedan. Add loads of Alcantara and carbon-fibre, some fancy sounding acronyms – LSS, TVD, VDIM, oh my – and you’ve got all the trappings of a powerhouse sports saloon ready to take on the world’s best.
The thing is, while the the numbers stack up – Lexus claims 0-100km/h in just 4.6 seconds – the GS F doesn’t feel as coherent in the role as some of its European competitors.
Is it a luxury grand tourer like the Audi S6 or a raucous hot rod like the Mercedes-AMG E63 (and price-comparative if smaller C63)? Perhaps it's a prestige success statement like the Jaguar XF S or even a sporting sub-brand showpiece like the BMW M5…
And that is the problem. It is all of those and none of those, a $150,000 muscle car enigma that puts the F in frustration as often as it does in fun.
Take the styling as an example.
From the rear quarter viewpoint, the quad-tipped exhaust in that cool stacked arrangement, the subtle carbon-fibre deck-lid spoiler and the awesome polished ($2500 option) concave-face 19-inch alloy wheels give the GS F an athletic, mature and highly purposeful stance.
Our car’s Cobalt Blue mica paint looks fantastic, but just who would opt for the Lava Orange is beyond us. There are eight colour choices in total, and all come with orange brake callipers.
Change ends though, and the Predator-face spindle grille, Nike-swoosh LED running lamps and boy-racer wheel arch vents start to leave you wondering who or what this car is intended for.
The theme continues in the cabin. Step in and your first impression is ‘wow’. The Alcantara trim touches every surface from the dash top to the console wrist-rest. The carpet is so lush you want to take your shoes off. It immediately feels warm and comforting – I imagine just like sleeping inside an upmarket Tuantuan.
There’s lovely blue and white stitching, a Mark Levinson sound system, and a clever treatment of the instruments that pairs a large TFT screen with analogue dials, the small speedo crammed with numbers all the way to 340km/h.
Here too, the center dial changes from an iris-style motif (to signify Eco mode... in some way), through a bunch of ever-sportier white-face and redline options as you change driving modes. It's not entirely useful but it is definitely cool.
A large 12.3-inch high-resolution display sits in the centre of the dash, as does an analogue clock, some smart aluminium and carbon trim elements ($2500 option) and the usual array of buttons and lights that are to be expected at this level.
But then you notice the digital display on the centre stack doesn’t match the LCD readout on the climate and audio controls in the rear passenger arm rest. The buttons on the steering wheel don’t match the ones on the dash, or the console, or the door.
And don’t get me started on the GUI (Graphical User Interface) in the infotainment system and that cursed haptic-mouse device. Not to mention the low-resolution parking camera.
Even access to the 520-litre boot has a soft-touch button on the right but the power close button on the left.
Now, if you thought I’d lost the plot when criticizing the wiper movement on a Ford Mondeo, then surely complaining about the placement of buttons to open and close a boot makes me certifiable!
So please understand this: it’s not the differences in functions when viewed in isolation I draw attention to. It’s the logical coherence that is missing.
It feels as if the outside boot team didn’t speak to the inside boot team. The head-up font person didn’t share with the instrument font people and the back seat committee never even met the front seat guys until the office Christmas party.
The first Lexus F-car, the 2008 IS F, was conceived by a small team of engineers as an after-hours secret project. Workarounds here were to be expected, and the result – given the developmental constraints – was undeniably impressive.
The GS F represents the fourth ‘F’ model (following IS F, LFA and RC F), but despite being an ‘open’ project it seems it too was held back by being a normal GS saloon first and a performance car second.
A mash of agendas that from the inside out don’t quite give the Lexus a clear market position.
All said though, there is still plenty to like, and it starts when you fire up the big V8 under the bonnet.
A quick bark followed by an omnipresent rumble pay heed to the muscle car specs that underpin the GS F. It’s no cast-iron pushrod antique beating away either, the 2UR-GSE motor may be old-school on paper, but in typical Lexus fashion, employs some very modern technology in its operation.
Using a combination of Atkinson-cycle operation, which enables the titanium intake valves to stay open longer which reduces the effective compression ratio for more cruising efficiency, and a more performance-oriented Otto-cycle under load, the V8 can be run in one of four drive-mode settings.
Eco lowers throttle response and opts for higher gear selection when in automatic shift, Normal provides a more rounded mapping of both engine and gearing performance while the Sport and Sport+ modes are where the GS F needs to live for it to make the most sense.
Here, the snarling V8, assisted by some in-cabin audio boosting, sounds fantastic. The power delivery is very manageable and linear, with peak torque not available until 4800rpm and peak power right at the screaming 7100rpm redline.
The eight-speed automatic is not the quickest draw in the west, and can feel slow on up-shift (when you don’t mind a bit of sharpness) and almost too jerky on down changes, where smoother transitions are preferable.
Using the steering-wheel mounted paddles to shift is easy though and much of the drive experience can be tempered by getting used to the car and driving with it.
Power out of a corner hard in second gear, and the 275mm rear tyres will give a discernible little wiggle. Keep the throttle down until the tacho climbs to over 6000rpm – on the really slick digital display – and shift up to third. The change is swift, the big blue saloon picking up pace. Now this is more like it.
There’s no ‘holy shit’ fear that you experience in some of the big Germans, the Lexus is easy to push and stays true to its more conservative roots, even in this, its most rock star guise.
Turn in is reasonably direct and the 1865kg GS feels very balanced through the curves. It doesn’t dance about, but direction changes are managed with confidence and while tighter radii bends induce a bit of ‘big sedan wallow’, the midrange response of the V8 (assuming you are in the right gear) gets you back in the game soon enough.
There is an adaptive setting for the rear differential (TVD – Torque Vectoring Differential) that offers Slalom for nimbler response, or Track for a more measured approach to high-performance driving. This allows the car to efficiently get the power to the ground under more enthusiastic driving conditions.
Ride comfort is good throughout, especially when the red mist lifts and you are back to rumbling about town. There is a stiffer skew than a standard GS, but the compliant nature of the Lexus ensures a pleasant ride in all but the worst conditions.
Fuel consumption is claimed at 11.3L/100km on a combined cycle, but if you enjoy that V8 song, perhaps add about 5L/100km to that. We saw an average of 18.6L/100km for the week and weren’t shy with the right foot.
Amusingly, though, Lexus has published a ‘minimum’ achievable full-tank distance of 393km. Sounds like a challenge for when we next have the car in the garage!
Settling everything down (including fuel thirst) and heading back to daily life, and it is back here, as a carbon-commuter in town, that the GS F starts to feel compromised again.
I touched on the mouse-like device for the infotainment system earlier, and honestly it is the most frustrating interface I have ever used. You need to spend way too much time concentrating on your control movements to select the icons on the screen, making those second-nature on-the-fly interactions unachievable.
Moving to the steering wheel buttons doesn’t help as there are a huge array of configuration functions on the instrument binnacle, that when cycling through can have you inadvertently change radio station from the main screen, rather than the trip computer in front of you.
And the other buttons, hiding behind the wheel on the dash itself, aside from feeling like they were lifted from one of the car’s Toyota cousins, are impossible to use on the move.
Plus, despite having a long list of luxury and safety technology on board, including pre-collision detection, adaptive cruise control, DAB digital radio, LED headlights and a heated steering wheel, there is no front parking sensor array or camera, which when you consider the size of that protruding schnoz, is a bit silly.
So where does that leave the 2016 Lexus GS F in the market? Somewhere on its own is the answer. For $148,800 (before options and on-road costs) it’s over $100k less than a Mercedes-AMG E63 that uses a pair of turbos to make its V8/RWD combo a bit more ludicrous.
In reality, the closest car in terms of technical and status spec is the $128,200 Jaguar XF 35t, a vehicle that also suffers from its own balance of compromises, while still being dynamically excellent. The Jag uses a supercharged six instead of a V8, though.
Bottom line, the Lexus GS F is a very specific car for a very specific buyer. It is a little bit grand tourer and a little bit muscle car, but if you can deal with that multifaceted approach, and the little Lexus eccentricities, then that big V8, rear-wheel-drive combo is still an absolute blast.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.