Lexus has updated its rear-driven V8 muscle car, the GS F, for 2017. But does the new adaptive suspension trickery improve the breed?
Over the past 18 months we’ve pounded the Lexus GS F around Spanish mountains and racetracks, along road rally stages in and around Adelaide's hills and South Australia’s home to drifting, Mallala Raceway. We’ve thrown it up against two German contemporaries around the twisty outskirts of Brisbane. And we’ve also spent a week tooling about in it in both the guts and outer fringes of Melbourne.
This time, we hit Sydney’s streets with both the sounds of its meaty exhaust note – a good enough reason in itself – and a chorus line shouting that surely by now, this Japanese V8 rear-driven muscle car has no more to reveal.
It turns out, that it does.
In November last year, Lexus added Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) to the GS F, upping the price of the rudimentary variant by $2050, now at $153,540 list plus on-road costs, while leaving the price of the slightly more upmarket version (which uses semi-analine rather than Alcantara seat trim) unchanged at $156,500 before on-roads.
It's not a big change nor a huge price hike, granted, but it does potentially alter the way the car rides and handles while affecting, if only in a relatively small way, the value pitch.
Interestingly, our opinions of the GS F have changed somewhat each of the last four times we'd driven it, and not merely because a different CarAdvice scribe has manned the keyboard in each instance. What’s been evident is that impressions can vary wildly, depending on how and where it’s being driven. And a big chunk of the equation is how the GS F reacts to the road.
“A surprising level of dynamic performance and grip,” on a fast-flowing Jarama circuit, we wrote.
“A lairy hoot often hanging out its tail,” was the different take at Mallala, though in the tight and lumpy South Oz hills it’s “ surprisingly accurate and competent.”
At Queensland’s aptly named Mount Glorious, though, we found the GS F “stiff and lazy” while, in Victoria, the big four-door was deemed to be “very balanced if wallowy” in dynamic character.
In terms of ride, we found the Lexus to be “uncompliant” around downtown Brissie, “pliant yet jiggly” in Adelaide if generally “comfortable” bombing around near Madrid, while it can be “pleasant” cruising around South Melbourne.
That’s a lot of circumstantial variation though one thing would ring true regardless: changing the suspension would indelibly affect, and hopefully lift, the GS F’s game.
You can read out full rundown of the technical changes here, but the crux of that value pitch is there’s more than a little extra tech loaded into the big Lexus for no, or next to no extra, outlay depending on which version you buy. That’s the positive view.
The counter to this, however, is when shopping for fast rear-drivers from Germany – albeit smaller, mid-sized Germans – the formerly lack of adaptive suspension smarts was a glaring omission for the money GS F commands.
Given Lexus engineers previous assertions that should ride-handling be perfectly struck there was no need for adaptive suspension in GS F back at the car’s international launch, there’s clearly been some backpedalling in the past 18 months…
On the road, I’ve barely turned GS F’s fat Michelins in anger and I’m convinced Lexus has missed a trick: I search high and low inside the cabin, including a good swear-frenzied dig through Lexus’s infamously infuriating infotainment system, and I cannot find a damper adjustment control anywhere. There’s patently no method for the user to select suspension softness/firmness separately from powertrain, ESP or any other system governed by its various drive modes.
There is a logical reason for this: the AVS doesn’t merely swap between softer and harder damper settings. Instead, it’s a truly adaptive design with 30 different levels of damping force governed by seven different program ‘strategies’.
Select Eco, Normal or Sport in the Drive Mode Select dial and, using inputs from a number of sensors, it continuously varies the damping favouring comfort. In the fourth and most hardcore Sport+ drive mode, the damping continues its variable trickery, but with a focus on handling.
In practice, it really works a treat. The old GS F’s main problem was that, despite encumbering Mother Earth with 1865kg of heft, it was fidgety across small imperfections and became generally softer and rollier the harder you drove.
This updated car irons out the ripples better, yet feels tauter and tighter should you tip it into a corner with vigour, without warning and without any dial twisting or button pushing. And it does so with subtlety and transparency, which is perhaps the most impressive part of the system.
The softer Eco-through-Sport calibration maintains a firm-ish and taut default and it never drops into seasickness-inducing softness, suiting the GS F’s muscular vibe suitably. And it becomes firm enough to impart a nice clean edge to the chassis dynamics even when you dig in pretty hard. Point is, outside of a racetrack or properly antisocial public road antics, you only really need this one mode.
The jury is out as to how Sport+ affects outright dynamic abilities – and how it affect the interplay with the tricky torque vectoring differential – but I did try it purely to sense ride: she’s firm alright, and perhaps unnecessary anywhere but an off-street circuit.
A worthy improvement? You bet. Otherwise, the GS F is identical in form and features as the last four times we’ve driven it, so a forensic dig of its functionality perhaps isn’t necessary this time around. But to recap…
The 5.0-litre V8 remains a gem of an engine that’s responsive off idle and linear in delivery in fine naturally aspirated form, capable of thrusting the big sedan forth rather than threatening to tear Michelins from rims.
Despite the switchable Atkinson-cycle/Otto-cycle trickery it drinks like a publican – typically around 16L/100km urban and much thirstier than many other eights out there – and it needs nearly five grand on the tacho to muster up its 580Nm torque peak.
The big plus is switching drive modes really does alter its character. The downside is that it’s not nearly as explosive in delivery as force-induced V8 alternatives that aren’t any thirstier.
Tied to the smooth shifting eight-speed auto, this would be a cracking powertrain in a car half-a tonne-lighter.
Its near 1.9-tonne weight, thanks to generally less-than-exotic construction and its well-loaded equipment list, imposes certain limits on its dynamic potential and ultimately dictates its almost polite, grand touring muscle car vibe. Be it the (synthetically enhanced) soundtrack or the feeling of the steering, engineers have done a great job polishing quality in execution using fairly humble GS building blocks. Ultimately, though, it returns bona-fide heroics only when being driven hard and only in certain ways in certain conditions.
It lays a lot on – so many lines and angles outside, so many finishes and textures inside – that it's both lavish and strangely incoherent. There are so many different colours, different fonts and so many different buttons, often located in strange places. There’s so much to look at inside the cabin and much of it is hard to read and tricky to find.
But you do sit low, there’s a driver-centric vibe, the seats are excellent, there’s ample solidity, the quality is genuine and it feels worth the money it asks for.
The effort put in by the maker is conspicuous, though the combined effect isn’t terribly resolved. A less-is-more approach to premium motoring isn’t on the agenda for a car featuring a blue engine, orange brakes and grey mirror caps... regardless of which body colour you opt for.
The GS F isn’t potent enough to sit at the forefront of the world’s high-performance four-doors. And it’s certainly no sportscar. But when viewed as muscular grand tourer, offering a balance of comfort and performance that’s easy to live with every day and tackle tyranny’s distance with aplomb (with someone else’s fuel card), there remains a lot to like.
It’s an ostentatious statement of a car for buyers after that effect. But, importantly, it’s a different kind of rear-driven, meat-eating, V8-powered behemoth in a world becoming increasingly thin of them.
Further, there are petrolheads out there who don’t like – and indeed can’t afford – the same-segment German alternatives out there, who aren’t thrilled with what America offers, and who wouldn’t be seen dead in dying Australian breed of rear-driven hero cars.
Thankfully, then, there’s nothing else quite like the GS F out there for buyers with particular tastes.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.