It’s rare that we get to take a journey over several years with a single model, even in this business. Mostly it's either an international or local launch, and then we move on to another new car launch, while another colleague takes up the reins with other events that might follow with said vehicle.
Not so with the high-performance sedan from luxury Japanese manufacturer Lexus called the GS F. It made its dynamic debut in 2016 at the Jarama race circuit in Spain, followed by a scintillating road drive on some of the best twisties on the planet.
Pulling into the pits after the 20-minute track session, though, was like one of those Eureka moments. Here was a car that surprised the pants off everyone who drove it, with its ability to get around this track like a well-honed sports car of much less weight and smaller dimensions than this thing actually is.
It was even more fun on the twisty Spanish B-roads with the drive mode set to Sport Plus, and the shift lever set to manual using the paddle shifters to row back and forth through the gears. And believe me, there was plenty of that going on.
Its 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 makes good noise and there’s decent power, but it’s the chassis balance and perfectly calibrated suspension compliance that have always made this car so surprisingly competent and enjoyable to drive – flat out most of the time, at least on this occasion.
There’s no denying outright performance is well down on its key rivals from Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which generate huge power and torque from their twin-turbocharger systems (E63 S AMG 450kW/850Nm and M5 Competition 460kW/750Nm respectively). But on these roads, you could drive the GS F flat most of the time armed with the intimate knowledge it wouldn’t rear up and bite you. There was no intimidation factor to contend with whatsoever.
The steering isn’t particularly quick either, but it is consistent and linear in its power assistance with comfortable weighting to boot. The auto transmission isn’t fabulous either. It’s not that quick and it won’t always do as it's told, but again, it’s paired well with the rest of the car. Moreover, all the major controls are in perfect sync, and engender a huge amount of confidence from anyone lucky enough to be behind the wheel of this sumptuously appointed executive four-door express.
There’s a good deal of feedback to enhance the driving experience and all the response calibrations are predictable, so you feel comfortable driving it at full noise. It’s a good feeling - inspiring, even.
I remember the stopping power being particularly impressive despite the fact that the brakes themselves aren’t overly large as performance cars go these days. And that was despite countless heavy applications of the brake pedal on the road and track. In fact, I don’t recall any fade whatsoever nor smoking rotors back then. It was quite extraordinary given the punishment metered out that day.
While we never found the standard fixed-rate suspension overly firm – even over suspect surfaces on some of the B-roads in Spain – Lexus decided to switch to an adaptive variable suspension system late in 2016, which only served to make the GS F better. Particularly in the most aggressive modes, as we were to find out last year while driving the famous Hakone Skyline in Japan.
The Hakone Skyline is one of the world’s great driving roads. Officially, it’s a toll road opening up to a 5km stretch of tarmac with 58 turns and a difference in elevation of 169m. However, it extends further if you go all the way to the Hakone Turnpike, which takes it to around 11km. And if you’re lucky, it's where you’ll more often than not find hordes of motorcycle riders out for an early morning peg-scraping hit.
For a big, heavy four-door sedan, the GS F’s cornering performance was off the charts, particularly given the car was driven at close to ten-tenths on countless Skyline runs over several days.
But here’s the thing: we’ve only ever driven this car in absolute anger, and in that state it’s always been an absolute hoot. So the big question for us is, what’s it like to live with as a daily?
Like you guys, we’re keen to find out if it’s still fun to pilot to and from work in the peak-hour crawl, where its luxury assets should take priority over its dynamic prowess.
And, we’ve got it for six months, which means we’ll be giving you our feedback at the conclusion of each month, and reporting any further likes or dislikes that might surface over this extended test period as well as mileage and economy numbers.
To kick things off, we decided to drive the car back to our Sydney office fresh from our Winner’s Circle event in Victoria late last year during the double-demerits crackdown. That meant a ruthless adherence to speed limits with pinpoint accuracy thanks to the GS F’s effective radar cruise control, which was actually upgraded in 2017 to All-Speed Active Cruise Control for greater breadth when it comes to speed.
It’s easy enough to engage and manage, though it’s via an old-school-style extra instrument stalk rather than with steering-wheel-mounted buttons on various newer-generation brands. My only issue is that even on the closest maintained distance setting, the system seems to brake a tad too early. That necessitates a manual override in some cases to avoid being overtaken yourself, given the sometimes constant speed sign changes in Australia.
It’s not so much a Lexus issue, rather a feature of most active radar cruise-control systems in general from my experience. Other minor safety upgrades for our long-term GS F include pedestrian detection, while lane-departure warning was uprated to lane-keeping assist for the complete active safety suite.
Over the last couple of months, the GS F has been shared around the editorial staff in the Sydney office, as well as some of the key sales execs, and in every case the pros have outweighed the cons, which have been few and far between.
Most of those cons have centred around the rather disastrous fuel economy (anywhere from 15.0L/100km to 27L/100km) achieved around town depending on driving style and in stark contrast to that recorded on the trip from Melbourne to Sydney (8.6L/100km to 12.1L/100km).
And, more often than not, the average city consumption is around 22L/100km, which for a naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 isn’t that bad given the constant stop-start conditions during the daily commute. It’s certainly an issue, but not one that is exclusive to the Lexus.
About the only rival (and it’s a stretch) would be the two-door Mustang GT Fastback armed with the same naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 displacement, though it carries nearly 200kg less than the GS F’s near 1.9-tonne heft.
It’s problematic because this engine sings its best tune under a heavy right foot with plenty of revs and usually in Sport mode, so I’d argue it’s best not to focus on consumption – at all. Having said that, with Sydney traffic now worse than ever before, I've become accustomed to just sitting back and listening to one of many podcasts or making as many phone calls as possible, which has reduced average consumption down to between 15-17L/100km, which still isn't great, but let's say, acceptable.
It leads me to say that while commuter work is a world away from the Hakone Skyline and the racetracks of Spain, that same situation also allows the hi-po Lexus to showcase its flexibility and all-round comfort as a daily. No bad thing and just enough excitement at your fingertips if you need to give it the occasional squirt.
And, while we like the ‘sleeper’ character of the GS F, we’re not convinced there’s enough of an exhaust note at lower speeds. It’s a pity Lexus didn’t see fit to add an exhaust button like Porsche (and other carmakers) offers on most of its models. It's especially relevant for a naturally aspirated V8, you would have thought. Instead, there’s a bit of a snarl on start-up, but otherwise it only properly comes to life above 4000rpm.
In this mode, throttle response is wound right back, with the car pulling away from standstill in second gear in the interest of passenger comfort and refinement. Perhaps a little too soft at times. Damper settings are softened, too, and enough to iron out broken road and speed bumps.
The cabin itself has a high-end look and feel about it, including the softest leather sports pews with just the right combination of comfort and support. There’s also plenty of real carbon-fibre trim and Alcantara inserts used, as well as a huge infotainment screen and LFA-inspired instrument cluster. But, there are a few problems.
For starters, it’s not a touchscreen and can only be controlled by Lexus’s woefully unintuitive mouse pad-style controller that’s universally frustrating in every respect. It also rules out Apple CarPlay, too, which is still not available across Lexus or Toyota ranges in Australia.
While there are certainly a few glaring shortfalls with our GS F ownership experience, it remains a unique offering in a segment that includes significantly more powerful all-stars like the BMW M5 Competition and Mercedes-Benz E63 S AMG – both turbocharged V8s costing tens of thousands more.
There’s also the Audi RS4 that has a slightly lower price tag than the Lexus, similar space inside and is quicker by a few tenths, but its twin-turbo six doesn’t provide anywhere near the auditory satisfaction of the GS F in my opinion.
Stay tuned for our next long-term report lobbing late March.