Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Vince Pornelos, Lexus Press | posted January 26, 2016 16:40
Challenging the Germans
The class of high performance luxury saloons is undoubtedly dominated by the Germans. Mercedes-AMG makes the growling E63, Audi has power and quattro (4WD) on their side with the RS7, even British automaker Jaguar is in on the action with the XFR. In reality, however, BMW that is the keeper of the faith and the guardian of the holy grail with the M5.
Now Lexus is stepping into the ring (or should we say, 'Ring?) as well with the GS F, the four-door brother of the RC F. Can the GS F match up to the high bars set in the class?
In the hierarchy of Lexus, the GS is their midsize rear-wheel drive (or four, in some versions) sedan, slotting in just under the LS flagship and above the ES and IS. Truth be told, the GS has actually been around since 2012; so technically this GS F is a variant of the facelifted GS. Or at least that's how it seems.
Amidst the cold, windy air of Madrid, I walked up for the first time to the waiting Lexus GS F. The first thing that struck me about the GS F sedan was the subtle anger of its look; F division did a good degree of visual tuning to make it so. An aggressive application of the brand's now-signature spindle grill dominates the front, flanked by a pair of Lexus's avant garde split headlamps; triple LED projectors up top with L-shaped daylight running LEDs just below. The body itself has been modified by Lexus F with larger air inlets up front and wider fenders with vents to allow for improved air flow for the brakes. There were plenty of other details that draw the eyes to the GS F such as the 19-inch 20-spoke wheels, the quad tip exhaust, and the lip spoiler, but it was time to drive.
This may be a car with serious performance potential, but the GS F's cabin does not blatantly tell the driver to race it. The only things that really tells the driver that this is a special model is the pair of semi-buckets, the red upholstery (other variants get light cream leather), and a few other small touches like the blue and white stitching on the shift knob and steering wheel, as well as a couple F badges. Apart from those, the GS F is still all luxury inside with the application of premium materials like the soft touch surfaces, leather, alcantara, and modern trim pieces.
Neither do the drive and ride make it known that this is a powerful machine. With the powertrain in Normal mode, the GS F really drives like the best that Lexus has to offer. Yukihiko Yaguchi and his team at Lexus F had to preserve the qualities that make their cars worthy of the “L” badge. Things like sound suppression, suspension pliancy, the smoothness of the powertrain, rear legroom, and other aspects that contribute to overall refinement had to be up to Lexus's scratch... a tough act as performance and comfort are usually at opposite sides of the same spectrum.
Once out of the jam and onto the Spanish Autovia, I can now start to explore the potential of what's under the hood: a 5.0 liter, quad cam, 32-valve V8. Equipped with the Toyota group's technologies such as VVT-iE variable cam phasing and dual injection (direct and port), the 2UR-GSE motor has 478 PS and 530 Nm of torque. The engine is the same on in the RC F, a testament to F's decision to stick with a large displacement naturally-aspirated engine instead of downsizing and turbocharging. The reasons for that are simple: throttle response and sound.
With the drive program selector in Sport S mode, every time the driver prods the throttle deep enough, the GS F's powertrain kicks down a few gears and accelerates. The response is quick, both from the engine and from the 8-speed Sport Direct Shift (SPDS). The gearbox is a further development of the SPDS that was in the previous generation IS F, and now it comes with intelligent shift control that reads a G-force meter and the throttle sensor. The SPDS will shift quicker if it senses that the driver wants higher response gear changes.
In the more remote regions north of Madrid, the GS F displays a quickness that you wouldn't expect from 1.8 tonne luxury car. Naught to a hundred is dispatched in 4.6 seconds, but dragstrip enthusiasts would enjoy the 12.8 second quarter mile time that the GS F can register.
Every time I prod the throttle, the music from the powertrain gives me a chill down my spine as it actively reverberates in the cabin. I say actively because the GS F -like its two-door brother, the RC F- has something called Active Sound Control; a system that enhances the aural experience of that engine in the cabin. In Sport mode, the ASC activates its own rear speaker to deliver the sound of the exhaust but in Sport S+ the ASC also uses a front speaker to simultaneously deliver the intake and mechanical sound from the V8 up front into the cabin. Some say it's lip synching like Milli Vanilli, but I say it's like Spinal Tap; the unpleasant sounds are tuned out, but the sweet V8 music is turned up to 11.
Cutting through switchback after switchback, one blind mountain bend after another, the GS F exhibited steering precision unexpected of its weight. The steering -while accurate and precise- is electrically assisted, so it's best not expect the same level of communication from the front tires the way a hydraulic system would.
Under braking the GS F squats, thanks to those huge slotted and vented Brembo brakes; 6-piston calipers up front, 4-piston calipers in the rear. The suspension has benefitted from F division's continuous development of the spring rates, geometry and damping, and even utilizes ZF Sachs shock absorbers. The cornering motions of the car are kept in check, and the VDIM steps in once in a while if you misjudge a bend.
Back on the Autovia A-1, I can make out our destination in the distance: the Circuito del Jarama. Once through the tunnel and inside the main complex, there's no mistaking that you're on a racing circuit. Jarama actually dates back to the earlier days of Formula One, hosting 9 Spanish Grands Prix on its 3.85 kilometer-long, 11-turn layout. But we can save the trip down legendary lane later, as it was time to get buckled in and see what the GS F can do.
Pulling out of the pits, the first lap in the GS F was really a recce run. “Be mindful of the kerbs”, said the instructor to my right. He wasn't kidding; the kerbs were old and look a bit more jagged than on other, newer tracks. And this was the time then the conditions started to change, as a light drizzle made the track significantly more greasy, and the natural rubbered-down racing line would become very tricky. Is there a better way to test what the GS F can do than this?
In Normal mode, the car drives, well, normally. Gearbox response isn't as sharp in this mode, though you can override its commands either by slotting into the +/- gate on the shifter or pulling on the paddles on either side of the steering wheel. A twist of the Drive Mode Selector pops the system into Sport S, but given that we're on a racetrack, another twist sends it into the most aggressive setting: Sport S+.
In Sport S+, the 5.0L engine up front is much more eager to rev, giving the driver the maximum acceleration and quickest response it can provide. And it's this setting that I stayed in throughout the laps. Jarama is a mix of blind corners and daunting crests; get it wrong and you're off into the gravel trap.
I take a breath on the main straight of Jarama to glance at the speedometer as the GS F. 250 kilometers per hour it read just as my foot slammed on the brakes to make Fangio (Jarama's name for Turn 2). I misjudge it a bit, braking a little late. Mind you it wasn't enough to miss the corner, but it was definitely enough to put too much weight up front on an increasingly greasier track, allowing the unloaded rear tires to step out sideways. Here we go.
I let the car slide for a split second and catch the counter-steering wheel just as my right foot began applying power as gradually as it can. That V8 up front is very easy to control; peak power may be at 477 PS, but each one of them comes into play one after the other. Such is the linear feel of a big naturally aspirated motor over a peaky boosted engine; NA serves you the power course by course while turbos drop it all in front of you. Believe me, there's a big difference.
I gradually fed in the throttle to shift some weight aft, and brought the car back into line for the exit. The thing that surprised me, however, was how easy it was to accomplish. That's the TVD at work, or Torque Vectoring Differential. Normal (open) differentials will just spin the wheel that has the least resistance, wasting power, wasting tires, and wasting time on a lap. Limited slip differentials will usually spin both wheels as equally as they can, but the downside is they take a higher skill set to master since they can easily induce power oversteer in a powerful rear-wheel drive like the GS F.
TVD works differently. Unlike many of the other “vectoring” systems out there which function by applying brake to the inner drive wheel while cornering (physics: path of least resistance becomes driving wheel), TVD actively sends it by using sensors and electric motors. As power was being fed, the TVD was picking which rear wheel can best use it. This automated channeling of torque actually lent the feeling that the GS F was correcting itself. The active differential also has three settings: Standard, Slalom, and Track. For this drive, I'll keep it in Track mode. Once you know how the TVD feels, you can adjust my driving accordingly to maximize it.
The TVD, the brakes, the linear power and delivery of the motor and the gearbox, of the engine, all start to make sense together. Once you adjust to it, the GS F can be driven faster and faster, lap after lap. Eventually you'd want to turn on the more aggressive settings such as Expert which allows for even more slide (read: drift) control, but we'll only recommend that after sufficient driver training.
After 8 laps, it was time to pull in to the pits and take the whole experience in.
The key to the GS F is its approach to the performance sedan. Its German rivals focused on outright performance figures, naught to 100 acceleration times, top speeds and Nurburgring lap times, so much so that even the current M5, while a fantastic car to drive, doesn't have the essential feel and soundtrack of its predecessor: the E60 M5 V10.
Lexus went the other way, and focused on the driving experience -the drama of it all, so to speak- instead of the numbers. The aggressive look, the premium feel, the goosebump-inducing music from the V8, and the ability to satisfy a variety of driving desires regardless of skill level are hallmarks of the new GS F. Such was F division's founding mission, and this 2016 GS F is proof positive of that.