Lexus GS F test drive: Another way

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If you want a powerful executive supersaloon, you don’t have to pick a German car – this Lexus GS F provides plenty of class and thrills, albeit with one or two minor drawbacks.

The supersaloon market is dominated by the Germans. Think of a high-performance four-door premium car and you’re almost certainly thinking of an S or RS Audi, a BMW with M on its rump, or a Mercedes that has been worked upon by AMG.

These three companies make a huge variety of saloons with epic amounts of power from oversized engines, so it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are a few alternatives out there if you don’t fancy something from Bavaria or Stuttgart.

Jaguar, of course, has launched some belting cars under its own S and R badges. Even Volvo, previously staid, is dabbling with Polestar to create a version of the S60 to tempt you away from an M3. And, believe it or not, Japanese firm Lexus – better known for its super-luxurious, toy-laden machines and its hybrids, rather than any products that are capable of lapping race tracks – is also trying to create a ‘hot’ arm of its business.

It is calling this stable ‘F’, for Fuji, the international circuit in its homeland on which it says it develops all its performance cars.

What we have here is the fourth entrant to this burgeoning canon and it’s called the GS F. Based on the brand’s rival for a BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class or Audi A6, the process of creating this 168mph four-door is refreshingly simple: replace the more modest engines found elsewhere in the GS range with a socking great 5.0-litre V8 petrol, attach it to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and send all drive to the rear wheels.

Firm up the necessary dynamic components (suspension, brakes, steering) and give it some subtle body addenda, and hey presto – it’s the thinking man’s alternative to the almighty BMW M5.

This isn’t Lexus’ first attempt at a supersaloon, though, as it slotted a similar 5.0-litre V8 – rated at 423hp and 504Nm – into its smaller IS model in 2008 to create an M3 rival. It was a car which received glowing critical appraisal and yet it wasn’t enough to truly cement the marque’s F performance branding in the minds of the general public. Can the GS F put that right?

First impressions are very good. The GS is a handsome car in any specification, but with the very discreet additions for the F – the big spindle grille up front, those vertical slashes just behind the front wheelarches, quad exhausts stacked in pairs either side of the diffuser at the rear, the carbon lip spoiler on the bootlid, beautiful 19-inch alloys with yellow brake callipers peeping out from behind and a few F badges in key places – it’s a fabulous machine.

OK, it could probably get away with 20-inch wheels from an aesthetic point of view and the wheelbase looks a bit long when viewed from the dead-on side, but in essence it’s an incredibly handsome creation.

The high-quality feel is continued inside, where GV65 HYG features striking red leather upholstery and plenty of carbon fibre trim. In the main, this is another winning cabin: it’s stunningly well put-together, there’s acres of space front and rear, and most of the visuals are alluring.

The dials in the display and that huge, crystal clear 12.3-inch multimedia screen in the dash are superb, for instance. The problem is, Lexus doesn’t yet seem to have developed a credible and intuitive control system for the on-board entertainment.

It has had a couple of attempts at fashioning something useable but none of them work well and in the GS F, the controller is based on a computer mouse – outmoded interface architecture in itself.

The button is located to the left of the gearstick and when you’re trying to navigate through menus with it, you will need to have your full attention on the screen because it controls the digital cursor in a very clunky manner; all of the Germans have much better infotainment systems than this, whether they be touchscreens or managed by a rotary controller on the transmission tunnel.

Still, enough of the carping. Let’s get onto the driving manners. That 5.0-litre V8 is lifted from its sister car in the F line-up, the RC F coupe (which, weirdly enough, despite being the more exotic vehicle is actually £10,000 cheaper than the GS F at £59,995 basic).

The engine’s USP in the modern day is that it is normally aspirated (NA), whereas all its main rivals feature forced induction in the form of either turbos or superchargers. That brings with it pros and cons. The pros are that throttle response is wonderfully crisp and beautifully linear, and there are no sudden spikes of torque throughout the power delivery range, meaning you can really lean on the GS F’s chassis talents.

The cons are that, compared to said turbocharged engines, the Lexus is considerably down on that aforementioned torque output (as well as power), which means it is harder work extracting the pace from the GS F.

It’s also saddled with an eight-speed gearbox that has very long ratios, as third and fourth gear alone offer enough breadth of performance for almost all road usage. So it’s not flawless, the GS F. But what it is, is hugely likeable.

The engine makes a tremendous, barrel-chested V8 gargle, sounding utterly unlike the German bent-eights and not relying on a huge amount of exhaust histrionics to play an interesting tune for its driver.

There is some augmentation of the noise in Sport and Sport+ modes, but it’s only minor and therefore this soundtrack is all the engine’s glorious work. You’ll get the absolute best tune from it once the needle sweeps past 3,500rpm and flaps in the exhaust open, whereupon the decibel count increases considerable.

And while it might not offer the easily attainable, low-revs shove of a 700Nm+ twin-turbo Teutonic motor, the GS F has speed aplenty.

It loves to spin out to its 7,300rpm limiter and while the gearbox could do with tighter-spaced cogs, there’s nothing wrong with the way it shifts or responds to throttle inputs.

Add in lovely, feelsome and accurate steering, absolutely monster brakes – those yellow callipers denote an uprated Brembo set-up with 380mm front, 345mm rear ventilated discs – and first-rate body control, and the GS F convinces as a thoroughly well set-up performance car that can carry four adults with ease.

It’s also seemingly immune to understeer and throttle-adjustable in the bends, so it clearly has a chassis of serious talent underneath.

Thankfully, the GS F also functions in the normality of day-to-day driving. It’ll amble around towns and cities in the most docile, friendly manner – albeit the throttle response in Normal mode isn’t quite as well-judged as it is in Sport and Sport+; we tended to leave the car in Sport for regular driving, as it’s not so sharp to respond to right-foot inputs as to make it undriveable on the congested A46 – while the ride quality and the levels of refinement are unsurpassed in this segment.

It never once crashes or thumps on poor tarmac, while you’ll be hard-pressed to hear anything of the outside world when the GS F is in a steady-state 70mph cruise.

There are one or two more matters to touch upon before the verdict. For a start, this is a £71,000 Lexus. For many, that’s a hell of a mental computation to have to make before taking the plunge and signing on the dotted line in a dealership.

Never mind that the Audi, BMW and Mercedes rivals are more cash, nor whether the Lexus feels worth 71 grand (it does; and the only option on our car was a magnificent £1,000 Mark Levinson Sound System, which we’d definitely advocate equipping), it’s still a figure that makes you involuntarily draw in breath. Furthermore, its NA engine means it comes with the most punitive running costs.

We’re not about to suggest an Audi RS 6 is easy on the wallet in terms of fuel, road tax and Benefit-in-Kind, but anything with turbochargers can claim lower CO2 emissions and better mpg than the Lexus’ numbers of 260g/km and 25.2mpg. So it’s not like it will reward the adventurous buyer or business user in the long run with regular, monthly savings.

All of which leaves us with a conundrum. As stated earlier, Lexus has already punted out four cars under the F banner and all of them have been at the very least excellent, and in one instance absolutely sublime (that’s the super-rare, ultra-expensive LFA supercar of 2010-2012 we’re talking about).

And yet, to the average Joe on the street, Lexus F is nothing like as well-known as BMW M. Of course, the German heritage stretches back to the 1970s, whereas F isn’t even ten years old yet, but hopefully enough people will get the message sooner rather than later.

Because, while there are a handful of details on the GS F that annoy us, there are many, many more facets to its character that make it a wholly worthwhile alternative to picking machinery from Europe’s richest country.

It’s a fabulous, big-hearted supersaloon with utterly cultured manners and a (largely) exquisite interior, and best of all it’s considerably cheaper than a standard M5, E 63 or RS 6. As under-the-radar Q cars go, the Lexus GS F has to be one of the very best ever made – which is some accolade to bestow upon a fledgling performance brand. Maybe one day, we’ll be talking about F in the same reverential tones as M; a few more blinding cars like this one, and we don’t doubt such a future coming true at all.

TECH SPEC

  • Model: Lexus GS F
  • Price: GS F from £69,995; car as tested £70,995
  • Drivetrain: 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine, eight-speed Sports Direct Shift transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Economy: 25.2mpg
    CO2 emissions: 260g/km – £1,120 VED year one, £515 annually thereafter; 37 per cent benefit in kind
  • Top speed: 168mph (limited)
  • 0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
  • Power: 477hp at 7,100rpm
  • Torque: 530Nm at 4,800- to 5,600rpm