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Lexus’ GS F: A “‘tweener” supersedan?

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The top-of-the-heap niche within the mid-size (E-segment) super sports luxury sedans of the recent past and present is the domain of boosted V8s boasting north of 500 hp. That would be the the previous-generation Jaguar XFR. Approach the 550 hp barrier, and the last-gen Jag XFR-S is there. Break through to 560 hp? Audi’s RS6 (for those outside North America) and RS7; BMW’s last-gen M5 and current M6 Gran Coupe and Mercedes’ upcoming AMG E63 all reside there. Want your horsepower numbers to start with a 6? The Audi RS7 Competition, Cadillac CTS-V and Mercedes-AMG E63S will indulge you.

And Lexus? With a 467 hp, 5-liter naturally aspirated V8, the GS F is bringing a knife to a gunfight chock-full of AK-47s, M-16s and Tommy Guns.

But wait, what about the less powerful, smaller-engined E-segment “mere” sports luxury sedans? Is that the GS F’s true competitive set? Drop a couple of cylinders while maintaining boost and you have such contenders as the current Jaguar XF S (380 hp), Mercedes-AMG E43 (396 hp), Maserati Ghibli S (404 hp) and Cadillac CTS-V Sport (420 hp). Still gotta have a V8? Audi’s S6 and S7, plus BMW’s new G30 M550i X-Drive bear turbocharged V8s with power output figures in the 450-456 hp neighborhood. Now the Lexus GS F becomes the Uzi among swords, scimitars and sabers.

Why is Lexus content with this ‘tweener status between two worlds? Why not go after the big guns and cross the 500-hp threshold? We’ll sum it up in a few words:

U.S. CAFE Gas Guzzler Tax: the big taboo
As we’ve noted on an occasion or two, Lexus is particularly averse to paying the U.S. government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Gas Guzzler Tax for cars with numbers lower than 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway or 18 mpg combined. Among the E-segment supersedans, BMW M5/M6 and Cadillac CTS-V bite the bullet and pay the Guzzler Tax, while Audi RS7 and Mercedes E63 avoid it via a combination of stop-start technology and cylinder deactivation. And Lexus? Again, it obstinately marches to the beat of its own Taiko drum.

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Lexus’ 2UR-GSE V8, version 2
For the first purely performance version of its UR V8 engine family, Lexus took the 4969cc 2UR-FSE engine from the 4th-gen (XF40) LS 600h, removed the Hybrid components, dropped it into the smaller and lighter IS sedan and tuned it to be as powerful as possible while just barely avoiding the dreaded U.S. Gas Guzzler Tax. The result: the original 2UR-GSE V8. As installed in the seminal IS F, the engine had an 11.8:1 compression ratio and produced 416 hp and 371 lb/ft of torque.

As the original IS F was running its course, the powers-that-be at Lexus decided that its successors would be based on the heavier RC coupe and GS sedan. Would this mean a cut in power in order to meet the “no guzzler tax” bogey? Thankfully, no, for the January 2014 Detroit Auto Show unveiling of the RC F coupe also saw the debut of version 2 of the 2UR-GSE 5-liter V8. The highlight of its suite of modifications versus the original: the capability of running on either a hybrid-like Atkinson cycle at cruising speeds or on the conventional Otto cycle when more oomph is called for. Other improvements include VVT-iE (Variable Valve Timing – intelligent by Electric motor) on all 4 cams, new heads with titanium valves, larger throttle body and a lighter crankshaft and connecting rods.

By the improved numbers, a higher compression ratio (12.3:1) results in the aforementioned 467 hp and 389 lb/ft of torque and a 500 rpm higher redline (now 7300 rpm). And the fuel economy numbers? In the GS F sedan (launched a year after its coupe cousin) the official EPA fuel economy numbers are 16 mpg city, 24 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. In our week-long stint with the Ultra White exterior / Stratus Gray interior GS F shown in this article, our first tankful (in city and urban highway conditions with a mix of all 4 of the driving modes that we’ll explain later) averaged 14.1 miles per gallon. The second tankful, in lighter traffic and with less use of the Sport and Sport+ modes, produced the official EPA 16 mpg city figure.

But why no cylinder deactivation?
I posed this question to Lexus International’s U.S. Manager of Strategic Communications & Education Paul Williamsen at the RC F world debut in 2014. His reply: “Dual Otto/Atkinson cycle functionality provides much of the benefits of cylinder deactivation with greater smoothness, less complexity and lighter weight”.

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The Exterior
The January 2015 debut of the Lexus GS F foretold the Pebble Beach unveiling of the mid-life facelift for the rest of the GS line the following August. Said refresh killed the marque’s last understated and divided spindle grille in favor of a larger one with less attractive headlights and bumper sculpturing. Yet, a similar in-your-face look somehow works better in the GS F. Present and accounted for, of course, are typical “F” styling cues such as the diagonal front fender vents and quad exhaust pipes. The orange brake calipers (one of the options on our test car) add a nice, distinctive touch. Even the nuns at my youngest grandson’s daycare were suitably impressed by the GS F’s imposingly aggressive presence. Perhaps they were praying for me to resist the temptation to obliterate the posted speed limits in a car this effortlessly powerful…

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The Interior
Perhaps the standout feature in the GS F’s interior are the sport seats with their undulating sew pattern and stitching. These are inspired by high-end athletic sportswear and closely mimic the skeletal and musculature contours of the human body. Curiously, though, they only have 10-way power adjustability like the standard GS seats and lack the power mid-back, side bolster and thigh support functions of GS Luxury Package and F Sport seats. The Stratus Gray interior of our tester is a nice break from the black gloom of most sports sedan interiors. Its light hue, however, brought on a bout of geruntdenimphobia (fear of wearing denim), an affliction even more common with white interiors such as the Lexus IS F’s signature Alpine option.

Yet, paradoxically, I harbored no fears when the need arose to transport a good friend’s nearly 2-month-old son on a lunch outing. His rearward-facing infant seat was easily and intuitively secured and, driven gently in Eco and Normal modes, the GS F allowed him to sleep soundly both to and from the restaurant. In reply to the occasionally-asked Jalopnik question “Will it Baby?”, we’ll reply, “Absolutely!”

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The driving experience
So, did Lexus lie to us and pretend that the GS F is a full-on sports sedan when it is, in fact, a soft, LS-like luxobarge? Hardly, and perhaps the GS F’s greatest virtue is its flexible and adaptable Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Actually, this author sampled the GS F in autocross and racetrack settings before spending a week with it in more mundane street environments.

Speaking of settings, the GS F’s Drive Mode Select offers Eco, Normal, Sport S and Sport S+ options. Eco (for maximum fuel efficiency) goes as far as deleting the tachometer altogether in the variable Thin Film Transistor (TFT) instrument cluster center in favor of a swirling blue pattern. The steps up to Normal and Sport are self-explanatory and include fairly noticeable increases in throttle responsiveness. Sport+ additionally firms up the steering, albeit to a subtle degree.

Similarly adjustable is the Torque Vectoring Differential (TVD), with Standard, Slalom and Track settings with increasing responsiveness and agility. Since this review period offered no track time, we stuck to Standard and Slalom settings. In the latter mode, a firm stomp on the throttle while turning allowed a quick, fun twitch of the tail quickly caught by the Vehicle Integrated Dynamics Management (VDIM) suite of anti-lock brakes (ABS), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and traction control (TRAC) functions. VDIM itself in the GS F has Sport and Expert modes, with the latter turning off TRAC while retaining some VSC functionality.

An ASC on-off button piqued my curiosity. Delving into the Owner’s Manual Quick Guide revealed this to be for the Active Sound Control system. This is Lexus’ take on the newfangled performance car trend of piping select synthesized engine and exhaust sounds into the cabin. While certainly apropos in the GS F, the extra noise wasn’t always a welcome guest. Nominally, ASC pipes in the “enhanced sound” through the sound system’s rear speakers when in Sport and Sport+ modes, with higher engine speeds in the latter mode transferring most of the sound to the front speakers. ASC does not operate in Eco or Normal modes, yet heavier throttle applications in Normal mode seemed to bring some ASC-like extra engine noise into the cabin.

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Moving the transmission selector into manumatic mode and using the paddle shifters reveals what is still among the world’s fastest-responding torque-converter automatic transmissions, but, sadly, the downshift rev-matching throttle blip whoomphs in the GS F’s Aisin-built AA80E 8-speed automatic appear to be notably more muted than those in the IS F I drove back in 2007.

Naturally for a Lexus-branded sports-luxury car of this caliber, a full suite of “electronic nannies” such as Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Lane Keep Assist and Lane Departure Warning functions is standard. Kudos to Lexus for the latter, which is the best-calibrated, least-intrusive system of its ilk I’ve sampled, compared with others as disparate as the GMC Yukon and the Mazda MX-5 Miata.

Although the computer mouse-like Remote Touch Interface (RTI) for such functions as audio, climate and navigation has been lambasted by some critics, I found it easy and intuitive to use. It can be, however, a bit too finicky and sensitive when entering an address or point of interest in the standard navigation system. The navi itself, and even its basic functionality felt comfortingly familiar to this owner of a daily-driver 2011 Lexus IS 350 F Sport, yet a number of kaizen improvements are evident in the intervening 6 years. Among them are speed limit and toll booth indications; a vastly clearer and more intuitive compass; additional “next turn” indication in the instrument cluster and occasional crisp and beautiful 3D graphics, such as those indicating expressway exits and splits.

Overall, this is a versatile, split-personality sedan whose feel and agility belies its largish size, and can be as much back-road burner or luxocruiser as you want it to be, depending on how you calibrate its multiple settings described earlier. Among the few changes for the 2017 GS F is the addition of Linear Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), with 30 levels of damping that further affirms the “do-it-all” nature of this supersedan.

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But is the GS F overpriced?
Pricing guesstimates for the Lexus GS F universally coalesced around the $60,000 range. My more knowledgeable car enthusiast friends qualified that with “If this were a $60,000 car, I’d get one in a heartbeat. But I know it’s more than that.” And, sadly, they’re right. The GS F’s base MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) is $83,940, and the options on our tester (upgraded Mark Levinson Audio, the aforementioned Orange Brake Calipers, Illuminated Door Sills and the might-as-well-be-standard Trunk Mat/Cargo Net/Wheel Locks/Key Glove combo) plus DPH (Delivery, Processing & Handling) brought the bottom line to $87,275. Sorry, but even with dealer discounts and a now-expired $10,000 dealer incentive, $60K isn’t happening. Missing from our GS F are a couple of new-for-2017 options: hand-polished forged wheels and a Heads-Up Display.

But is this price really out of line? Cadillac’s CTS-V starts at $85,995, a couple of grand higher than the GS F. The top-echelon German supersedans (Audi RS7, BMW M6 Gran Coupe and Mercedes-AMG E63 S) have 6-digit base MSRPs. Meanwhile, many of the lower-powered E-segment sport sedans also have commensurately lower prices. A Cadillac CTS V-Sport starts in the low $60,000 range. Push into the lower-$70,000 range and you get perhaps the GS F’s closest rivals: the $70,900 Audi S6 (4-liter, 450 hp turbocharged V8) and the $72,100 BMW M550i X-Drive (4.4-liter, 456 hp turbocharged V8).

But wait… the Audi S6, when comparably equipped to the Lexus GS F (by adding Driver Assistance and Sport packages, plus LED headlights) becomes a $79,250 car. And the BMW? Optioning it up to better align with the GS F brings the price to $80,295 including Destination & Handling. So, again, the more powerful GS F emerges as a ‘tweener confidently marching to its own drum. Should we say, then, that Lexus, in creating the GS F, has applied the Goldilocks principle?

All photos by Joaquín Ruhi

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