As I tap out this Lexus GS F review, I’m doing the insomnia thing in a hotel in Seville, Spain, hours before my first drive of the Lexus LC500, a roughly $100,000 luxury coupe.
With its audacious show-car styling—a welcome light in the tunnel for Lexus’ currently murky design language—the LC500 also spotlights the mission of Akio Toyoda, the Toyota chairman, “master driver,” and Lexus chief branding officer, to purge Lexus of boring cars once and for all. As Lexus reminds us in Spain, Toyoda’s 2011 trip to the Pebble Beach car show was spoiled by collectors and media giving him an earful over Lexus’ approach to luxury, which has long prioritized serenity and bulletproof quality over exciting design and performance.
Lexus vows that the LC500’s rear-drive Global Architecture Luxury platform (or GA-L) will spawn a host of desirable models, including an all-new LS flagship sedan that will break cover in Detroit in January. And despite being cobbled together from an existing sedan and platform, the GS F gives us a hopeful taste of what Lexus has in mind.
Not long ago, this GS F would have seemed a one-off trick, a flea flicker that defies the company’s ultra-conservative playbook. We’re talking a four-door Thundering Herd with a 467-horsepower, naturally aspirated V8, shared with the RC F coupe and now, the LC500. The GS F is also wicked fun to drive—full stop, no disclaimers. The only major sniping here involves the oddball exterior styling and some vestigial Toyota dullness inside—especially the low-res, old-fart display graphics that recall AOL and “You’ve Got Mail.” Oh, and the infernal joystick infotainment controller that Lexus calls Remote Touch.
Like BMW’s venerable M badge, or Cadillac’s V, Lexus has brushed off “F” to denote its highest-performing models. As the pinnacle of the midsize GS lineup, the GS F gets a host of upgrades: robust ventilated Brembo brakes include six-piston calipers up front and high-friction pads all around. There’s extra beef for the F-spec double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, including Sachs shock absorbers that combine serious sport, a supple ride, and no need for driver-selectable gimcracks. Nice.
A smartly tuned, eight-speed automatic transmission includes shapely paddle shifters mounted to the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Nineteen-inch forged alloy wheels feature staggered Michelin Pilot Sport tires, including sticky 275/35R19’s in back. And the piece de resistance: a torque vectoring rear differential that helps the Lexus lay down power and pirouette through corners with a rare combination of grace and malicious intent; think Tonya Harding out to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan.
The GS F, unfortunately, doubles down on the standard GS's overwrought styling, especially its controversial spindle grille that recalls a slobbering sci-fi Predator. I love the grille's thick, molded black mesh material, and the shapely radii of the rear roof pillars, but that's about it. Fortunately, the GS is due for a full re-do in coming years, likely inspired by and engineered off the LC500 platform.
This particular GS F was further penalized by searing orange paint that Lexus calls Molten Pearl, but that reminded me of a radioactive Creamsicle. The punch line was a Florida license plate adorned with, yes, a swollen Sunkist that precisely matched the Lexus. I’d also happily skip the F’s carbon-fiber decklid spoiler and over-proportioned brake cooling ducts. If this Lexus toned it down a little (or a lot), it would be one of the best stealth cars on the sedan market.
As far as interior design and top-shelf materials, the GS F trails the luxury standard set by the Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6, but there’s still plenty to like. Nubby Alcantara wraps the upper dash, armrests, and center console. Aluminum gleams from pedals and door scuff plates. Seats are terrific, including handsome front buckets with striated leather and modern sculpting. They’re comfortable as hell, but still thickly bolstered to keep you in place when you’re whipsawing the car; Cadillac’s competing CTS-V, whose optional, rock-hard Recaros are too aggressive for everyday driving, could take notes on these chairs.
The driver’s display reconfigures when you dial through performance settings, including highlighting a sharp digital tachometer in sportier modes. Again, the center screen is dinged for slow response and dated graphics, but the display does stretch a generous 12.3 inches. Unfortunately, it’s managed via the Remote Touch joystick, which is not even remotely useful. Even the simplest moves, such as setting radio presets, require too much time with eyes off the road. But the Lexus was also loaded with luxury, safety, and smart touches. The console armrest slides rearward about four inches to allow partial access, including for charger cords, without having to flip it up fully or squash cords underneath. An optional 835-watt, 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system delivered spectacular sound at a notably fair price of $1,380.
Even that audio system bowed to the explosive 5.0-liter V8 and its raunchy exhaust sound. The GS F can’t match the sheer force of the forced-induction cheaters, including the turbocharged 562-hp (or 602-hp) 2018 Mercedes E63 AMG, or the supercharged, 640-hp Caddy CTS-V. But there’s still something to be said for the Lexus’s au naturel approach, including unfiltered sound, instant throttle response, and serious urge to the tippy-top of a 7,100-rpm redline. (Note that the Lexus also cheats a bit by pumping subtle, complementary engine sound through front and rear audio speakers.) Modern air-compressing engines are all about torque curves that look more like flat lines, but I still like engines that you have to wring out to find that last drop of goodness. The Lexus makes a husky 389 pound-feet of torque, but only hits that apex between 4,800 and 5,600 rpm. Lexus claims a 4.5-second scoot to 60 mph and a 12.8-second quarter mile. That’s plenty fast, but not supercar-fast, as in the latest E63 AMG, for which Benz claims a boggling 3.2-second excursion to 60 mph.
But handling, not straight-line rocketry, is the Lexus’ top selling point. The GS F feels precise, balanced and blessedly analog—a fine counterpoint to some icy-souled, overly digitized competitors, the BMW M5 chief among them.
Plying the two-lane tracks of New York’s Dutchess County, I had a ball in the GS F. Steering is smartly weighted and generous with feedback, though the wheel itself is Toyota-staid. Under a hard whip, the discreet eight-speed transmission bobbled once or twice when left in automatic mode, but popping the shifter into manual mode solved any issues. Despite a curb weight of 4,034 pounds, the Lexus feels lithe and limber, with just enough body roll to enliven the proceedings.
Where many cars and crossovers take a cheaper, less-sophisticated approach to torque vectoring by applying single brakes to help the car carve through corners, the Lexus antes up with a true torque-vectoring rear differential, or what Lexus calls the TVD. The system hooks electronic clutch packs and an overdrive gears to each rear axle output shaft to apportion torque left or right. Sending more force to the outside rear wheel creates a magic moment in corners. It allows ultra-fast turn-in with less steering angle to deliver a given amount of cornering. By giving the Lexus a helpful shove from behind, the system quells understeer, the front-end push that’s the bane of fun handling. A good torque-vectoring diff also stabilizes a car under hard braking and in high-speed maneuvers.
Lexus’ TVD features normal, slalom, and track settings. On a makeshift skidpad, the slalom mode proved a hoot. Dropping the throttle to shift weight forward, while dialing in some steering, provoked the Lexus into easily controllable slides. But for maximum performance, I dialed the GS F up to Sport Plus and the TVD Track setting, and unleashed a Japanese demon. The Lexus positively dove into corners, let me jump back on throttle earlier than I’d otherwise dare, and squirted out without any gut-check moments of instability.
The other eye-opener, besides the handling, is a price of $85,390. That starting price is right atop Caddy’s heavy artillery, the CTS-V. In the Lexus’ well-equipped defense, there are only two available options: the tuneful Levinson audio system and orange-painted brake calipers. The new Mercedes E63 AMG will likely start around $100,000, and shoot past $120,000 with pricey options. Audi’s RS7 whips the Lexus in style and outright speed, but it also starts around $110,000, or $130,000 for the 605-horsepower RS7 Performance. The like-priced car that really gives me pause is the 505-hp Alfa Romeo Guilia Quadrifoglio, the roughly $80,000 Italian marvel that’s suddenly the most thrilling, emotionally connected performer in the class. Honestly, though, how many Lexus fans will be cross-shopping an obscure Italian car whose long-term reliability is largely unproven?
Lexus, which butters its corporate Wonder Bread with the popular RX crossover, has modest ambitions for its own wonder sedan. The company is looking to sell perhaps 2,000 GS F’s in the States in a year. But after driving the GS F, and seeing the Spanish sun rise over a glinting row of LC500's, I’m more intrigued over Lexus’ future than I’ve been in years.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.