The Lexus GS F is a car that’s been on the starting blocks for several years. Lexus’s F-brand performance division was ready to launch it back in 2010, using the third-generation GS as a basis – only for global financial conditions to be deemed too hostile.
So it’s with a strong sense of relief that the Japanese firm is now finally getting ready to put its first full-size super-saloon into showrooms and slide another feather into the band of its cap.
Like the IS F, LF A and RC F before it, the GS F is an unconventional kind of performance machine that speaks volumes about Lexus’s alternative approach. If it were built by a German carmaker’s performance division it’d be more powerful, more expensive and turbocharged. All three facts would be inevitable in order to earn the car a place in the ever-escalating horsepower race that has defined Germany’s market for ’bahn-storming four-doors this past decade or so.
“We choose not to get involved in a fight we can’t win,” says chief engineer for the car Yukihiko Yaguchi. So instead of focusing on power and outright sledgehammer pace, Lexus counters with noise, excitement and ‘performance feel’. Its 471bhp 5.0-litre atmospheric V8 engine is the main conduit of all three, with a building torque delivery quite unlike the walloping mid-range of the turbo V8s now common in the niche.
Away from the engine compartment, Lexus has gone to rare lengths to give the GS F the tools it needs to take on the might of Bavaria.
New joining techniques, alongside bracing of the car’s body-in-white, add about 10% to the static torsional stiffness of the GS’s monocoque chassis, while lightweight forged aluminium control arms, new rear suspension mounts, lowered and stiffened springs and uprated ZF Sachs dampers bring sporting purpose to the suspension. Braking is by Brembo iron discs all round, measuring 380mm up front and clamped by six-piston calipers, and backed up by an enlarged hydraulic master cylinder.
If all of that sounds familiar, it may be because the RC F used many of the same ingredients. But the RC F’s main penalty against its rivals was weight. The GS F actually weighs significantly less than the current BMW M5 and less than a Mercedes-AMG E63, and it also gets the substantial torque-vectoring rear differential as standard that its two-door cousin offered as an option.
One the equipment front the GS F is how you would expect any Lexus to feel and be put together - sublimely. As the range-topping GS saloon, the GS F is not short on equipment, which includes 19in alloy wheels, Brembo brakes, LED headlights, a carbonfibre rear spoiler and quad-exhaust system, while the inside gets luxuries such as a head-up display, Lexus's premium infotainment system with a 12.3in screen, a touchpad controller, sat nav, DAB and a multimedia interface. There is also dual-zone climate control, heated and ventilated, electrically adjustable front seats and a leather upholstery all fittd as standard.
The GS F is firm, flat, pointy, noisy, so lots of things you might imagine that customers would want their super-saloon to be – and yet, I suspect, still not quite what lots of those buyers really want.
Handling precision and driver engagement are not the car’s problem. The GS F is right up there with the most taut and responsive saloons of its ilk, offering a similar sort of oneness with the road surface and keenness to change direction as the current C63.
Accurate, informative, confidence-inspiring steering is a particular highlight (you need the car in Sport S+ mode to get the best out of it). The car makes its mass more apparent mid-corner, and the active diff is much better at putting power onto the road and bolstering stability than indulging you with much handling adjustability.
But that handling compromise, which will be exactly what many drivers will want from the car, undoubtedly has a place alongside the blatant hooliganism of some of the GS F’s rivals.
The car’s 5.0-litre V8 delivers its promised thrills in some ways, but if Lexus is going to persevere with it – and with its current rationale of quality before quantity where performance is concerned – it needs to be paired with a better gearbox.
Switch the annoying Active Sound Control noise generating system off and the engine sounds authentic, rousing and mellifluous. You’d just sooner it didn’t clear its throat so suddenly at 4000rpm but rather made more of a rasping burble at low revs.
Still, the abrupt change to the GS F’s character at that key point in the rev range is relatively unaffecting compared with how frustrating that eight-speed gearbox can be in automatic mode and how slow and inconsistent it feels in manual.
Row up and down the ratios using the paddles and you’ll find that some changes are bundled through quite harshly, others with silken smoothness; none come as quickly as they need to. Select D on the gearbox instead and the kickdown characteristics are near-impossible to predict.
A good automatic gearbox knows the difference between a quickly flexed accelerator (usually a prompt to change down) and a gently squeezed one (‘hold this cog and pour on the good stuff, please’). The GS F’s doesn’t.
It also assumes that, once you get past about 80 per cent throttle, you simply must want it to kick down – but you seldom do. You’re just using that much pedal because you have to, what with only having 391lb ft eventually available.
The GS F is good value compared with most of the full-sized alternatives, and because it’s a Lexus it’s got abundant material quality, an immaculate cabin, sublime seats, a great equipment level and strong refinement on its side.
But ultimately it’s neither as big-hitting nor as broad-batted as the more thoroughly executed Germans it’s seeking to supplant, and its main selling point – that atmospheric powertrain – is still a long way from being all that it might.