N UNLIKELY player has picked up the naturally aspirated sports-sedan baton that's been cast aside by everybody from HSV to M Division to AMG. That player is Lexus.
More precisely, Lexusís F division.
Nearly every manufacturer has abandoned the linear, responsive theatrics of the naturally aspirated engine, but Lexus insists it has ways to get a few more years out of it and still keep pace with the turbo terrors on (official) fuel consumption.
Yes, itís the RC F powertrain inside the GS bodyshell, but the F division has made that shell about 20 per cent stiffer thanks to a fair bit of scaffolding beneath the skin. The payoff are rear doors, five seats and a bigger boot than the RC F coupe.
It's going to land locally at about $150,000, which will put it in somewhat of a no man's land. It's similar in price and power to a BMW M3, but half a size bigger and has the USP of that atmo engine.
Turbos or not, 351kW is no laughing matter. The issue is that in the softest A of the GS Fís drive modes, itís almost invisible, such is the sophistication of the powertrain and quietness of the exhaust. For a car built to deliver character, itís not a good start, as it feels like it just doesn't have enough of it, at cruising speeds at least.
Find some more interesting topography and that soon changes. As you push the Lexus harder and harder, the engine goes from a heart-warming rumble to an assassinís scalpel to, at the outer limits, a bit player.
Thatís a tough critique of a motor so clever it can cruise in the Atkinson Cycle, undetectably shrinking the capacity by 800cc to save fuel. Itís a big call for an oversquare engine that revs to 7300rpm and can push 1825kg to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds and on to a claimed 270km/h.
But thatís how it is. The harder you push it, the more the handling becomes the star. It uses plenty of conventional go-fast bits, including Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber (255/35 ZR19 up front; 275/35 ZR19s at the back) wrapping forged BBS alloys, carried by a multi-link rear suspension and a double-wishbone front end. F also decided on one fixed rate for the springs and dampers Ė no fancy pants adjustable dampers here Ė though the front-end geometry is completely different to the stock GS.
But for all that, the star is clearly the torque-vectoring differential, with its open centre sandwiched between electronically-controlled planetary gear sets. It isnít just that it works, but that you can adjust how much it works Ė it even works when thereís no torque pumping through it.
The handling doesnít shine in an MX-5 sense, largely because of the heft. Nor does it feel like a born athlete; instead it feels like one of those sportsmen who worked tirelessly to make the best of the talent they have, and you respect them all the more for it.
You can feel the car working hard beneath you to bring everything together in just the right mix. You can also feel the brain figuring out what you want, then telling the diff how to deliver it by cranking on one wheel or the other at the rear axle to make the
Endearing engine note; handling; throttle response
Hefty sucker; míah interior; Predator cranky face
car yaw harder into a corner.
The rest of the chassis also shines brighter the harder you make it work.
The brakes are strong, with six-piston monobloc calipers (questionably painted orange for the Australian market) clamping 380mm discs up front. They are firm and progressive without feeling soft.
The GS F carries a lot of mid-corner speed, but never feels nervous or fiddly when over-reaching for more.
You can flow between apexes with smooth inputs or make it snap one way then the other and it doesnít seem to matter; the car will find a way to work with your style regardless. It also copes well with bumps, corners flat on its springs and behaves like an adult playing childrenís games by thinking its way through the challenges rather than trying to outmuscle them.
The drive settings include Eco, Standard, the noisier Sport mode; and Sport+. The latter loosens up the electronic fun police and pulls some assistance out of the power steering to deliver a deliciously communicative heft. Shamefully, you canít mix and match the settings to get the best steering without the not-for-politesociety exhaust note. Lexus insists this would have demanded a new control unit and relocated wiring under the bonnet, a space that is occupied by an all-alloy V8 that sounds, at its best, like an opera tenor doing heavy metal just for giggles.
The engine is a throwback to a time when big V8s did their best stuff above 4000rpm, not 2000rpm. And itís all the better for it, especially when the eight-speed Aisen transmission shifts (in Sport mode) spookily close to how youíd choose to change gears.
It is, however, too enthusiastic for urban serenity.
The engine would feel a lot better if a few kilos were trimmed from the 1825kg kerb weight, without which youíd be able to jump into lane holes without worrying about dropping back a gear. Swing the tacho beyond 4500rpm and you donít need to worry about that anymore. The sound is deliriously enchanting, and up to the 7300rpm redline it lets you play on the noise pedal to adjust the carís cornering attitude.
Itís incredibly accurate to throttle inputs and itís fast, without being frighteningly fast, and the sweetness of its top-end power delivery makes it addictively enticing. An M3 will comfortably gobble it up on any given bit of road, but thatís not the point.
Would you come out of it feeling like youíd had more fun? Not likely.
The only real hiccup is the interior, which is a mix of expensive and mass-produced short cuts. Too many switches feel cheap, the multimedia scroller is awkward to use and the plastics in the lower dash are, err, ick.
You do, however, get a fully digital instrument cluster, a 12.3-inch multimedia screen integrated into the dash and a 17-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound system.
More importantly, the seats are terrific to use, regardless of how you use them, which sums the GS F up entirely. Itís all about how you feel as a driver. And it makes you feel very, very good. M