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Understanding and Hooning the Lexus F SPORT Cars

Kamil Kaluski October 9, 2013 Featured, Lexus Reviews, Reviews 8 Comments

Lexus lead

The BMW M3, in theory, has always been simply a base sedan turned into a sports car by BMW M GmbH. There were substantial improvements in its chassis and engine, but it was still a 3 Series. Over the years, many have attempted to duplicate the performance and success of the M Division, but most always fall short of the mark. For instance, Audi’s S4 was too slow and too heavy, so much so that Audi had to create the sportier RS4 version. The Mercedes-Benz AMG version of the C-class was fast and powerful, but the driver involvement just was not there.

In 2007, an M3 competitor came from the least likely of places, Lexus, in the form of the IS F. Like the E90 M3, it too had a powerful V8 engine that sent its power to the rear wheel via a proper limited-slip differential, and the car boasted a strong, well-tuned, chassis. While the IS F did not knock the M3 off its throne, it may have come closer to doing so than many others.

To further show how serious it was about its performance, Lexus put the much-hyped LFA supercar into production. The V10 two-seater was aiming straight at Italy’s exotica, offering parallel performance but with a Camry-level of reliability and none of the drama. To say that Lexus is serious about performance brand image would be an understatement.

Lexus F SPORT CT IS GS

In order to show this performance seriousness, Lexus invited a group of automotive journalists, and me, to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to show how capable the Lexus F SPORT (yes, all capital letters) line of CT, IS, GS, and LS vehicles are in an autocross and track settings. To sweeten things up, they offered rides around the LVMS road course in an LFA, which was driven by Scott Pruett.

The F designation does not have one specific meaning. Some say it relates back to when the Lexus brand was created, others say that it’s related to the Fuji Speedway where Lexus did their developmental work, and still others say that it stands for fun. Whatever the case maybe, for potential buyers it is supposed to mean performance; be it cars, performance versions of cars, and/or performance accessories.

Autocross:

2014 lexus gs 350 AWD f sportTo prove that autocross is 90% skill and 10% car, Scott Pruett set a base time in the CT F SPORT that everyone would try to beat, and which no one did. The cars available for autocross were the IS250, IS350, GS350 AWD, and the CT 200h, all with the F SPORT package. The course was a rather easy one; two straights with long chicanes, one short straight with a hairpin at the end, and three average corners. No slalom or anything fancy like that.

I took a particular liking to the IS 250. It felt like it was the right size and had just enough power for that course. It was refreshing to drive a small sedan with a naturally-aspirated six cylinder, as opposed to laggy turbo-fours which are now the norm on small sporty sedans. After a few laps I was in the zone in with this little car. I felt like I could go around that course for hours and not break a sweat. Some said that all of these cars understeer too much, but I think that those people simply did not brake early enough.

Adjust the driver not the car.

When I switched into the IS 350 and GS 350, I immediately started over-driving them. They seemed significantly more powerful on this little course than the IS 250. The stability control in SPORT and SPORT+ modes make itself known early. Where BMW’s DTC in sport mode allows for some tail-wagging, (I once even managed to spin an M6 mid-slalom) these Lexus cars were a lot more conservative.

Track:

The road course at LVMS is 2.4 miles long and has 12 turns. I am a little slower than most in learning track layouts, so I took my first lap around it with Scott Pruett in the LFA. While that was fun, it was basically impossible to learn that track while discussing the awesomeness of the LFA with Scott and hanging for dear life at the same time. Two things that stuck out about the LFA: not enough headroom for a 6’2” guy with a helmet on, and the surprisingly thick airbag-equipped seatbelt caught my attention. The car is damn fast but it does not have a cup-holder

Lexus allowed the gathered auto journalists, and me, to take the cars alone on the track at will, which I thought was crazy. After looking around at whose face would be photo-shopped with a wrecked IS F next to a cheesy Jalopnik headline, I got in and got on it. If it was going to be anyone it might as well be me.

2014 IS 250/IS 350 F SPORT:

2014 lexus IS 250 f sportHere the difference in power between the two cars was not as apparent as it was on the autocross course. I found both cars to be equally easy to drive and neither exhibited any unpleasant body roll or dive. The cars did understeer, as they should have, when entering a corner too hot. The stability control in SPORT+ mode proved a bit too invasive here though, but I think I did keep me from spinning out at one point.

IS F-SPORT package includes: LED headlamps, staggered 18” wheels with summer tires, high-friction brake pads, electronically adjustable sport suspension, LFA-like gauge cluster, sport seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum pedals, fancy grill, F-SPORT badges. $2675-$3620, depending on the model.

2014 IS F:

The IS F is unchanged for 2014, meaning that it retains the basic look of the 2013 IS chassis. I had a problem with this car right away – not nearly enough headroom with the helmet on. I had to drive with my head, literally, tilted. I did two very uncomfortable laps in it and gave it back. It did feel much faster than anything else out there and it did not have any adjustable settings or modes. Also, you don’t realize how nice the interior of the new IS is until you sit in the old one.

2014 lexus IS 250 f sport 22014 GS 350 F SPORT:

Here on the bigger track, the bigger GS felt more at home than on the autocross course. Logic would dictate that there would be more room in the GS than in the IS, and there is. Otherwise, it was very similar to the IS 350. Sport seats on both cars offered plenty of support in all the right areas.

GS F-SPORT package includes: LED headlamps, 19” wheels with summer tires, larger front brakes with high-friction brake pads, electronically adjustable sport suspension, variable steering ratio, sport seats, aluminum interior trim, fancy grill and bumpers, lip spoiler, F-SPORT badges. $5690-$6130, depending on the model.

2014 LS F 460 F SPORT:

The big guy actually surprised me the most. Given its conservative tuxedo-like appearance, I was quite surprised by how well it danced. Like the BMW M5, it seemed to have shrunken down when driven in anger. There were no surprises; no exuberant body roll, no brake fade, no floating. Even the steering was good, transmitting the feel of rumble strips ever so gently. That said, with 386hp it needs more power, especially when compared to the top-level Germans.

LS F-SPORT package includes: 19” wheels, Brembo brakes, sport air suspension, floppy paddle shifters, sport seats, a limited slip differential (!), and a small badge. $9950-$10,000, depending on model.

One may look at this list of items in each package and say one of the following:

  • Lexus F SPORT details 2014 2But most of it is just sporty dress-up. And it is, but in fact that is what people buy, otherwise BMW wouldn’t be selling thousands of M-sport package cars on an AWD 4-cylinder car with a slush-box. Additionally, it’s all quite tasteful inside the Lexus, and the seats, much like BMW’s, are superior to offerings from other automakers.
  • But it is really expensive; the aftermarket can offer the same stuff for less money. It is expensive, but the aftermarket is really hit-or-miss. Your thick sway-bars were not designed by the same guy who designed your 3” exhaust pipe, and therefore there could be contact between the two, such as on one of my own cars. Here the shocks and springs are perfectly matched, whereas the aftermarket might not offer such a clean pairing. Further, the aftermarket does not offer a warranty, financing, or leasing options.
  • What about REAL performance stuff? Lexus will continue to build high-performance models such as the IS F. This is their first real attempt at the whole performance package thing, and it will get better. They won’t offer turbo kits, adjustable coil-over suspensions, or limited slip differentials for mad drifters, but they will likely sell whatever is justifiable for the market. The F SPORT cars are suppose to go against other basic car with sport packages.
  • What about manual transmissions? Forget about it. Buy a BMW with one while you can, that’s what a whopping 5% of buyers do. Automatic transmission technology has significantly evolved over the past few years, never mind the excellent dual-clutch transmissions. While hooning these cars I never thought to myself “hmm, I really wish I had a third pedal and stick to grind with

One thing I should point out about the track event. On this really hot Nevada desert day (95F-ish), on their second day of constant heavy-duty hooning, not a single car had any malfunctions. The brakes at no time showed any signs of fade. At one point the heavy LS 460 complained that its transmission was hot, but its performance has not diminished at all. The organizers parked it for fifteen minutes and then sent it back out on the track for more hoonage.

2012 lexus LFA

No one will argue that in the past decade Lexus did not deliver anything that an enthusiast would want. Recently, however, with every new model released there is more to like; Jeff [here] and I [here] have both liked the new GS. Even the ES, the rebadged Camry, is a changed animal. In fact it’s not even based on the Camry anymore. Read other magazines and you’ll learn that, much like what Jeff has said, the new IS is truly excellent and much better looking in life than in pictures.

The F-SPORT cars drive really well both on the road and on the track, which is something that cannot be said about Jaguars (Ed.’s Note – *cough* F-Type *cough*(Kamil’s note XFR = ugh)) or offerings from Mercedes-Benz. Having recently driven the 4-cylinder BMW 328i, I would choose the IS 250 over it in a heartbeat, although that decision may not be as simple with higher trim levels, and having owned six BMWs I do consider myself a fanboy. I am looking forward to the next IS F and other F SPORT cars; in the world of ECO this and HYBRID that, seeing a line of performance anything is truly refreshing.  

2014 lexus IS F

[Disclaimer: Lexus flew Hooniverse to Las Vegas to drive the F Sport lineup under the hot Nevada sun. We’re guessing that Kamil made up for that by losing many dollars at the blackjack table.]

[All Images: ©2013 Hooniverse/Kamil Kaluski, All Rights Reserved. Except the last one. And in the top combo, LS and LFA, that was provided by Lexus. And where I made the collage of accessories, that’s Lexus too] 

  • skitter

    Pet peeve, nothing personal, really enjoyed the article:

    'I really didn't mind the automatic transmission while attempting to set a fast lap in an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar track. These automatics are pretty good.'

    We are well past the days when the manual transmission offered a consistent performance advantage. The computer algorithms grow more invisible and responsive. They allow increased focus on other parts of track driving.

    But I don't drive my car on track. I blip the throttle to downshift into the grocery store parking lot. Even after 150,000 miles, I get it wrong sometimes. And pushing a button will never be as much fun.

    • I understand and I agree. Also, where did that quote come from?

      There's so much traffic around where I live that I can live with an automatic on daily basis and be completely happy.

      • skitter

        Just paraphrasing what I feel like I see in every article involving a 'road' test of some car on a track. And it's my own personal bias that I care more about how fun it is to drive to the grocery store.

        • Ok, and you're right. That said, if an automatic transmission shifts hard or at the wrong times, it is under extreme conditions, such as hooning on a track, where these short comings become more evident.

      • Kogashiwa

        I think I'd be totally fine with a dual-clutch automatic. It's the torque converter that bugs me more than the fact it shifts itself. The rubber-bandiness. That and the fact when I want it to shift I want it NOW and not two seconds later. And for some baffling reason the semi-auto mode doesn't let you shift into first, only second through fifth. Wish I could justify the expense to put a manual in my IS300 but it'd be cheaper to switch the whole car for an imported Altezza. Might do that.

  • Maymar

    I admit to being more than a little disappointed the new IS is auto-only. I understand it, and don't hold it against Lexus, but disappointment. Especially since, in my anecdotal observation* the stick seems to have sold relatively well in Canada. Then again, I also like having a stick in traffic (possibly due to having a crappy old automatic that can't be manually shifted, so I'm stuck using the brake to control my speed more than I'd like).

    *in the ~15,000 cars I've seen for work, a relatively high number of IS's have had the third pedal – at least 10-15%. Pretty sure even the 3-Series doesn't hit those numbers.

  • Dean Bigglesworth

    LFA.. [youtube 2ROmX6QfOeY http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ROmX6QfOeY youtube]