Racing ferocity wrapped in quiet elegance
Track Day: Lexus F Sport Full Line
Lest you’ve not heard, read, seen or witnessed first hand: Lexus is no longer in the business of selling warmed-over Toyotas with nice interiors, and they haven’t been for some time. Indeed, the Lexus image has been completely revamped from its early days — a process that’s only accelerating — and they’ve poised themselves in recent years as a formidable opponent to world-class luxury vehicles. Now, with their fully integrated F Sport lineup, the company has taken a solid shot across the reigning sport sedan titans’ respective bows; heralded by their flagship supercar, the LFA, which shares its amazing genes with much of the Japanese carmaker’s lineup, Lexus is undeniably in the sport sedan business.
MORE AUTOS WITH A MEAN SIDE: Behind The Wheel: 2014 Cadillac CTS Vsport | Quick Spin: Nissan Juke-R | Behind the Wheel: 2014 Volkswagen CC R-Line
Lexus has made driver enjoyment a big part of its brand philosophy — we’ve even heard the word “fun” tossed around quite a bit when chatting with the powers that be. Were you to purchase a “normal” Lexus tomorrow, you’d be happy with it for many reasons: every Lexus is high on comfort, luxury, tech-saturation, premium looks and, hey, there are payment plans for the big ones. Nonetheless, when there are turns to tackle, on ramps to dominate, track days titles to defend — and when aren’t there? — drivers demand more. Thankfully Lexus has many lusty option boxes ripe for the checking. As proved by our time behind the wheel of the entire lineup, F Sport Lexuses are indeed fun, mean, aggressive and grin-inducing all the way to the finish line. It’s important to also mention that shoppers needn’t add an entire F Sport package for their vehicle in order to have a sporty good time; official F Sport accessories are available for purchase and dealer installation (sort of half-aftermarket…halftermarket?) that won’t void the car’s warranty: springs, sway bars, brake upgrades and more, all finished in F Sport blue.
We visited Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Lexus, where we had our pick of the F Sport full lineup — some on public roads, others on an autocross track — including the IS 250, IS 350, IS C, GS 350 AWD, CT (hybrid hatch) and RX. We also wrung out others — the LS and IS F (!) — on a larger, faster track. In both settings we were encouraged to drive all the cars first in Normal mode, and then after a few laps switch the Drive Mode Select knob into Sport S+, which changes engine and chassis settings to provide a (much) stronger, tauter ride. What a difference that little twist can make: it’s like if your boss were running the 100-yard dash and then tagged out to let Usain Bolt have a go. The literal results are intelligent, whip-fast shifts; tight, sure steering that still accepts input and keeps the car agile; and a hearty engine growl. Sport S+ mode seemed to make each vehicle search for apexes, eager for buried throttles and hard braking. On a track these features are necessary for ultimate performance; on the road they at minimum improve a commute, grin-wise, but also improve response time in emergency situations (if you need to justify the purchase or something).
What a difference that little twist can make: it’s as if your boss was running the 100-yard dash and then tagged out to let Usain Bolt have a go.
Predictably, Sport S+ mode delivered the most muscular thrills in the already sport-leaning and well-powered IS and GS sedans. Body roll was significantly diminished and gears were selected before we even thought to flick the shift paddles and held in high rpm appropriately. Then the hybrid CT shocked us (figuratively): the oddly styled wagon tarted up with big wheels and trim seemed like a bit of stretch on an autocross track, but with the sportier mode engaged it was all systems go for a tail-happy turn fest. The thing slid when we wanted but gripped when it needed to. Then of course the larger track in many ways meant bigger thrills, though with cars like the IS F at one’s disposal, is there really ever a large enough road? Even the LS, with all its mass and a mammoth footprint, hunkered down to get serious in turns and gulped speed in straights with abandon once the magic DMS dial is spun. Each of these cars, with their larger, F Sport spindle grilles, noticeably aggressive wheels and more, is far more athletic. The IS 350 didn’t surprise us, as we’d driven it previously, but to experience the same wizardry and aplomb in these other models is very important.
The cherry on top of our already phenomenal track day: hot laps with famous Formula Drift star and Pikes Peak racer Ken Gushi in his Lexus CCS-R Pikes Peak race car, which saw duty at the Hill Climb earlier this year. (Witnessing a true master drift turns, pass other drivers like they were flooring it in reverse and slamming through gear shifts in a steroidal rocket on wheels is some next level shit.) Later on Gushi also treated us to a cute game of “drift roulette” using a civilian-racer IS F. Gushi’s driving was the perfect metaphor for Lexus’s paradigm shift from staid, cushy vehicle maker to the creator of enthusiast machines. The capability — the chutzpa to tackle Pikes Peak — and the hoonability — doing endless, smoky donuts — are both now purpose-built into each F Sport vehicle in varying degrees; to some extent, they touch the entire Lexus model line.
As honest-to-god sport sedan as each of the F Sport models is — as much aggressive, tire-squealing, technologically wonderful and thrilling fun as Lexus has made them — there are some things these vehicles are not. They aren’t BMW M, Mercedes-Benz AMG or Audi RS cars (though admittedly, the IS F is close). They’re also not supposed to be. Those are, in many cases, second and third cars for enthusiasts; those are adrenaline machines through and through; those are German. Instead, there is a balance here of luxury, sport, accessibility and all-around driver engagement that seems so purely Japanese, so purely Lexus: a refined, measured, on-demand racing ferocity wrapped in quiet elegance. It’s not some clever fluke that we’ve spent actual track days with Lexus; instead, it makes total sense. The Lexus F Sport era has arrived, and it’s quite ready to be flogged.