In the world of performance vehicles, certain marques are well-known for their prowess. If you bring up the letter “M,” it’s hard not to dive into a discussion about the race-car heritage found in BMW’s E30 M3, the roaring V8 found in the early-2000’s M5, or even the on-rails handling provided by the M Coupe – all three of which were offered only with a standard gearbox. Talking about “SS” nomenclature stirs memories of the throaty muscle cars of yesteryear at your local small-town car show, while “STi” reminds you of a boxer engine’s distinctive rumble, and the likelihood of vape smoke billowing out of the windows.
In 2006, Lexus launched a performance line, which it called Lexus F. Debuting for the 2007 model year, the marque was named after Fuji Speedway in Japan, where Lexus conducted research and development on its performance vehicles. Lexus envisioned the F brand to compete with the likes of BMW’s M division, Mercedes-Benz’s AMG skunkworks, and other performance-oriented versions of luxury cars.
The first F-badged vehicle put into production was the IS F sedan in 2008, followed by the LFA supercar in 2010. The LFA was a remarkable experiment, stuffing a 4.8-liter V10 engine into a vehicle with a body primarily composed of carbon fiber, but its $375,000 price tag placed it into the “unobtainium” category of vehicles. Luckily, the IS F had a sticker price that was a fraction of the LFA’s cost, and its 5.0-liter V8 easily put a smile on a driver’s face.
Post recession, with F performance progress stalled, Lexus rolled out F Sport versions for most models in the company’s lineup. When a vehicle is outfitted with the F Sport treatment, performance-oriented improvements such as stronger brakes and sportier suspension tuning accompany aesthetic changes including unique badges, a mesh grille, and a rear spoiler.
Nevertheless, Lexus continued working on its F performance program and, today, three performance vehicles reside under the F halo: the 2018 GS F sedan, the 2018 RC F coupe, and the new 2018 LC 500 grand tourer. All three use a 5.0-liter V8 similar to the one found in the original IS F, but increased output measures 467 horsepower and 389 lb.-ft. of torque. While there is no denying that all three of these F-badged vehicles are stunning on the outside, Lexus remains a newer name in the performance game, and it is easy for the uninitiated to question the performance capabilities these vehicles possess.
In order to encourage driving enthusiasts to answer those questions for themselves, the company’s Lexus Performance Driving School toured the country this past summer. During the program, pro instructors teach performance driving skills in a safe environment, and participants get seat time in the company’s new LC 500 flagship coupe, along with other performance-oriented Lexus vehicles such as the GS F, IS 350 F Sport, RC 350 F Sport and RC F.
Lexus stopped at different venues all around the country, offering full-day and half-day Performance School programs. Half-day experiences run about five hours in length, while the full-day track experience is approximately nine hours long. Those participating in the full-day experience carry out performance driving drills on speedways and infield courses.
To experience the school first-hand, I made my way up to Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. As more of an introduction to performance driving skills than a high-octane experience for seasoned drivers, the Lexus Performance Tour Experience I attended featured autocross courses set up in a parking lot. For more fun, try the track-oriented Lexus Performance Track Experience.
After I arrived, courteous staff members greeted me and signed me in for the program. Following a short wait, we entered a “classroom” where attendees were educated about the Lexus F brand, how to get the most out of the vehicles they were to drive, and warned to not even think about disabling any of the vehicle’s traction and stability control systems. The itinerary of our day would include a drag strip challenge, a practice autocross session, and the grand finale: a timed, competition-style autocross course while driving the LC 500.
Instruction came to a close, and we were off to the drag strip challenge, where drivers took turns with the RC 350 F Sport, and the IS 350 F Sport. Directions for this part of the experience were simple: Floor it, and then slam on the brakes. Each attendee received two turns with each vehicle during this portion of the course, and while this wasn’t the most exciting part of the day, it was a good introduction to what was to come.
Next up was the practice autocross course, with the RC F and GS F as our test subjects. Instructors explained the markings present on the course, which indicated when and where to brake. Both cars handled extraordinarily well throughout the course, and by the end of the program, this session was my favorite part of the day because of how much I loved driving the GS F, undoubtedly my favorite car of the collection. While the other Lexus models offered as a part of the program provided a certain sense of refinement at all times, the GS proved itself as a remarkably visceral and raw experience. I could have driven that car on this autocross course all day long.
Last, but definitely not least, was the timed autocross competition with the LC 500. Because the car has a 10-speed automatic transmission, instructors told us not to bother with the paddle shifters, and to drive the car as hard as we could through the course. I was pretty impressed by how nimble the LC was, the handling drawing stark contrast to the opulent cabin materials. This is a grand tourer that can absolutely pick up the pace when it’s demanded.
As much as I enjoyed by the Lexus Performance Driving School and everything about it – from program structure to knowledge transfer and the hospitality from the staff – I think time will tell if Lexus is able to shape the F brand into a legitimate competitor against BMW’s M, Mercedes-AMG, and others.
I’m seldom opposed to stuffing a big V8 into a vehicle that isn’t usually equipped with one. After all, that is a recipe for serious fun, and there is no denying these cars, especially the GS F, showed a lot of promise.
Yet, I can’t help but think Lexus needs to take things a little more seriously when it comes to their performance division. Using the same V8 in multiple different cars over the course of nearly a decade shows a lack of effort, even if the driveline has been improved in recent years. Also, for what it’s worth, the wheel-mounted paddle shifters were fine for acceleration and deceleration purposes, but served as a major distraction when cornering in the autocross section. The paddle shifters could benefit from a longer and larger size, but more importantly, relocation to the steering column in order to avoid awkward cornering maneuvers.
Personally, I’d prefer a manual gearbox, but I realize I’d be one of a handful of people wanting a Lexus with a stick. Still, when it comes to the performance-oriented versions with a V8 under the hood, rowing your own gears would lend the F brand the credibility it so badly wants, despite the fact paddle shifters actually deliver faster and smoother driving for those who don’t know or care to brush up on their heel-and-toe skills.
There is no denying these vehicles still lean towards the luxury side of things than the performance side. At the school, the RC F felt too big for its own good, and when given a choice of driving that or the GS F around for one last lap, choosing the GS was a no-brainer. Also, while the LC is strikingly gorgeous both inside and out, luxury seems to be the utmost priority.
While it’s great these vehicles provide the luxury for which Lexus has earned a reputation, “F” represents the company’s performance marque and, quite frankly, the company needs to step up and perform already. Though the vehicles within the Lexus F lineup are impressive, they still need improvement if they want to be taken seriously as outright performance vehicles. The GS F represents a great start, and it shows the potential that Lexus can put into a performance vehicle. Now it’s a matter of whether or not Lexus can adopt and master the notion that refined luxury and white-knuckle performance are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Despite the nitpicky and analytical nature of this review, experiencing these cars and the opportunity to participate in the Lexus Performance Driving School was nothing short of a pleasure. The program was exceptionally well structured. Attendees were informed about the vehicles, told what to expect, and taught how to optimize the driving for maximum performance. We started off in the cars with less power, graduating to models with more power as the day wore on and drivers developed their skills. Not only was the experience fun, but it definitely helped to improve my driving skills in a safe environment.
Furthermore, for the most part, I’m impressed with the crop of Lexus performance vehicles. They show promise, if not clear equality with established performance marques. Lexus can indeed create zesty vehicles, and allows drivers to put their claims to the test. It’s not every day you get handed the keys to a brand new performance vehicle, receive instructions on how to throw it around an autocross course, and get to do it all for absolutely free.
One last event remains for 2017, a Performance Track Experience occurring November 17th-19th at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. If you live anywhere near L.A., this is definitely worth your time, even though the Performance Track Experience requires a registration fee due to its more intensive nature. Also, be sure to visit the Lexus Performance Driving School’s website for more details and information regarding future events.