"F" is for Fun: The F-Sport Driving Experience

 
 
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How serious is Lexus about building fun cars really?

That's the question that was rolling around in my head as I sat down on my flight heading to Vegas. Lexus had told us to come out to Vegas with them to their "What's the F" event a few weeks back. They feed us lots of sake, treated us to plush beds at the Nobu hotel, and eventually told to go drive the crap out of their cars. My main goal was to see if this F-Sport business was more than just side skirts and spoilers.
While not quite as focused on racing as the guys responsible for the TMG 650, the F branch of Lexus is responsible for the most exciting Lexus' ever. The LFA? That's their doing. The IS F? Also the fault of these guys. Even the CCS-R has been pushed out of their sporting operation. They don't really need an introduction. So why are they giving us one?

The answer came the next day under the sun of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Lexus wanted us to get a handle on the F-Sport models of their current line-up. I mean really get handle on them. No weak put-puttering around the streets, no worries about "speed limits" here. There were just autocross cones, a road course and cars.

To be specific, they brought out the CT200h F-Sport, the 2014 IS250 FSport, The 2013/2014 IS350 F-Sport, the LS 460 F-Sport, and the GS350 F-Sport. That's what they let us drive. Also, they brought out the CCS-R and two LFA's. We weren't allowed to drive those two, but we did get to see how they preformed. SPOILER ALERT: They kick ass.

But we already knew that. What we didn't know is if there's really that much of a difference between F-Sports and your regular 'ol Lexus'. Aside from the fancy front bumper anyway. Let's break them down.

The CT 200h F-Sport

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Let's start with the baby. I'm not going to tip-toe around this: the ct200h is the slowest car here. Shocking, I know. What's surprising about the Ct wasn't necessarily the fact that it was slow, but that it was actually kinda fun to take around the autocross course because it was slow. Let me explain what I mean by that.

The CT's comfort zone is looking good and saving fuel. Even in F-Sport guise, it's not really fooling anyone into thinking that it'd give a Golf GTI or a Fiesta ST a run for their money. Hot hatch this is not. It is pretty fun to throw around on an autocross track, however. The grip is all up front and, ultimately, pretty pathetic. The front tires give up quickly. I wouldn't have really expected anything else.

Until that point though, the chassis of the car is actually quite responsive and a little fun. Yes, the limit for grip isn't really any higher than what's necessary for making a quick turn at a stop light. That's true. But the lightness of the body and the stiffened suspension that you get in the F-Sport makes it tossable. It's a very easy car to handle. Take it out F-Sport mode, and it goes back trying to save fuel (and your ass) from over enthusiastic pedal work.


The IS 250 F-Sport/IS 350 F-Sport

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We've covered the new IS at length on ClubLexus. We can put the matter of the way the IS handles on the street to bed: It's a great car. On the track though? Well, that's part of what the F-Sport lineup is trying to address.

Like the GS-F, the F-Sport ISs have an option that speeds up shifts, changes the suspension, and generally makes everything better. And it works too. In F-Sport +, both cars would shift more proactively when left in automatic. The actual gear changes in manual mode were a bit quicker as well. Still, it was better if you got into a rhythm of shifting with the track when moving up and down gears. Automatics still don't like to be rushed, even though, they're more lively than they've been in the past.

The most exciting part had to be the handling. Like the CT (and all the Lexus' we drove that day), these cars are very predictable. The IS 250 is a little bit lighter. It's slower too, but the weight difference and general lack of power makes it an easy car to drive without fear. The brakes are great and the chassis is forgiving. Step into the IS 350, and you're faced with a similar experience, just more quickly. Neither car seemed to keen to step the rear out on my test drive, but that's largely the fault of the "never-really-completely off" traction control. Traction off should mean completely off. Lame.

GS 350 F-Sport

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Easily, this was my favorite car of the day. It wasn't the lightest or most powerful, but to me, it was the most entertaining on the trac. Some kind soul turned off the traction control before I sat down which allowed me a little bit more, uh, freedom with driving the thing. No, I didn't put the car into a wall. I did get a little sideways though.

The extra weight of the GS made driving it a little bit more engaging than either IS. That's weird right? "Lightweight cars are always superior!" is how the mantra usually goes. Well, in this case, that extra weight made getting a sense for where the car's grip was much easier, in part, because the limits are lower. The chassis is virtually the same as the is, and the handling characteristics aren't really that different aside from the weight. It was easily the most fun around the track. Fastest? No, but I came out of it with pretty big smile on my face.

2013 vs 2014 IS 350 F-Sport

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Lexus took special care to make sure we got to drive the F-Sport IS350s back-to-back, just so we could see how much different they are from year to year. They've got pages of details concerning what's different. After taking their test, I came away with one very strong opinion: The 2013 under-steers like a little whiny... Anyway, it understeers badly. The new one doesn't. Plain and simple.

The 2014 handles in a similar fashion, but it'll more speed into a corner than the old model. It also has the unfair advantage of S+ Sport which enables even flatter handling. 

LS 460 F-Sport

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I was actually really interested in giving the LS a shot just because it's the least sporting vehicle in the F-Sport lineup. Yeah, it might have the biggest number by it, but the LS is a cruiser. It's designed to coddle you like a baby in the warmth of of it's luxurious confines. Corner carving is not it's comfort zone.

By the time I got to it, the transmission was overheating and not letting me drive like an asshole. That's probably for the best, because it let me focus on the handling. The car is a boat, there's really no denying that, but predictably, with the F-Sport, it handles relatively well. If you need to cut through traffic, the LS will handle it quite nicely with the F-Sport package. Just don't get overzealous. ///M this is not.

Spending all day driving was fun, but also gave us the opportunity to ride along in both the CCS-R and the LFA. Words do not adequately convey the experience these two cars provide. Ken Gushi gave me the ride along in the CCS-R and Alex Baron took people out for a spin in the LFA. Words can't really capture the experience, but i'll try and sum them up in two sentences:

The CCS-R is like riding an avalanche riding on top of another avalanche.
The LFA is half-Lexus, half-roller coaster on coke binge.

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether or not Lexus is committed to making more fun cars is yes. Fast? Well, not so much, in the F-Sport line. I think that's the key difference between the "Just Plain F" models like the LFA and the IS-F and the ones we test drove. Personally, I think that's a good thing. A few weeks back I got to spend some time with the FR-S, which is a very fun car, but not actually fast. If that's the direction Lexus is trying to move with their sporty models, they're doing it right.


 
 
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