When is a Lexus not a Lexus? When it's an F Sport. At least, that's the impression that I get from the Japanese luxury brand whenever I encounter a member of its new performance-oriented line of vehicles. Each model, be it the predictably comfortable RX crossover or the once-tepid GS sedan, veritably screams 'look at me, I'm not the same boring accounting student you dated in college! I've learned how to dance! I sold all of my cardigans!' The pinched, trapedezoidal visage (Lexus calls it a 'spindle grille'), the more aggressive body kits, and the promise of a stiffer, more responsive driving experience are the hallmarks of the automaker's F Sport initiative.
Enter the 2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport. Yes, even the elder statesman of the Lexus family - the full-size sedan that started it all back in 1989 - is getting the F Sport treatment. This lead me to question why Lexus would try so hard to transform the LS 460 into something it's not, and never has been, and in the process risk losing those customers who love it for what it is. My curiosity having gotten the better of me, I had no choice but to drive the Lexus LS 460 F Sport to find out the answer.
It's A Small(er) World, After All
Actually, I didn’t have to start behind the wheel of the 2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport to get an inkling of why the automaker would be willing to mess with its long-standing large sedan formula. The proof is in the numbers, or rather, the lack thereof when examining Lexus LS sales. Once capable of selling well over 25,000 units a year, in recent times the LS has suffered from the same shrinking full-size luxury malaise that has also affected rivals like the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, dropping below 10,000 vehicles sold in each of the past three 12-month cycles.
Although BMW and Mercedes-Benz are suffering at the high end, the data reveals that they are still doing better than the hapless LS. Given that the 7 Series and its S-Class competitor both have a reputation for being much more driver-oriented than their eastern rival, it seems natural that parent company Toyota would want to try to bring that particular element to the Lexus party. Couple that with the surging customer interest in the more affordable Hyundai Equus, which has in many ways succeeded in out-Lexusing the LS, and it's clear that a few product planners are more than a little spooked.
F Sport, Piece-By-Piece
What, exactly, does the F Sport package bring to the 2013 Lexus LS 460? For starters, it doesn't touch the engine whatsoever: rear-wheel drive buyers continue to benefit from the same 386 horsepower and 360 lb-ft of torque produced by the vehicle's 4.6-liter V-8. If you opt for all-wheel drive, output inexplicably drops to 360 horses and 347 lb-ft of twist. Lexus blames exhaust routing, but whatever the cause might be it's a significant penalty that is only compounded from a performance perspective by the extra weight associated with the all-wheel drive system itself.
The Lexus LS 460 F Sport also keeps the car's eight-speed automatic transmission, but it adds a Sport+ setting for the vehicle's Drive Mode Select feature, (which gives us snappier upshifts), a stiffer tune for the car's standard air suspension system (which sits 10-mm lower than stock), more direct steering, and paddle shifters mounted behind the wheel. Additional mechanical bits include a limited-slip differential for rear-wheel drive models, special forged rims (19-inches in diameter), and larger Brembo brakes.
Aside from the revised wheels, the LS 460 F Sport is also identifiable via its body treatment. The slick-looking, redesigned aerodynamic shape of the LS is still evident, as is its impossible-to-ignore trapezoidal grille, but the car also comes with mesh filler for the front fascia, cooling ducts for the brakes set into the bumper, and a slightly different rocker panel and rear under-bumper treatment. Inside, there's brushed metal instead of wood in the trim department, as well as the increasingly popular artificial excitement generator, or should I say, 'sound enhancer,' that sweetens the tones coming from under the car's hood when the pedal is pushed to the floor.
Much Ado About…
By now, you might have realized that the 2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport isn't actually intended to steal the fire from the BMW 7 Series' carefully-guarded handling flame. What I discovered while driving the F Sport was a vehicle that carefully protected the primary tenets of the Lexus LS philosophy (isolation, comfort, class) while adding a slight edge to the car when it came to handling.
Sport+ mode was far from a revelation, but it did offer a noticeably more composed ride as compared to Comfort mode, which honestly had me feeling as though I was floating roughly two inches above the road surface. The paddle shifters don’t engage the autobox with any greater urgency than its own programming is capable of, but acceleration is brisk and to the point in rear-wheel drive models (and more muted if all-wheel drive is selected). About the only aspect of the F Sport package that detracted from the overall Lexus experience were the brakes, which were responsive to the point where I had trouble modulating the pedal during normal driving.
On the whole, however, this isn't a car that is going to have you pining for rural two-lane roads as you gaze longingly at the keys hanging up beside the door. There's no real connection to the road to be made with this vehicle, nor does it get the adrenaline flowing when sawing the wheel from one apex to another. At its core, the Lexus LS 460 F Sport remains true to the vehicle's original, luxury-oriented mission, which means stable, plush transportation loaded with all manner of electronic gadgets and gizmos.
Try, Try Again?
Try, Try Again?
Does this mean a swing and a miss for the 2013 Lexus LS 460 F Sport. In a way, yes. The car doesn't really offer buyers anything close to a European driving experience for the extra $10,000 that it tacks on to the base sedan's MSRP of $71,990. Instead, the car restrains itself to the provision of somewhat snappier looks and a bit more self-control when pushed hard in Sport+ mode.
Then again, it could be argued that the F Sport's almost-performance attitude is actually a win-win for Lexus. The typical Lexus LS buyer isn't looking for performance - but they could very well be interested in having others think that they are. The F Sport trim doesn't stir the LS pot to the point where it boils over and spoils the car's most appealing attributes, which makes it the perfect advertisement for high speed thrills without actually forcing owners to pony up significant sums to match the S63 AMG stats they simply could care less about.
Lexus truly does not need to compete in the full-size high performance segment, but it certainly helps their image if they look like they are at least making an effort to do so. And who knows? Maybe, over time, a team of engineers working in a secret Lexus skunkworks will be intrigued enough by the idea of an LS that zigs to pour genuine effort into tightening up the car's platform and create a sports sedan out of a luxury cruiser. And maybe, just maybe, by that time the market will be ready for it.