German cars have eliminated Lexus’s lead in the silk-road stakes, leaving the Japanese contender with a fresh need to stand out. (Photo: Nigel Moll)
German cars have eliminated Lexus’s lead in the silk-road stakes, leaving the Japanese contender with a fresh need to stand out. (Photo: Nigel Moll)

Low-level Flying: Lexus LS460 F Sport AWD

It may not outperform German sports sedans, but it shines brightly in its strong suit—comfort and heft. 

A quarter-century ago, Toyota set out to beat the Germans in the luxury-sedan game with the Lexus. What is now a diversely populated luxury brand under the umbrella of the Japanese goliath started out as one car, the 1990 model LS400. The only badges on the trunk lid were the word Lexus and the circled-L logo.

With its astonishingly smooth ride, turbine-like V8 and silent cabin, the Lexus put the Germans on notice that there was room for improvement in their own storied and haughty nameplates. In 1990 the LS400 was way ahead of its time in the comfort stakes—a latter-day Citroën ID/DS. The frumpy Camry got a substantial dose of the LS400 treatment for 1992 and redefined that segment. I owned a ’93 Camry, which I replaced with a ’91 LS400 and then with an ’02 LS430, and over the course of putting nearly 400,000 miles on those three vehicles became a staunch fan of the Toyota way.

In terms of damping and isolation from road-surface imperfections, the original LS400 had the most luxurious suspension of any automobile I have ever driven with just one exception: the Rolls-Royce Phantom, which currently starts at approximately $400,000. The LS430’s suspension was a step backwards, I thought—smooth, but the original kept the cigar.

Here’s the rub. Twenty-five years later, German cars have eliminated Lexus’s lead in the silk-road stakes, leaving the Japanese contender with a diluted claim to fame and a fresh need to stand out in this league. Hence the LS460 F Sport, a response to those who dismiss the brand as all luxury, no frisky. 

Here’s rub number two: this time, with the car shown on these pages, brand L lags the Teutons in the sport stakes it aspires to.

Does this matter? Not really, because the F Sport still shines brightly in its strong suit—comfort and heft—and Lexus loyalists will probably enjoy the slightly sharper edges the F Sport brings to the drive. It seems unlikely this time, however, that those faithful to the German brands will be lured away, since this F doesn’t make the cut yet to join M, S and AMG in the German performance stable or Cadillac’s V or Jag’s F.

The LS460 F Sport AWD costs about $10,000 more than the standard AWD LS, and that money buys lowered adaptive variable air suspension, stabilizer bars and shock absorbers. Variable gear-ratio steering changes the steering ratio in response to vehicle speed and the steering angle, for a tad more aggressive steering and turn-in response, thanks to slightly reduced steering-wheel travel (fewer turns lock-to-lock). The front brakes are also upgraded, to six-piston Brembo calipers and 14.8-inch rotors in place of the standard car’s four pistons and 14-inch discs. The front seats are bolstered for comfort and support, the steering wheel has paddle shifters and the pedals are aluminum, along with the interior accent trim.

In an unfortunate tradeoff that attends delivering power to all four wheels on the all-wheel-drive LS, the F Sport AWD (the Lexus flagship) produces only 360 hp rather than the base RWD LS’s 386 hp. Adding the components for AWD necessitated revised, less-than-optimum exhaust plumbing.

Despite all the above caveats, Lexus’s workout regimen to give the LS some athleticism has worked well, and the car is a good place to be for long drives with some twists and turns. Put the aforementioned established sports sedans out of mind, and the F Sport is a well-executed improvement on the ultra-luxe LSes of yore. The comfort is still there in spades and the fit and finish inside are classy, but this car is more inclined to play than its frumpier forebears were. The gearshifts in the two most comfortable modes are all but imperceptible, as one would expect, but somehow Lexus (mindful of how highly its clientele value silk, no doubt) couldn’t bring itself to make them noticeably harsher in the two sportier modes either.

The average mpg over the course of the 636 miles I put on the F Sport during this evaluation was on the high side for a car purporting to have sport in its veins, an indication of my inclination to enjoy the old Lexus comfort and serenity rather than stomp on the gas pedal and shoot for the apex in the curves. The loan of this car came less than a month after I’d had a new M5 for a week, and that patriarch of sports sedans, still fresh in mind, just ached to be driven hard at every opportunity. Unlike the smaller Lexus IS-F, the LS F Sport isn’t that kind of a drive. While capable and undeniably pleasing, it needs a lot more power and tuning to be a fire-breather worthy of playing with the likes of the M5.

For the typical Lexus buyer, the F Sport is just fine the way it is for 2013.

Lexus LS460 F Sport FED Specs

Engine: V8, 4.6 liters, 32 valves

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic,all-wheel drive

Curb weight: 4,365 lb

Power loading: 12.1 lb/hp

Top speed: 130 mph (limited)

Zero to 60 mph: 5.4 sec

Fuel capacity: 22.2 U.S. gal

City/highway/combined: 16/23/18 mpg

Test average: 19.2 mpg

Test tires: Michelin Energy MXV4; front and rear 245/45R19

Standard retail price: $89,479

Price as tested: $89,479

(Source: Lexus)

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