Lexus brings knife to horsepower gunfight

Looking to avoid a bare-knuckle horsepower brawl with its storied German competitors, Lexus is positioning its first-ever GS F as the friendly performance sedan. The 2016 model is noticeably down on horsepower, so instead it promises daily driveability rather than stoplight drag-race victories.

There’s just one problem: Buyers in this segment actually want aggression. Give them Mr. T over Mister Rogers any day. No one is buying these cars for their fuel economy.

“I can’t stress enough, for buyers of these kinds of cars, bragging rights absolutely play into it,” Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at research firm AutoPacific, told me.

Blame a shallow parts bin at Toyota, including a lack of turbocharged or supercharged powerplants.

The naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V-8 in the GS F is the best Lexus could come up with right now. It’s nearly the same engine as the one in the RC F, pumping out 467 hp and 389 pounds-feet of torque. Rear-wheel drive, a torque-vectoring rear differential and an eight-speed automatic transmission are all standard on the GS F.

While 467 hp is nothing to sneeze at, it’s conspicuously lower than the horsepower of the cars the GS F will inevitably be compared with, many of which share their engines with other higher-volume vehicles.

“If they had a more suitable engine in the pipeline, you’d better believe they’d use it,” Kim said.

‘What will people feel?’

Cadillac’s CTS-V borrows its 640-hp, 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 from the Corvette Z06. Mercedes’ E63 AMG S shares its 577-hp turbocharged V-8 with a smorgasbord of other AMG coupes, sedans and SUVs.

“That’s not a fight we’re going to win,” Paul Williamsen, Lexus’ global manager for dealer training, said at the GS F’s press launch in Madrid, referring to the horsepower wars going on between the Cadillac, Mercedes and BMW’s 560-hp M5.

“Something that is really fundamental and so important to us is [that] the specs and the numbers are not the important part,” Lexus’ chief engineer for the GS F, Yukihiko Yaguchi, told me at the press launch for the car. “It’s about what will people feel.”

That is, Lexus wants the GS F to be the approachable alternative, something that mere mortals can enjoy driving.

“We’re not making this car so that a very elite, selective few people can have the fastest lap time around Nurburgring,” Yaguchi said. “What we want is many people to drive the Nurburgring fast.”

But if that’s the case, it might have made more sense to avoid the F moniker altogether.

By positioning the RC F and GS F under its performance subbrand, Lexus is practically begging for comparisons with other speed-hunting offshoots, notably BMW’s M and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG.

The GS F has many of the visual cues of its more potent rivals: a pair of vertically stacked exhaust tips poking out from each corner of the rear bumper, 19-inch alloy wheels snugly in the wheel wells, air outlets carved into the front fenders and shapely seats that hug occupants tightly.

That aggressive facade, coupled with F subbrand marketing, could send mixed signals to potential buyers.

“That’s the risk of promising a lot of styling and F badging and then not having the horsepower to back it up,” Kim said. “It leaves the F brand looking a little weak.” Thus, it could be hard for Lexus to hit its goal of 2,000 GS F sales in the U.S. in 2016. (The car goes on sale in December.)

Instead, the GS F is more analogous to models like Audi’s S6, BMW’s 550i M-Sport and Cadillac’s CTS V-Sport. All of these offer hearty power without tipping into the full-bonkers approach of their better-known siblings.

Though they don’t quite match the horsepower of the Lexus, they’re also between $10,000 and $15,000 cheaper than the $85,990 starting price of the GS F. And the 640-hp elephant in the room is Cadillac’s CTS-V, which starts at just $390 more than the Lexus.

Lexus has spent the past few years carefully redefining itself as a more aggressive and performance-oriented brand. The effort has worked and the brand’s new image is picking up momentum.

Something with an F badge should be an exclamation point on this change. It should carry the torch that Lexus lit with the frenetic, thrilling LFA supercar.

Contrary to what Lexus says, the numbers do matter.

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