When Lexus introduced the IS F, enthusiasts were suitably skeptical about the automaker's attempt to go head-to-head with the Germans. After all, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have specialized in creating autobahn-burning, Nordschleife-honed handlers for decades.
And then we drove it.
To everyone's surprise, Lexus pulled it off, but we figured it might be a one-time deal. We assumed the IS F was an outlier – just a distraction from the brand's cadre of well-built, less-than-sporty luxo-barges. We were wrong.
In the footsteps of the IS F was the introduction of the F-Sport accessories line, followed by rumors of a GS F and finally the LFA supercar. Lexus was becoming increasingly serious about making a mark in the luxury performance space, but on its own terms and at its own calculated pace.
Flash forward to October when a press release arrived touting a new Sport Package for the upcoming 2010 LS460. To be honest, our first thought was Lexus was overreaching. The LS is a fine sedan, with plenty of power and a reasonably good balance of ride and handling. But a sports sedan it's not. No matter. If Lexus was threatening to "F" up its LS with a "Sport" package, we needed to put it to the test. And we did just that.
Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
From the outside, there are a few details that set the Sport Package apart from a run-of-the-mill LS460. The most striking addition: those sporty, split ten-spoke, 19-inch wheels. They look oddly aggressive tucked into the LS' wheel arches and ape BMW's traditional cross-spokes. Each is wrapped in Dunlop summer tires measuring 245/45 R19, and on the road they do little to affect the smooth ride you expect from a Lexus. However, when pushed they dig in, providing a surprising amount of grip and no audible complaints until the limits of adhesion are tested.
The other big difference is the aero kit, which will be offered separately in the new Appearance Package. The kit includes tacked on front chin extenders at each corner, more vertical side skirts and a lower rear valance with a blacked-out section between the standard exhaust tips. The darkened plastic gives the illusion of a diffuser, lightens the overall look of the rear and provides Sport-spotters another cue that this particular LS460 stands apart.
The front grille is also unique to the Sport Package sedan, with black mesh and a unique "L" badge featuring a carbon fiber-like background. Standard models get a glossy, black-filled field behind the "L", while hybrids get the blue surround. Quite honestly, the aero kit differs very little from the shape of the standard bodywork, particularly at the front, and comes off as a bit contrived with its bolt-on application.
The interior receives a few tweaks as well, with a stylish black and saddle scheme that compliments the acres of dark wood lining the dash, doors and console. The sport seats are swathed in super-soft perforated leather and infinitely adjustable, supportive and comfortable. The biggest difference inside, however, is the pair of metallic paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. Coupled with the eight-speed automatic, they produce sharp shifts quickly and quietly, with a satisfying throttle blip on downshifts. But with eight ratios to choose from, leaving it in auto mode and letting the car swap cogs on its own is probably just as wise, if not more so.
On the road the 380-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 is willing and able, but won't provide much aural satisfaction in the cabin until you bury the throttle. With a sub-six-second 0-60 sprint, the car is fast enough for most needs, but to justify the $6,000 projected bump in price, a bit more grunt would have been a nice inclusion. Still, we had no complaints driving it along the freeways or around the twisty B-roads of San Diego county. And that last part was where the extra bucks shown through.
Approaching the first tight turn along this curvy hillside ribbon of asphalt, we instinctively wanted to tap into the upgraded Brembos to scrub off some momentum. Expecting a fair amount of body roll, we planned our line accordingly, but amazingly, the LS – with its re-calibrated suspension, beefier stabilizer bars and uprated shocks – was well planted and barely bobbed to either side. We pushed a little harder into the next bend and the stately sedan just hunkered down and carved a perfect arc. This can't be right. Is it possible that this two-plus-ton Lexus is actually begging for more?
We continued to prod it, trying to provoke some kind of reaction, but only found ourselves bounding along in a middle-aged dog with a puppy's pep, eagerly wagging its tail, playfully taunting us to throw the Frisbee a little further each time. He assures us he'll catch it and bring it back before our arm drops back to our side. And before we know it, we're tearing along at an alarming rate, quickly gathering up the Cadillac ahead of us and forcing us to back off.
As the road straightened out we were scratching our head trying to figure out what just happened. Is this Lexus actually fun to drive? Did these seemingly minor suspension changes really transform the LS from a perfectly wonderful boulevard cruiser to a genuine back road bomber? Well, there is one more piece to this puzzle that explains the LS' newfound agility. The driver-selectable air suspension was set to "Sport."
When selected, the steering firms up and gives the sedan a more sporting demeanor. True, this same feature comes on lesser LS460s, but combined with the Sport Package it makes the LS move like a BMW. Maybe not an M, but certainly a 750i at the very least.
Although for some, the idea of cross-shopping a 7 Series and a Lexus would be too much to stomach. For those looking for a luxury vehicle of this size, the Sport Package LS460 is worth a look. For its part, Lexus sees most of the sales coming from people already in the Lexus fold. It will certainly appeal to those who are moving up from an IS F, or those who want the sportiest driving experience in their next LS.
There's also the possibility that Lexus could grab a few sales from Audi, BMW and Mercedes owners who are looking for something different, along with every gadget under the sun, a killer Mark Levinson sound system and a sat nav that doesn't require a PhD to operate. They might be surprised to find – as we were – that European road manners aren't exclusive to the Bavarians. But as we've learned before, underestimate Lexus at your own peril.
Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.