Almost every luxury car brand has one.
To keep the enthusiasts happy, you will find some form of "performance" sub-brand available amongst the run-of-the-mill models at your luxury car dealer. It is a way to ensure that the more throttle-happy customers are satisfied with everything from suspension add-ons to complete vehicles guaranteed for some track time excitement.
It is a growing phenomenon amongst luxury car brands to such an option. The Germans started this trend by adding some letters to their nomenclatures denoting a more exciting ride. BMW's M sub-brand grew from their Motorsports division onto their road cars. The M models are amongst the most discussed and coveted amongst enthusiasts regardless of brand loyalty. Mercedes-Benz acquired the AMG tuning house in the 1970s and integrated it with their lineup. An AMG Mercedes normally is seen as a measuring stick on how hardcore a luxury car could get.
In the past decade or so, other letters have popped up in the upper reaches of the automobile marketplace. Audi's S-Line augments its S and RS lineup across the showroom floor. Cadillac added the V to some of its models, including the supercharged V8-powered CTS-V as one of a few performance icons at General Motors. Infiniti recently introduced a starter line of IPL – Infiniti Performance Line – models to their G coupe and convertible. You could still a luxury Holden Caprice in Australia as the HSV Senator – imagine the Prime Minister rolling to see the Governor General in one.
The folks over at Lexus did not want to be left out. Therefore, they created their own performance letter sub-brand: F.
What does "F" stand for? No clue. Perhaps it means "fast" or "faster." Nonetheless, Lexus has some form of imagination, therefore the "F" stuck. Maybe we can celebrate the mystery behind this letter.
It is no mystery that Lexus understands that some of its customers are enthusiasts and perhaps need a few more things to make their Oval-L vehicles a bit better on the road and track. That is why Lexus (er, Toyota) came up with three different ways to enjoy the letter "F."
The first level is the provision of performance parts and sporty looking accessories. For IS, CT 200h and GS owners, F Sport means adding suspension bits, better wheels and a few coordinated interior pieces to make their vehicles look and feel the part of being sporty. An IS sedan owner has a choice of three wheels – two are 19 inches – an upgrade kit for the front brakes and lowering suspension. If you choose to kit up your IS into an F Sport, the dealer will do that for you at the point of sale.
Unlike most luxury car lines, getting performance parts for the most sustainable model in the lineup shows how far Lexus will go. A CT 200h with F Sport accessories may seem a bit hypocritical, but have you driven the CT? It has a parallel petrol-electric hybrid on the hood and averages 42-44MPG, but the CT already has great driving dynamics. Lexus gives CT owners a selection of further F Sport enhancements, such as a set of sway bars, lowering springs and a specific set of 17-inch wheels.
The next level is to offer a sportier trim on several lines. For 2013, the GS, RX and LS get F Sport models that are factory integrated with specific sportier trim and performance improvements. An F Sport model also includes visual cues that distinguish itself from the rest of the particular line.
Recently, I was behind the wheel of the RX 350 F Sport to find that it was a huge leap forward compared to the 2011 model I sampled a few months earlier. It was not just the advancement of the RX itself, but rather how much the F Sport package improved many things on the crossover. With better driving dynamics, proper bolstering in the front seats and a serious sporty look, the RX F Sport took a standard run-of-the-run best-selling two-row luxury crossover and made it quite sporty.
No luxury car letter sub-brand is complete without some halo vehicles. These are not just some trim level on a particular model. This is a fully developed product. Lexus has two: The IS F and the LFA. Just like their German, American and Japanese counterparts, these two fast machines represent the image of the letter and the brand it resides under.
The IS F is Lexus' answer to BMW's M3. With a V8 under the hood and a boatload of grip, the IS F is a challenge to master, though rather easy to drive. The LFA is also both complicated and simple – two attributes you rarely associate a supercar with. It is a study of superlatives – including its $375,000 price tag. Do they represent Lexus and the F sub-brand? In their own way, yes they do.
All of this F-ness is just fine and dandy. However, does it enhance or detract from the main brand? In Lexus' case, it makes the brand less stodgy and single-minded. For some lines, it provides new opportunities for them to show off what it could do when given the right tools to accomplish the job.
The F approach within Lexus is not without some questioning. Is this the extent Lexus will go with the F sub-brand? Would we see an F Sport trim for the likes of the ES sedan or the GX SUV? Perhaps there is the notion that F Sport will mean more performance from a particular model instead of some suspension tweaks and sportier trim inside and out.
Then, there is the whole comparison bit with other OEMs. Mercedes, BMW and Audi had been spreading their performance letter(s) across as much of the line as possible. While some are offering the promise of performance – some more than others – the letter takes on a different meaning within the context of the brand's image. This is what Lexus wants to achieve in the midst of expanding the F sub-brand.
As to their execution, by keeping the LFA and IS F as halo products, packaging the F Sport trims as better handling models and providing F Sport accessories and kits to others, there seems to be a balance approach given that not every Lexus fits into the F mode.
It is a letter, after all.
NOTE: For the incidental purpose of this article, the 2013 Lexus RX 350 AWD F Sport used in this piece was provided by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A..