Never mind its reputation for creating soft, quiet luxury cars; Lexus makes some decidedly kickass sports cars. The , and all use a naturally aspirated, 5.0-liter V8 engine, and I'm about to put them to the test at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
That's where Lexus hosts its Performance Driving School, which teaches you how to not only make the most of your V8-powered sports car, but helps you learn the fundamentals of track driving. Throughout a full-day session, I'll learn about vision principles, as well as how to stay on the best racing line through Laguna Seca's many challenging corners.
Learning the fundamentals
The first thing you have to do is learn the track itself. I'm in the LC 500 for this exercise, but I'm not using anywhere near all of its 471 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque. At these slower, third-gear speeds, you can better understand the braking, turn-in and apex points of a corner. Turn 2, for example -- the infamous Andretti hairpin -- is a double-apex corner, but the instructors are having us treat it as a single, late-apex turn.
Over the course of these slower laps, I'm able to reprogram my instincts to brake later, turn later and get closer and closer to each turn's apex. By the end of the exercise, I'm going much faster, learning to trust the LC 500's strong brakes as I hit them hard along the front straight and set myself up for Turn 2. This first part of Laguna Seca has always been the scariest for me, but after lots of practice, I'm so much more confident. The LC 500's sharp reflexes certainly play a part in this confidence, too.
After learning the track, I switch over to the smaller RC F coupe for a couple of exercises on the wet skid pad. With the traction control off, I circle a set of cones at slow speed, and then give the RC F the beans, sending all 467 horsepower to its rear wheels while I countersteer, trying to keep the coupe sliding effortlessly around the cones. I've done abefore, so I'm familiar with the experience. But if you're the sort of person who might drive in slippery situations -- like, if you live somewhere with cold, wet winters -- learning how to control a rear-wheel drive coupe in low-traction situations is vital.
My introduction to the GS F sedan comes on an autocross course which, to me, is one of the best instructional tools. Here, I can push the GS F and learn its handling dynamics at much slower speeds. The course takes about 30 seconds to run in total, and the goal is to just get around it as fast as you can without hitting any cones. You're primarily using second here, but the turns are tight, so you're really working the steering. It's very easy to hit a cone.
The GS F is a big sedan, but it's nicely set up for an autocross track thanks to its optional torque-vectoring rear differential. With three different modes, you can calibrate the left-right torque distribution to make it more responsive to power inputs while cornering, not only making it quicker through the turns, but easier to control. In Slalom mode, for example, the system is more willing to shuffle power around, and overall steering response is improved.
The important thing to remember about an autocross course is that speed isn't always your savior -- especially in a big car like the GS F. Enter a corner with too much speed and you're prone to understeer. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
With these fundamental exercises out of the way, it's time for some real track time at Laguna Seca. First up, the RC F, which has the same torque-vectoring tech as the GS F. With the TVD system set to Track and traction control set to Sport, I'm properly set up to make the most of the car without deactivating the electronic nannies completely. Switching the traction control to Expert will reduce intervention even further, but I'm not ready for that just yet.
Lexus' instructors take you out in groups of three, and you trade places with other cars so the leader can adapt to your skill level. When it's my turn to drive behind the instructor, he sees me falling behind in the corners, and gets on the radio to remind me to get on the gas before hitting the apex. The TVD system sends torque where it needs to go, I can feel the car rotate in the bend, and I'm no longer falling behind through the subsequent turns.
Lapping the LC 500 is a very different experience, as it doesn't have the TVD system. It's still fun, of course, but the RC F is much better here. The LC 500's softer dynamics are better utilized on a great backroad, or, say, along California's Pacific Coast Highway. At Laguna Seca, however, the RC F is the one you want.
A smart choice
You don't have to be a Lexus owner to participate in the Performance Driving School. There are six one-day sessions left in 2019 -- three in August, three in November. The cost of entry is $995, and if you do own one of these Lexus vehicles, it's a great way to see exactly what your car can do.
Lexus isn't the only game in town, either. A lot of automakers offer performance driving schools, and some -- like Chevrolet and Ford -- will even let new buyers participate free of charge. No matter the brand, and no matter your skill level, performance driving schools teach you a lot about car control. Furthering your behind-the-wheel knowledge is always a good thing.,