What separates the men from the boys? In the automotive world, manufacturershave opted to produce athletic divisions from their more conservative lineup. Take for example BMW's M division, Mercedes' AMG, Audi's Quattro GmbH (responsible for the RS cars), Cadillac's V-series, Chrysler's SRT division, and even Buick's new “Super” series at a stretch. Well, Lexus has finally joined the exclusive “Ivy League” of ultra sport sedans with the unveiling of their upcoming IS-F based on its sporty, compact siblings, IS 250 and IS 350. The “F” stands for Flagship and is the new performance brand division of the Lexus lineup. Not so ironic is the fact that “F1” (Flagship 1) was used by Lexus designers almost 20 years ago as an internal code for the pending launch of the revolutionary LS 400.
Lexus has always taken pride in producing vehicles that emphasize technology, comfort, and refinement. I recall one of the first advertisements for the LS 400 sedan had a pyramid of champagne glasses on the hood, while the car accelerated on a dyno, a display of how silkysmooth the V8 engine was, even under strain. Unfortunately, this ultimate display of refinement has been a double edged sword for Lexus. Deemed as too refined and subdued, Lexus never seemed to escape a lesser ranking when compared to German designed drivability and handling fun factor. The first IS (Intelligent Sports) sedan reached the North American shores in 2001 as the IS 300 in North America (aka Altezza in Japan), a rear-drive sport-tuned luxury compact sedan that had its sights on gunning down the BMW 3-Series. In what some would call an unusual way, the IS created a revolution in styling; for example the taillight treatment with lamps and bezels enclosed in a clear plastic casing, started the revolution of aftermarket “Altezza” style copy cat applications for many modified and new cars. As for the car itself, it was unusually sporty looking, a far cry from the soft, aerodynamiccurves of the SC, ES and LS. Unfortunately, even with all the technological bells and whistles that the IS had to offer, drivers complained about the lack of precision feel for the road when compared to German counterparts. Partially to blame was the overly zealous Lexus driver management system that cut in to take control of the ride/handling characteristics to preserve driver safety.
Fast forward five years and Lexus' “L-Finesse” design language has matured the IS' identity to become one of the better looking cars in the class. Additionally it's now a performance sedan with the impressively powerful 306-horsepower IS 350 model, which outpaced BMW's top of the line 3-Series upon introduction and has seemingly started a new horsepower war. Now, Lexus is hauling out its biggest gun to date, stuffing a brand new 5.0-liter V8 engine under the hood for the IS-F. It is a pure performance thoroughbred beefed up tothe tune of 400-plus horsepower and 350 ft-lb of torque, but these figures have yet to be confirmed so there's a good chance that they might grow. The engine also features two-mode fuel injection (direct and port injection), two stages for the variable intake system.
With such a powerful engine, the new IS-F will sprint from zero-to-60 in less than 4.9 seconds with the help of a whopping eight-speed direct sport shift transmission that features paddles, plus a torque converter lockup on gears 2 through 8, allowing the driver to make swift gear changes in 0.1 seconds. When down shifting, the throttle system automatically revs to match the engine speed with vehicle speed, making the gear change almost seamless. Having all this power at your fingertips ... Imean at your right foot doesn't mean much if you can't transfer that power to the ground without spinning your tires. The Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system offers 3 driving modes: Normal, Sport, and OFF. Yes, it's true, Lexus has finally offered a fully “OFF” switch for the traction and stability control for those times when you want to take over the control of the entire driving experience. Given all these drive settings, Lexus claims, “The result is a car with more grip, more responsiveness, more driver feedback and more agility than anything we've ever produced."
As for the skeleton of the IS-F, it's like the IS in that it's a proper rear-wheel drive vehicle, and is equipped with a double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension for improved traction. Supporting this performance-oriented drivetrain, engine oil and transmission fluid coolers will keep things from getting too hot. What's more, high G-force driving is noproblem thanks to a head-scavenging oil pump, ensuring all parts are well lubricated.
Like a sculpted body builder, the IS-F's muscles are easily noted, compared to its skinnier siblings. From the front, you'll see the aggressive bumper with its bigger air dam, reminiscent of Nissan's R34 Skyline GT-R produced in Japan. The hood is bulkier and rests higher to accommodate the V8, and the front fenders are flared to complete the aggressive stance. Turn around to the side and anyone can point out the array of not so subtle cues that this car is meant for speed; check out the gill-like vent behind the front wheel-well and how it integrates to become the side skirts. Whether you like this “body kit” look or not, you must agree that the IS-F has the goods to justify its confident strut. Riding on a sports suspension system, the overall stance is lowered by about half an inch from a base IS and complimented by staggered 19-inch turbine-like BBS forged alloys. With great power comes great responsibility; the IS-F braking system comes in the form of 14.2-inch cross drilled front discs clasped by six-piston Brembo calipers, while the rear houses a set of 13.6-inch discs and two-piston calipers. The muscular cues extend to the rear; notice the vertically stacked twin quad exhaust tips on each side. About the only thing that is understated about the IS-F is the integrated lip spoiler on the trunk lid.
The IS-F interior offers hints of the car's extraordinary athleticism, but they're more subdued. The “F” badge is proudly placed where the center spoke meets the perforated leather rim of the steering wheel, on the rear armrest and on the outside bolsters of the front seats. Behind the wheel are the two chromed paddle-shifters for the 8-speed 'box, with blue backlit illumination. The gauges are near identical to its sibling IS, though themulti-function trip computer gains information about oil temperature, and is displayed in a much brighter shade of blue. The interior is muted in matte black material with dashes of elegant chrome and matte metallic trims and finishes. Aluminized composite panels are laced throughout the cabin as well, most notably on the console and door handles to create an industrial-sport feel when compared to the wood grain panels of its sibling. The driver will be securely nestled in the specially designed shoulder, back, and hip-hugging leather seats that come in either all black or high-contrast white and black trim. Also, the center position on the rear bench has been deleted, so the IS-F is now a four-seater.
After seeing the changes made to this compact luxury mutant, I like to think that the “F” in IS-F stands for more than just flagship. “Fast” immediately comes to mind, since it sounds like it'll be an equal match for the new 420-horsepower BMW M3, its arch rival, the Audi RS4, and Mercedes' upcoming C63 AMG. On the contrary, it could also stand for “Fear”, which is what the builders of these particular rivals might feel, given that it's the first time that a Japanese luxury car maker has charted into these waters. Or, perhaps even “Fun” for the person behind the wheel, something that's eluded Lexus for decades but is now starting to show up regularly with each new product. Whatever "F" stands for in your vocabulary, you'll soon have the opportunity to find out for yourself as the IS-F lands in dealerships next spring.