It's as if the New York Philharmonic added an "An Evening of Kanye West" to its concert season. Though Lexus has always carefully presented itself as the jewel of the Toyota empire, it's preparing to jettison two decades of heritage with the 2008 Lexus IS-F, a tough-looking car fortified with a 400-horsepower V8 that will challenge the Audi RS4 and BMW M3.
It's the most surprising thing Toyota's luxury division has done since hiring actor James Sloyan to purr out words like "relentless," "pursuit" and "perfection" back in 1989 before it had even sold a single car.
The formula for the IS-F couldn't be more straightforward or familiar: Just shove the biggest engine possible into a relatively small package. It worked for the 1964 Pontiac GTO and it's working right now for the E92 BMW M3, and there's no reason why it shouldn't work spectacularly well for Lexus, too.
While the conceptual audacity of the IS-F is shocking, most of the car's engineering is related to familiar Lexus stuff.
All current U.S.-market IS-series sedans are V6-powered (a 204-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 motivates the IS 250 and a 306-hp 3.5-liter V6 does the job in the IS 350), yet the IS is essentially a cut-down version of the larger GS sedan. And since a 4.6-liter V8 is the indispensable ingredient of the 2008 GS 460, Lexus didn't have to perform major surgery to squeeze a V8 into this rear-wheel-drive IS sedan.
Lexus also has a suitable engine for a hot-rod IS already in its parts inventory, as the hybrid drivetrain in the LS 600h L features an all-aluminum 32-valve, DOHC 5.0-liter V8. Even in the relatively sedate LS, this engine is rated at 389 hp at 6,400 rpm and 385 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm and incorporates such advanced technologies as direct injection and dual variable valve timing working with an electronically controlled intake (VVT-iE in Lexus-speak).
Though Lexus is still coy with us about the specifications of the IS-F's V8 as the date of the car's introduction approaches, the engine is almost certainly based on the LS 600h L's 5.0-liter V8. And it won't take much more than a few tweaks to the variable valve timing system and the engine management electronics to boost this power plant's output to the "400-plus" hp that's been promised in the IS-F.
Eight Speeds, No Waiting
Meanwhile, the IS-F's eight-speed "direct sport-shift" transmission is also apparently based on an LS-series component — the eight-speed automatic transmission that was introduced by the LS 460 at the car's introduction in 2007.
The IS-F's version of the eight-speed unit features a new torque converter that locks up in 2nd through 6th gears even while in automatic mode. In manual mode, Lexus promises the shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel will trigger shifts in less than a tenth of a second, while downshifts will be accompanied by computer-automated throttle blips to match engine and transmission speeds.
With plenty of power and eight gear ratios, Lexus is claiming a 0-60-mph time of "less than 4.9 seconds" for the IS-F. We're guessing that it will be a lot less than 4.9 seconds, since this number has already been achieved by the 2007 BMW 335i automatic.
After all, Lexus isn't aiming at the BMW 335i with the IS-F. It's hunting the M3.
In general specification, the IS-F's suspension is just like that of any other IS sedan. There are double wishbones behind each front wheel, and a multilink independent system in back. But virtually all the IS-F's underpinnings have been reinforced for high-performance duty.
Naturally the suspension calibration is firmer, but it's also an inch lower than in other IS models and tuned so the big 225/40R19 front and 255/35R19 rear tires can grab pavement with some ferocity. The tires are mounted on special forged-alloy BBS wheels.
When it's time to throw out the anchor at speed, Lexus has fit the IS-F with big 14.2-inch front and 13.6-inch rear disc brakes. The front discs get six-piston Brembo calipers while the rears get two-piston Brembo units.
Lexus has also programmed a "three-mode" version of its Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) stability control system. Once you step up from Normal mode, the Sport mode raises the threshold at which braking, steering and throttle intervention kick in. The third mode? This may be the best of all; Lexus calls it "Off."
The Meanest Lexus Ever
With its uniquely stacked quad exhausts and rear spoiler, the IS-F's rear treatment makes sure you won't mistake it for any pokey IS 250 or IS 350. But the most distinctive elements of the IS-F are up on the nose.
The hood bulges to cover the big engine, the front fascia drops down to feed air to the beast and the fenders flare to cover the wide tires. There's never been a Lexus with the menacing presence of this one. In fact, the IS-F is the anti-Lexus.
Once you climb inside the IS-F, on the other hand, you return to a more familiar Lexus environment, although there's plenty of aluminum trim and a bold "F" prominently featured on the steering wheel and the console between the twin rear seats. Naturally the pedals have aluminum covers. The seats have been shaped for aggressive driving and will be upholstered in either black or white with black trim. The instrumentation includes an oil temperature gauge and shift indicator light.
This will be the top-of-the-line IS, and there's no way Lexus is going to walk away from its tradition of comfort with this car. After all, even the meanest badass Lexus of them all must still be a Lexus.
With the new 2008 BMW M3 with its 400-hp V8 about to go on sale in the U.S., the message boards on the Internet have been ablaze with speculation about whether the IS-F will give the BMW a real run for the money. After all, no car has a more fanatic following than the M3 and no car has gone so long without being toppled from atop its niche.
On paper the 2008 Lexus IS-F stacks up well against the M3, not to mention the Audi RS4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. In the metal, the IS-F's appearance is polarizing ("F stands for FUGLY! The car looks wack," said Juzef on an M3 message board we surfed recently), and much of the criticism centers on the car's bulging hood and distinctive fenders. The IS-F's big nose might make this car an icon or a joke. This will depend in large part on how it performs.
As Lexus is already telling us in its advertising, "'F' is everything you thought we weren't." It's right about that. But this is a risk the division needs to take if it's going to maintain its performance credentials against the likes of BMW, Mercedes and even the recently surging Infiniti. And Lexus must be serious, because it's going to push even further into unknown territory with its 2009 Lexus LF-A, a super sports car with a 500-hp V10.
Lexus has an unparalleled reputation for quality. Imagine what can happen if this character is paired with dynamic excellence and blistering performance. The mind boggles and the cash registers ring.
The 2008 IS-F goes on sale just as 2007 runs out.