With its new 417bhp IS-F aimed squarely at the BMW M3, Audi RS4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, Lexus is getting tough
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re a Japanese car maker with a performance image flatter than cartoon roadkill. On a scale of 1 to 10 for stubble-chinned, tautly muscled machismo, your products score Dale Winton. The most boastful thing that can be said of some of them is that they have two engines, though perhaps only if you don’t mention that one of them is electric. That’s electric as in light bulb. It isn’t that your cars aren’t very good. People say how refined, comfortable, well made and, at a push, ‘green’ they are. It’s just that, well, they’re all soft and gooey in the middle. Not a hard nut among them.
Understandably, this rankles. German rivals BMW, Mercedes and Audi can wheel out punishingly rapid and dynamically honed V8-engined, lower-medium-sized saloons – the M3, C63 and RS4 – whose individual mythologies wreath lesser models with the aura of their mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know credentials. Moreover, they all have bloodlines reaching back into the misty past – a heritage of horsepower – while for Lexus it’s been a case of vanishingly low noise levels and vanishing exhaust pipes.
Now, it seems, enough is enough. We’ve gathered at the newly opened Monteblanco circuit near Seville in southern Spain. As we walk into the brilliant sunlight from the murk of the pit garages, the imagery could hardly be more vivid or tantalizing. Parked to one side of the pit lane is a new BMW M3 and an Audi RS4. We can look, we can touch but, unsurprisingly, we can’t drive. Only Lexus personnel know what the BMW and Audi are capable of round this pristine 3.5-mile track and, under questioning, they’re understandably guarded. As a device for generating a frisson of expectation, though, it does the trick. Further down the pit lane, warmed-up and ready to roll, is the IS-F, Lexus’s belated but emphatically gloves-off response to the Teutonic high-performance hegemony.
Visually, at least, the positioning seems apt. The steroidally enhanced Lexus is a clenched fist of aggression that makes even the RS4 seem unusually demure. Further still down the pit lane, looking pensive but icily cool, is Yukihiko Yaguchi, project manager for the IS-F. Wearing the same Sparco race overalls he modelled in the Frankfurt motor show brochure that accompanied the launch of the IS-F and sporting the penetrating stare of a kung fu master in a Quentin Tarantino movie, it’s doubtful if anyone has ever looked faster.
With no performance-saloon history to build on, but with clear targets to attack and an adequate stock of engines and technologies to cherry-pick from, Yaguchi understandably adopted a best-of-all-worlds approach. Lifted from the LS600h limo, the 5-litre V8 retains the D-4S technology that combines direct and port injection to improve efficiency throughout the power band. But with cylinder heads developed by Yamaha Racing and a new dual air intake system that massages power and cues up a proper V8 soundtrack, it develops 417bhp and 371lb ft of torque.
Also from the 600h is the eight-speed automatic transmission, but it gets paddle-shifters and completely different controlling software, dropping shift times to just 100 milliseconds – barely a blink behind the Ferrari 430 Scuderia’s 60ms and, according to Lexus, faster than any dual-clutch DSG gearbox. In manual mode the transmission doesn’t shift up automatically, while downshifts are rev-matched to ensure greater stability when braking into bends.
The layout of the coil and wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear end is essentially the same as the IS250’s, but lighter parts have reduced unsprung weight while springs, damper and bushes have been re-worked to increase grip and sharpen responses without trashing the ride. Naturally, electronics play their part and Lexus’s VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system has gained a Sport setting that makes the electric power steering more direct and allows the driver to push harder towards the limit without obvious intervention. VDIM can be switched off partially, defeating just the traction control, or completely.
The 19in forged aluminium wheels have been developed with BBS and are lighter than the same sized wheel on the LS. Tyre sizes are asymmetric front to rear (225/40 and 255/35) and have been specially developed by Bridgestone and Michelin for the car. Perhaps mindful of the Achilles heel that braking has represented for BMW’s M3 down the generations, the IS-F gets monster anchors developed in collaboration with Brembo: 360mm front discs, 345mm rears, all ventilated and drilled, six-pot callipers at the front, two-pots at the rear. Apart from anything else, they look every bit as drool-worthy as the anthracite alloys that cage them and only slightly less sexy than the diagonally stacked quad exhaust pipes.
Inside there’s new instrumentation that includes an LCD display to tell you which gear you’re in (with eight gears that’s by no means a frippery) and an oil temp gauge. The shift paddles are longer than in other similarly equipped Lexus models to offer better control during more enthusiastic wheel twirling, while the drilled aluminium pedals and heavily bolstered seats strike a quasi-competition pose. The circuit – so new, smooth and, above all, empty – beckons.
Before the end of the pit straight, one thing is already beyond dispute. For the way it slaughters distance and the noise it makes, the IS-F is a major piece of hardware. But mostly – and this is the best bit – for the way it locks you into the process. True, there’s an element of PlayStation in the electric linearity of the power delivery and the way the lightning-fast gearshifts merge almost imperceptibly together. This, however, is no whispering, sweetness-and-light Lexus. It’s loud and, quite clearly, it’s angry and out for German blood.
For such a compact car, that 5-litre V8 is an impressively big gun; only the C63 AMG’s 449bhp 6.2 hits harder, but the difference is unlikely to be significant on the road. Lexus claims 0-62mph in 4.9sec, but it feels quicker, simply hurtling out of the circuit’s tighter bends and sustaining a savage lick until well beyond 130mph. But then that LS engine unleashed is a phenomenon: sublimely smooth and flexible, free-spinning all the way to the 7000rpm red line and replete with a completely unsuspected – but quite magnificent – granite-edged bellow that shades all of its rivals for sheer aural drama. There are several degrees of contrivance at work here (fine-tuning an engine note has become a science in itself) that roughly work out thus: from idle to 3600rpm is pure exhaust note, above that the secondary air intake joins in to add another layer of throaty sonority and, finally, the mechanical contribution of the engine itself dominates.
Throttle response is instant but not hyped as in the Audi. The engine’s formidable reserves are released evenly over the entire travel of the accelerator pedal, not bunched towards the first inch of movement. It lends a progressive feel to the driving experience that carries through to the point where, VDIM off, you feel confident to balance the car’s attitude on the throttle or push all the way into full-blooded oversteer. The IS-F is no M3 when it comes to drifting, though. Its open diff makes for lots of smoky wheelspin and the generous steering lock means you can wind on almost absurd amounts of opposite lock without spinning. But it simply doesn’t have the drive out of bends the M3 finds with its M-diff. That said, with VDIM in Sport mode, the IS-F feels very quick and very secure, combining fluency and grip with enough freedom of expression to keep life interesting.
Back in the pits, the sight of the M3 and RS4 doing nothing is almost unbearably frustrating. The answers will come, but not today. It’s enough to know that the IS-F is, as promised, a Lexus like no other, with the personality and potential to blow a cosy Teutonic triumvirate apart when it lands in the UK next March. If Lexus, as expected, manages to keep the price below £40,000, watch the fur fly.