The Lexus reputation for building high-quality, ultra-quiet and fine-driving semi-sporting machines is about to come to an abrupt halt. Because what Lexus has here, with the new IS F, is a bona fide hot-rod — the most un-Lexus-like Lexus ever put into production.
The "F" designation comes from the "Circle-F" internal code that Toyota used more than 20 years ago when it was concocting the upmarket Lexus brand. From now on, F will designate a performance Lexus — of which company officials promise more of in the future. The F logo was inspired by several turns at Fuji Speedway in Japan, a track where the IS F spent much of its development time.
Lexus isn't embarrassed to admit that the IS F's 5.0-liter V-8 is based on the 4.6-liter version that powers the LS 460 and GS 460. In IS F form, this engine makes considerably more power — 416 bhp at 6600 rpm and 371 lb.-ft. at 5200 — and, of course, that extra power is stuffed into a smaller car. The IS F doesn't just get its power from the engine's increased size, but from such features as a forged crankshaft, forged connecting rods, titanium intake valves, high-flow intake ports as well as aluminum cylinder heads designed and built by Yamaha. A new variable valve-control system (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence and Electrically controlled intake cam, or VVT-iE) is unique in that it uses an electric motor to operate its cam phasing.
A feature that has a huge impact on the alluring sounds that emanate from beneath the car's bulging hood is the IS F's dual air-intake system. The secondary passage opens at 3600 rpm, boosting high-rpm power and turning the engine (if you're at full throttle) from Lexus-quiet to raunchy-V-8 loud. We love it.
Although the Lexus LS takes credit as the world's first 8-speed automatic transmission, Lexus claims the IS F has "the world's first 8-speed Sport Direct-Shift automatic transmission." It can be operated in the usual automatic mode or the driver can shift the eight speeds like a manual via large paddles behind the steering wheel or by using the center-console lever.
We really like that in Manual mode the driver has full control over the shifting — it won't upshift for you at the 6800-rpm redline, and won't downshift if you floor it. But the paddle-shifting works best only when the car is being driven very hard; drive it at half throttle but rev it to, say, 3500 rpm or higher, and the upshifts are quite abrupt. The transmission blips the throttle on downshifts, but at low revs the shifts are also jerky. Downshift from high rpm, though, and the shifts are smooth and deliver the kind of beautiful, almost unmuffled bark with each blip that we normally associate with race cars.
The 8-speed transmission helps the IS F achieve its remarkably quick acceleration numbers: 0–60 mph in just 4.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 12.8 sec. at 113.3 mph. The IS F's rear 255/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s put the car's 416 bhp to the pavement with just a smidgen of wheelspin, followed by a chirp as you jam home the 1–2 shift.
The IS F is based on the IS 350 and, surprisingly, does without any body strengthening whatsoever, despite the car's added heft, power and penchant for g-loading. Officials at Lexus say this isn't surprising at all, since the second-generation IS is based on the GS platform, which itself was designed to handle a V-8.
Although the IS F's basic suspension layout remains similar to the IS 350's, the tuning is considerably different. The front spring rates have been increased by 90 percent (yes, you read that correctly) while the rears have been upped by 50 percent. Other changes include increased damper rates, larger anti-roll bars and 19-in. forged-alloy BBS wheels.
How serious is Lexus about the IS F? The car's chassis engineers used Porsche's 911 Carrera as their handling benchmark. The IS F's powerful V-8 combined with the stiffer suspension and much more direct electric-assist power steering means this car has none of the soft and gentle nature of an IS 350. But you will gladly put up with the harsher ride once you take the IS F on a curvy road or a track. After spending half a day lapping around Laguna Seca, we were won over by the car's accurate steering, minimal body roll and outright grip. Its 71.2-mph slalom speed is damn impressive for such a heavy sedan (3825 lb.), eclipsing not only the Audi RS 4 (68.9 mph) but also the Porsche Cayman S (70.6 mph). The 911 Carrera 4S barely edges the Lexus, at 71.5 mph.
Where the IS F struggles is on overly bumpy back roads; in that setting, the suspension's lack of compliance makes the car flit, flutter and skate across the road like Helio Castroneves on Dancing with the Stars. But on most roads, no such problem.
The recalibrated VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system allows three different degrees of driver's aides, including 1) all systems on, 2) a Sport mode that allows for a small amount of tail-out sliding and, 3) all systems off. We're appreciative that Lexus has seen the light to allow the last. But the Sport mode cuts in far too early to allow much fun.
Another impressive aspect of the IS F is its Brembo-sourced brakes. The 14.2-in. cross-drilled front rotors are clamped by 6-piston aluminum calipers, the 13.6-in. rears by 2-piston versions. Lexus fits the IS F with high-friction brake pads that allow all-day track driving with nary a bit of fade — pretty rare for a production car.
In general, the changes made to the IS F's exterior — including upper and lower wire-mesh grilles, new front and rear fascias, side skirts, a rear wing and those fancy dark-gray wheels — are tasteful and appropriate for the flashier image of the car. With two exceptions: The first, the air vents that jut from the wider front fenders; these outlets supposedly vent hot air from the engine, but, looking at the small holes, they can't possibly be functional enough to warrant their gaudiness. The second, and an even more flagrant styling faux pas, are the stacked quad exhausts. Personally, I liked them, until I knelt down to get a closer look and realized they were completely fake — behind them lie the four real peashooter outlets!
The interior of the IS F greets you with the style and quality we've come to expect of the Lexus brand — but in a sportier fashion. The biggest difference is the use of two bucket seats in the rear, making this is a 4-seater. We especially liked the "aluminized composite trim" on the center console as well as the firmer front seats; the blue stitching throughout the interior adds a nice touch. But we don't understand why Lexus made the gear indicator so small — it should be the size of the giant "F" logo that resides in the instrument panel.
When the IS F goes on sale in the U.S. in early 2008 we're guessing it will start in the high-$50,000 range; Lexus' modest plan is to sell about 3000 IS Fs per year here.
How the IS F will match up against the Audi RS 4, BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG will have to wait for a comparison. But here's what we know: Somehow, Lexus got its compact super sedan "right" on the first try. One drive in this car — not even necessarily on a twisty road — and you can feel how serious a sporting device it is. Trust us, this is definitely not your mom's Lexus.
By Mike Monticello,