October 6, 2008
The Lexus IS F is an incredible automobile, and for a first effort in the ultra high-performance category, Lexus should be commended. Many consumers are still unaware of parent company Toyota’s long and storied motorsports history, but much of the IS F’s DNA has been field tested on racetracks around the world, and it shows.
The IS F’s styling is an obvious evolution of the smooth lines of the standard IS models, but some modifications had to be made to make room up front for the potent V8 engine. This is immediately evident when viewing the car’s side profile, as the hood and front fenders have been stretched to accommodate the big power plant.
While some like the look of the extended length, I think it makes the car look ungainly and awkward, as the spot-on proportions of the IS are obliterated by the new front end. A noticeable bulge in the hood was needed to free up more real estate for the engine as well, further disrupting the car’s aerodynamic skin.
The sporty front air dam features deep ducts to help direct cool air to the engine and brakes, while a wide grille with chrome surround sits immediately above the bumper and partners with the Bi-Xenon HID headlights to give the car a mischievous grin. On paper, the car is about 50 mm wider than its siblings, but it is this girth that gives the car its aggressive stance and stable feel. Lexus looked to legendary German wheel maker BBS to source the 19-inch, forged aluminum wheels, which are an attractive 10-spoke design coloured a dark steel grey. Other styling cues that reveal the car’s true personality are the functional side vents aft of the front wheels that act to expel heat from under the hood and equalize pressure around the car when travelling at high-speed, a pair of dual stacked tailpipes and a subtle rear deck spoiler.
The interior is first class, with all the luxury and comfort accessories expected in a Lexus, as well as impeccable fit-and-finish. The three spoke steering wheel features a thick rim and is wrapped in leather, finished with contrasting blue stitching. Two easy-to-reach metal paddles stare out from the rear, while secondary controls for the Mark Levinson audio system and Bluetooth phone options reside on its face. The instrument cluster is easy to read, and its large speedometer and tachometer (with 6,800 rpm redline and attractive blue LED lighting) are joined by an oil-temp gauge, the mark of any good performance machine.
The dash, console and doors are tied together with what appears to be textured aluminum trim (which is actually fiberglass to reduce weight), and plastics are of exceptional quality. Drilled, alloy pedals and an ergonomic, chrome gear lever complete the list of sporty highlights.
The layout of the passenger compartment reduces seating availability to four, rather than the five position configuration of a standard IS model, but this leads to better weight distribution when fully loaded, not to mention better comfort for the lucky foursome. The heavily bolstered sport bucket seat did a great job of holding me in place under hard cornering manoeuvres, but was also comfortable enough to make long distance travel a possibility. While I found the front compartment roomy enough for my XXL frame, the rear compartment was very tight. Even squeezing back there to take some interior photographs was a feat worthy of a Cirque du Soleil audition for a man my size. Standard “brochure-sized” people will no doubt have no trouble getting comfortable, but anyone over about 5-foot-8-inches tall will need to navigate the narrow door opening with care so as not to whack their head on the sloped roof line.
The IS F features the Lexus 5.0-litre V8 VVT-iE (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence), an engine engineered to adjust valve timing for both the exhaust camshaft and intake camshaft in an effort to deliver maximum performance and fuel efficiency, as well as reduce emissions.
This mechanical marvel was co-developed with Yamaha (yes, they do dabble in automotive engine technology as well as motorcycles, and have even competed in Formula 1), and produces 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque, blessing the IS F with enough asphalt-gobbling prowess to embarrass many exotic GT cars.
Much to my chagrin, there is no manual transmission on the menu, but the eight-speed, Sport Direct Shift transmission delivers gear changes faster than I could ever navigate through a standard box. The gear ratios have been selected for optimal acceleration, and a new torque-converter lock-up control helps ensure each shift up, or down, is precise and quick. This highly-efficient gearbox can be operated in either fully automatic mode (D-mode) perfect for highway cruising or everyday driving, or a manual mode (M-mode), that Lexus literature claims delivers one-tenth-of-a-second up-shifts via the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters that allow the car to hustle to from a standstill to100 km/h in well under five seconds. As you decelerate, the downshifts trigger automated throttle blips that match engine r.p.m.s to the IS F’s speed of travel, effectively preventing the chassis from becoming unsettled. The aural pleasure this creates is intense enough to have you drop the windows and look for tunnels and overpasses to add to your daily commute.
When you think of the cars produced by Lexus precision is usually one of the descriptors that will immediately come to mind, as Toyota’s luxury brand is characterized by meticulous design and construction. But precision can also be used to describe the IS F’s handling characteristics, which are so razor sharp that the car seems to become an extension of its driver. Immediate response to driver inputs can be unsettling at first, as everything seems to happen too fast, but once you have a handle on the car’s performance capabilities it becomes a joy. It is important to pay attention to the task at hand whenever you get behind the wheel of an automobile, but high-performance machines demand an even higher degree of attention.
The engineers at Lexus spent a great deal of attention on the suspension of this car as the IS F buyer may be of the sort that wants to take in a track day on occasion. The IS F features a double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear suspension based on the IS 350 sedan, but with significant modifications that enhance both stiffness and feel. When compared to an IS 350, the front spring and shock rates are 90 per cent stiffer, while the rear rates rise some 50 per cent. The car has also been fitted with larger anti-roll bars front and rear in an effort to minimize body roll, and overall ride height has been reduced about 25 mm.
The VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system allows the driver to dial the car’s performance to meet his or her needs, while still providing a safety net of electronic aides to help keep the car on the road. Factors including speed, road conditions and driver steering input can all affect whether VDIM will be effective in preventing a loss of control. When the driver selects “Sport” mode the brakes and steering are sharpened, and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) operate invisibly to minimize wheel-spin and traction loss. You can also switch everything off if you want to really explore the car and your driving abilities, but in this caliber of automobile you better be an experienced pilot.
The car takes direction well and tracks true, and its huge tires provide gobs of grip, but during high-speed cornering you will notice the extra weight up front. Road irregularities and potholes will also send a kick through the seat of your pants when operating in sport mode, as the added stiffness of the suspension stands in stark contrast to what you may have felt in other Lexus machines.
A car with the performance capabilities of the IS F requires reliable and efficient stopping power, so the car comes equipped with enormous ventilated and drilled discs matched to six-piston calipers up front, and two-piston in the rear. These fade-resistant marvels come from the legendary Italian firm Brembo, noted for supplying its brake technology to most of the top teams in Formula 1, as well as the majority of the grid at Le Mans. They proved fade-free during my time with the car, and response was so immediate that I had to readjust my driving style the following week when my next test vehicle had standard brakes.
For 2008 the Lexus build sheet lists the base IS F as a Series 1. This version includes the following equipment: Dual zone automatic climate control; Lexus “Premium” audio with 13 speakers, in-dash six-disc CD changer, MP3 capability, auxiliary input, and steering wheel audio controls; leather seating surfaces; heated eight-way power adjustable driver and front passenger seats with three-position memory and power lumbar support; power moon roof; heated mirrors; adaptive front lighting system with Bi-Xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps and auto levelling capabilities; fog lamps; driver and passenger knee airbags; dual stage driver and passenger airbags; front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags front and rear.
My Smoky Granite Mica test vehicle was a fully loaded Series 2. Ticking this option box adds Bluetooth capability, a Mark Levinson audio system featuring 5.1 channel surround sound, an in-dash, six-disc DVD changer and no less than 14 carefully matched speakers. A DVD based navigation system partnered with a backup camera completes this $4,100 upgrade. The standard audio system is satellite radio ready, and Lexus offers buyers the opportunity to select either XM or Sirius as an option.
Automotive journalists have relished the past few months, as the engineering gods have seen fit to deliver some of the most capable automobiles on the planet in short order. The IS F hit the road with big game trophies in its sights. Cars like Audi’s incredible RS4 re-set the performance bar in this category in 2007, while 2008 brought the latest variant of BMW’s legendary M3 and the arrival of Mercedes-Benz’s scorcher, the C63 AMG, to the arena. If we remove the quattro (AWD) equipped RS4 from the equation and focus on the three rear-wheel drive cars, the choice is one I am glad I do not have to make, as I like all three cars for different reasons. To be honest the M3, C63 and IS F are so evenly matched with regards to both pricing and performance that selecting a favourite would have to come down individual preferences for styling, comfort or loyalty to a brand.
After spending a week with each one, I think the Lexus will appeal to affluent younger buyers; those versed in the import “tuner” culture and possessing driving skills honed on their game consoles, whereas the traditional sports sedan buyer will seek out the M3, and the neighbourhood bully will gravitate to the flash and anger of the C63 AMG.
There is no doubt that the Lexus IS F is a spectacular sports sedan, but it comes to us during an increasingly bleak period in the evolution of the automobile. Out-of-control gasoline prices, rising insurance rates and growing concerns over the state of our natural environment stack the deck against cars like this, by hampering their acceptance and mass appeal. While the enthusiast driver will always understand why cars like the IS F exist, their mothers may not, so let’s hope sales remain strong enough to ward off extinction.
Pricing: 2008 Lexus IS F
$4,773 (Series 2 Package, $4,100; Sirius Satellite Radio, $673)
|Price as tested:||
Manufacturer’s web site