2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge
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The IS F at the 2007 Detroit auto show

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Lexus Canada

Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2008 Lexus IS-F

Ottawa, Ontario – When I was in college, I knew a guy who’d do burnouts in his Chevette. It was pretty funny, if only because the car would inevitably stall at the end.

While the sight of a Lexus putting on a smoke show in the paddock at Ottawa’s Calabogie Motorsports Park was equally unexpected, this car at least had the specs that made you believe it could be done.

The car in question was the IS F, the new, high-performance variant of Lexus’ entry-level IS sedan. High-performance indeed: here we have the first direct competitor for the BMW M3 and Audi RS4 to come from Japan.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Certainly, there have been powerful Japanese cars before, some of them from Lexus itself. Finally, here’s one that feels equally at home on a race-track as in the weekday commute.

Of course, a 416-horsepower V8 is wasted in stop-and-go driving – which is why Lexus rented out Calabogie for a day of flogging its newest – and most exciting – car.

That burnout, by the way, came at the capable hands of Scott Pruett, driver for Lexus in the Rolex Grand Am Championship series, and record holder of the most wins in Grand Am history, a milestone he reached last year. He was gracious enough to come out for the day to chat with journalists about the car and demonstrate its abilities – and his – by way of that burnout and taking passengers out on the track for hot laps.

The 2008 IS F looks much the same as the one shown at the 2007 Detroit auto show. That car was shown in the Ultrasonic Blue colour that Lexus says will be the hallmark of the ‘F’ brand; it’s used as an interior accent in all IS Fs and is exclusive to the model.

It’s easy to assume that the ‘F’ in IS F stands for ‘fast.’ However, Lexus says that the logo, displayed on the front fenders and trunklid, is a graphical representation of Turn One at Japan’s Fuji Speedway, which also serves as the ‘F’ brand’s philosophical inspiration.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Body-wise, the most significant exterior differences between the IS F and lesser IS models are found in the more aggressive front fascia, hood and fenders, whose bulges and big openings are all functional. The larger, central lower grille opening allows for better engine cooling, and the bigger vents to either side help keep the brakes from burning up under hard use.

The hood bulge accommodates the bigger engine, and functional vents aft of the flared front fenders are there to direct airflow around the vehicle for better high-speed aerodynamics.

In the rear, the only real difference is the quad exhaust diffuser set-up that Lexus says redirects exhaust gases to generate extra down-force at higher speeds.

The engine is a 5.0-litre V8 based on the 4.6-litre unit from the big LS 460, massaged with the help of Yamaha, to produce its 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque. Likewise, the eight-speed automatic transmission – which many enthusiasts will be chagrined to learn is the only one offered – is also sourced from the brand’s flagship.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Lexus says their research showed that automatics are becoming more popular in this segment, hence the decision to go the no-manual route. It may not be a terrible loss, though: the only manual offered in the IS line – the six-speed in the IS 250 – is hardly a driver’s dream, with awkward clutch take-up and an unsatisfying shifter.

The eight-speed’s internals were left untouched, save for new shift solenoids designed to allow for the gearbox’s 0.1 second shifts, which Lexus claims is a faster shift time than that in the Ferrari F430 and the equal of the Ferrari 599 GTB’s gearbox. Lexus calls this the world’s first Sport Direct-Shift automatic. Or, in English, the first eight-speed automatic with a manual shift mode and paddle shifters.

If eight gear ratios seem like overkill in the LS, the setup works well here, with closely-spaced gearing that keeps the engine on the boil during spirited driving. If you’re disappointed at the lack of a true manual, you might be mollified by these facts:

  • In manual mode, the transmission won’t upshift at redline, but will simply bang off the rev limiter. The transmission will only shift itself if the chosen gear is too high for the current road speed (while tooling along in a school zone in eighth gear, for example).

  • Also, in manual mode, the torque converter only functions in first gear, locking up as soon as second is selected for the direct connection between engine and wheels that’s so satisfying in a manual car. Manual downshifts are accompanied by a blip of the throttle to maintain better balance in high-speed deceleration.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

The engine has a few trick features, too. There’s a head scavenge oil pump that eliminates oil “starvation” at up to one “G” of cornering force – a Lexus first. The gas tank is similarly designed, with an internal sub-tank that maintains a supply of fuel around the pump’s pickup. An interesting aside: if you don’t believe Lexus is serious about promoting the IS F as a track car, consider that the company recommends a heavier weight 5W50 engine oil for the track, compared to the 5W30 that the cars come with from the factory.

A dual-stage intake system keeps things quiet at engine speeds below 3,600 rpm and switches over to a less-restrictive route that pulls air from inside the right front wheel well and creates a throaty growl at wide throttle openings. A little boy-racer perhaps, but nevertheless, it was good fun to wind out the motor to hear the changeover happen.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Specs-wise, the IS F boasts more torque than either the latest M3 or the RS4 – no doubt a factor of its displacement advantage – and a zero to 100 km/h time of 4.8 seconds. That’s identical to the M3’s figure and a little quicker than the RS4 (whose 4.8 second time applies to a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) sprint.

For all that the IS F matches the performance of its peers, it also boasts class-leading fuel economy. The numbers are 13.1 L/100 km (city) and 8.5 L/100 km (highway) and combined figure of 11 even, significantly better than the overall numbers for the RS4 and M3, which are 13.9 and 12.8, respectively.

The IS F uses a sport-tuned version of Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), plus the other usual suspects, like Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control, ABS, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Unlike many other Toyota and Lexus products, the IS F allows the driver to completely disable the stability and traction control systems. There’s also a “sport” mode that allows some wheelspin and power-on oversteer before it spoils the fun. We got to sample all three modes in a brief-but-fun lesson in drifting that had us trying to complete one revolution of a skidpad with the car in steady-state oversteer. The car is a willing participant in these sorts of hijinks, but it’s not as easy to do as it looks.

Quite simply, Lexus says it chose the IS F’s rear-drive layout instead of all-wheel drive to save weight. The company feels the majority of buyers won’t miss it, this being a car that’s unlikely to see winter use.

The brakes are big Brembos – 14.2-inch rotors and six-piston calipers in front, and 13.6-inch rotors and two-piston calipers in back – and are the first production Lexus brakes to feature calipers painted with the brand’s logo.

The standard, forged aluminum, 19-inch wheels are made exclusively for the IS F by wheel maker BBS. Lexus says they’re 40 per cent lighter than a cast aluminum wheel of the same size, which pays dividends in unsprung weight – the mass of stuff like brakes, wheels and the suspension parts themselves – and improves at-the-limit ride and handling. The tires are Y-rated Michelins sized 225/40R19 in front and 255/35R19 in the rear.

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Inside, the standard upholstery is a striking black and white scheme, but an all-black interior is a no-charge option. The aluminum composite trim on the door panels and centre console looks great in the shade but a touch cheap in direct sunlight. Otherwise, fit and finish in the cars Lexus had for us to drive was without reproach.

The IS F is a four-seater, where the standard IS 250 and 350 models seat five. The aggressively-bolstered front seats are supportive and feel like they’d be very comfortable for long drives. Indeed, I felt just fine after the hour-long backroad jaunt back into Ottawa from Calabogie at the end of the day.

On smooth roads, it’d be easy to mistake the IS F for one of its lesser siblings, which is a good thing. There is some road noise, but it’s not intrusive. It’s only on rough roads, or around Ottawa, average ones, that the IS F’s firmer suspension can get a bit tiring. Lexus says the front suspension is a whopping 90 per cent stiffer, while the rear springs and shocks are 50 per cent firmer.

The IS F is certainly a heap of fun to throw around at high speed. Could it keep up with the RS4 and M3 in Calabogie’s challenging corners? Probably, but it’d take a more experienced track driver than I – not to mention, access to the other two cars for a direct comparison – to determine that. For sure, the car is fast, and the engine sounds great at high revs, though I expected a more aggressive exhaust note from a car Lexus is marketing as “the beast.”

2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F
2008 Lexus IS F. Click image to enlarge

Lexus says 200 IS Fs are destined for Canada for 2008. The car has actually been on sale since March 12, and 100 have already been spoken for. Apparently, none have been delivered, not because of production or shipping problems, but because it didn’t make much sense to deliver a high-powered, rear-drive car during the winter. While the IS F is a limited volume model, there will be a 2009 model that will go on sale later this year.

The IS F is a steal at its base price of $64,400, compared to the M3 sedan’s $69,900 and the RS4’s $94,200 ticket. The only IS F option package is the $4,100 “Series 2” group that adds a Mark Levinson 14-speaker audio system with an in-dash six-DVD changer, Bluetooth capability and a DVD-based navigation system that incorporates a backup camera. Lexus expects “Series 2” cars to account for 80 per cent of IS F sales.

For sure, Lexus had no trouble keeping our attention for a day with a car like this and unhindered access to a racetrack to drive it on, but there was the inevitable question of whether the ‘F’ brand would be expanded to other Lexus models, to create a stable of high-performance cars similar to BMW’s M and Audi’s S and RS models. For now, the IS F is simply a toe in the sport sedan pool. If this one sells well – and it would be a surprise if it didn’t – perhaps we’ll see more potent and sporting versions of the company’s other cars in the future.

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