BMW has M, Audi has S, and now Lexus has F -- a letter to designate their ultra-high-performance cars. The first example of the F-series is the IS F, and what an entrance it's making -- 416 horsepower V8 engine, 8-speed transmission, specially tuned suspension and stability control system, and a body kit that's painted with three coats of attitude. Does the IS F deliver on its promises? Read on. Price range $56,765 - $61,951, EPA fuel economy estimates 16 MPG city, 23 MPG highway.
First Glance: From milquetoast to beefcake
The current version of the Lexus IS made its debut in 2006, and I reviewed both versions -- the IS250 and IS350 -- just last year. While I respected their more Lexus-like attitude (as opposed to the BMW-like attitude of the 2001-2005 IS), I thought that from a performance and handling standpoint, the IS was a bit… milquetoast.
I know the 2008 IS F wasn't a direct response to my review -- my ego is big, but it's not that big -- but it may as well have been. Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, milque or toast about the IS F. This car is pure beef. No… this car is pure cojones.
The IS F is not your typical Japanese sport-luxury sedan, relying purely on electronic magic to make a better driving experience. The IS F shows a strong influence from the German school of bad-ass, what with its absurdly powerful engine, stiff suspension, and fat, sticky tires. After all, why defy the laws of physics when going along with them will get you so far? Of course, Lexus is still Japanese -- they're a division of Toyota -- so high-tech wizardry plays a supporting role in the IS F, as does over-the-top styling. Take the double-stacked exhaust pipes (link goes to photo) -- dual pipes are good, so quad pipes must be better, right? I think they look a bit silly, though they do convey a point. The wide front fender flares that extend into the fender sills looked a little odd in some of the early factory photos (like this one), but in person the car looks fantastic -- especially in dark red, like my test car.
In the Driver's Seat: Forget the cabin, what's under the hood?
Inside, the IS F is typical Lexus fare, albeit in a distinctly Germanic black color scheme with patterned-aluminum trim. My tester had white-faced seats, which don't look as bad as they sound; black seats with blue stitching are also offered. Regardless of color, the seats have lots of extra bolstering to hold you in place while cornering, leather upholstery, heat and 10-way power adjustment. The back seat is acceptable, the trunk is a bit small, and since the back seats don't fold down, never the twain shall meet. Okay, enough about the interior; the good stuff is under the hood.
Forget about the V6 engines that power the IS250/350. Lexus engineers shoehorned in a V8, even though that meant bulging the hood to make it fit. And they didn't just grab the 4.6 liter V8 found in bigger Lexus models -- they developed a special 5-liter version that combines brute force and high technology. Fuel is delivered by a system that combines direct injection (similar to Audi's FSI) with a traditional port-injection system. Bottom line: 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque, and while the engine is tuned for high-RPM power, I found its output to be smooth and even from idle to redline. Said output gets to the rear wheels via a high-tech 8-speed automatic with a manual-shifting mode and steering-wheel-mounted paddles. And I must mention the awesome exhaust note -- the IS F displays Lexus-like decorum in gentle driving, but drop the hammer with the revs above 3,500 and the five-oh's growl gets louder, deeper and meaner. It's a wonderful soundtrack.
On the Road: Fast and furious
The IS F certainly accelerates like a 400+ horsepower car -- Lexus claims a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds, and my built-in inertial recognition system (a.k.a. the "butt accelerometer") agrees. But the 8-speed automatic seems like overkill: The IS-F goes 95 MPH in 3rd gear and gets 20+ MPG in 8th, so why bother with 4th through 7th? Floor the pedal at highway speeds and there's a noticeable delay before the powertrain downshifts, winds up and takes off. Manual mode doesn't speed things up much, because you have to tap the downshift paddle 3 or 4 times to get a useful gear. That said, when you're revving it out in manual mode, a "beep" just ahead of redline alerts you when to shift -- a nice touch.
Recent rainfall had left the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road littered with wet patches and fallen bits of rocky cliff, so there was little opportunity to push the IS F to its limits. Still, with what dry, clear spots there were, I could see that the IS F has excellent steering, exceptional brakes, amazing grip, and that the electronic stability control system is one of the best and least-obtrusive I've encountered, keeping the car on course with little drama. The system can only be partially disabled, but with 371 lb-ft of torque going to the rear wheels and the system's seamless operation, I was only too happy to have the electronic nanny looking over my shoulder.
But the IS F has an Achilles heel: Ride quality. It's not hard -- the suspension takes the edge off sharp bumps -- but it's very busy, tossing occupants up-and-down mercilessly on even moderately bumpy roads.
Journey's End: It's all good -- great, actually -- except the ride
From a power and handling standpoint, the IS F is one of the best luxury sport sedans I've driven. The engine is a work of art and its behavior in curves is a wonder to behold. But I don't think I'd buy one, because I don't think I could live with the ride.
Mrs. Gold joined me, as she often does, for my first attempt to drive the Top Secret Curvy Test Road, and within minutes I had to slow to a crawl because she was getting nauseous. She took her fair share of time behind the IS F's wheel, and came to the conclusion that the IS F is much more tolerable to the driver than the passenger -- but that said, even I started to get a headache on the bumpiest section of my test route.
It's not as if comfort and sport are mutually exclusive. Audis deliver just as much grip without undue pain, and the Infiniti G35-- while not in the same league power-wise as the IS F -- is much more comfortable and every bit as enjoyable in the curves.
So what else is out there in the IS F's league? The Audi RS4 and upcoming BMW M3 both play in the 400+ horsepower club, while the Audi S4 isn't far behind with 340 hp. Price-wise, the IS-F starts out just above the M3 and far below the RS4 -- a very good place to be.
Aside from the ride, the IS F is absolutely brilliant. If all F-series vehicles are this good, BMW and Audi have a lot to worry about. -- Aaron Gold