Lexus, the company known primarily for reliable, nearly silent, flawlessly efficient passenger cars, has tossed the formula out the window with the IS F.
The 2008 Lexus IS F is a captivating performance sedan is built for the involved driver. It's a car that encourages and rewards spirited driving, and with a top speed of 168 mph, the IS F is by far the fastest car Lexus has ever made.
To describe the Lexus LS F as fun to drive would be bland understatement. This is an authentic performance car that brings smiles to professional driving instructors and racers on the world's fastest racetracks. For the average driver, this is a car so able, so secure, it changes the way you see the road.
Lexus test drivers have logged 0-60 times in 4.6 seconds, but straight-ahead acceleration is only one aspect of the IS F's performance envelope. It's a car built for high G-forces and quick stopping.
Combining an eight-speed transmission and a 5.0-liter V8 that puts out 416 horsepower, the IS F readily attains higher speeds than the IS 250 or IS 350. Better grip comes from a wider stance, heftier suspension components with less unsprung weight, outstanding brakes, and the most advanced electronic traction enhancements.
Unlike some performance sedans, the IS F is not particularly tiring to drive in ordinary day-to-day situations. There is no heavy clutch, the seats can be comfy for hours at a time, and the ride is not overly firm at low speeds. An outstanding audio system is available. Because the IS F is EPA-rated to deliver 16 mpg City, 23 Highway, it will not be subject to the hefty federal Gas Guzzler Tax.
From a business point of view, the IS F is more than just the third model in the IS lineup. This is the first of perhaps several cars that will be launched with the F designation, which Lexus hopes to build into an icon.
A detailed pricing list will be released a few weeks before the IS F goes on sale March 1. Lexus marketing officials have said that they intend to be competitive with comparable cars, such as the BMW M3. The Neiman Marcus edition, which includes a number of unique features, goes into the company's Christmas catalog at $68,000.
The Lexus IS F is the third model in the IS lineup, following the IS 250 and is 350. While the IS 250 and IS 350 are certainly fun-to-drive, sporty cars, the F is intended to be a no-compromise performance sedan. As such, it's a flagship capable of extending the brand, and a conspicuous showpiece of Lexus capability and intentions.
Lexus IS F
The Lexus IS F looks like a cat ready to pounce, with expressive styling that suggests a balance between lithe fluidity and the tensile strength of steel and forged aluminum.
The IS F rides on the same wheelbase as the IS 250/350, but it's bigger overall, and looks it.
The stance is visibly more aggressive, especially when viewed from the front. Compared to the IS 350, the track is wider in the front, due to new wheels and tires, and the overall width is increased by nearly two inches. It's also longer by 3.35 inches, and 1 inch lower than the standard IS. Most of the growth is due to a larger engine bay for the V8 engine.
Functional vents located below the front headlamps help direct cooling airflow. This airflow passes through wider fender wells and exits behind the wheels. The vents blend smoothly into rocker panels, sculpted to a slight taper that leads the eye rearward. At the rear, four oval exhaust tips are stacked and integrated with the bumper.
Lexus engineers spent considerable time smoothing the body lines to achieve a coefficient of drag of 0.30 Cd, including the design of underbody covers for the engine, transmission, gas tank, rear suspension control arms, and trunk area. These covers and others were studied and shaped so that they would balance airflow, reduce high-speed lift, and help improve heat dissipation.
The IS F is available in six colors, including four variations of pearlescent and metallic tones. Among them: Obsidian Black, Starfire Pearl, and a bright red called Matador Red Mica. Unique to the IS F is the color Ultrasonic Blue Mica, a strong, deep blue.
Just sitting in the Lexus IS F evokes an emotional response. Four bucket seats are provided, rather than a rear bench, perfectly stitched in compliance with Lexus standards. The two front seats are deeply dished but not rock-hard, and can be adjusted to an appropriate level of snugness.
The seats are very tight, but very comfortable. While strongly bolstered against lateral forces, they are well cushioned for long hauls of ordinary driving. The seat design suggests that the IS F may be a performance machine, but it is not strictly one-dimensional. In the cockpit at normal speeds, the IS F does not force the driver to fight cornering forces.
The rear seats also are supportive, side to side, but to a lesser extent. A brief console tray separates the rear-seat passengers, although rear legroom is at a premium. Even if it's a little tight in the back, all four passengers, once strapped in, become involved in the performance orientation of the car.
A rear-seat trunk pass-through is provided, designed with skis in mind.
The interior design plays on contrasts of light and dark, with a black roof liner and two choices of seat colors, white or black with contrasting blue stitching. There is a sophisticated, technical feeling to the layout.
The center stack frames the navigation system, executed in hand-finished aluminized composite surrounding the console and door panel switches. The bright metallic composite material struck us as well executed use of plastic, and probably very expensive to produce, but at the same time, we could see that it is not actually metal.
The center console houses the shifter, which offers both manual and automatic modes. There is no manual transmission available. Purists might suggest that a manual transmission would be a must. However, the Lexus eight-speed automatic offers performance characteristics even a race car driver could appreciate. As with a Formula 1 car, the Lexus IS F can be quickly shifted using a paddle shift arrangement on the steering wheel. The paddle shift method is designed to provide very rapid gear changes up and down, faster than any driver could shift with clutch and lever.
While there is a suitably competent audio system in the LS F, and an option to add the hypnotically superb Mark Levenson Surround Sound system, this is not really that kind of car. Instead, most drivers will prefer to listen to the sounds the car generates.
Visibility is about average for this type of car, with fully adjustable power mirrors. The view through the rear window is not expansive, but remains uncompromised by a wing or other clutter. The HVAC system runs through the navigation screen, a seven-inch touch-screen within easy reach. The navigation screen, an option, supports the audio system, climate control, and backup camera functions.
The instrument panel is compact with two large gauges, speedometer and tachometer, brightly illuminated with neon blue needles sweeping the faces. The tachometer dominates with large numbers and a 7000 rpm redline, tracking to 9000 rpm. There is a small temperature gauge at the bottom of the tachometer.
The speedometer is of equal size but with small numbers, separated at 20-mph increments, progressing up to 180 mph. Top speed is electronically limited to 168 mph. Under the speedometer is a small gas gauge. Between the two large dials is an information display. Using a steering wheel-mounted control, the driver can scroll between outside temperature, fuel consumption, average speed. A lower screen displays gear selection and mode, (D for Drive, M for Manual), plus a voltage meter and oil temp gauge.
Just to the right of the steering wheel, nearly blocked from view, is a small rocker switch that controls the VDIM, or Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system. This switch is the key to three different handling personalities from this sophisticated electronic stability control system.
Upon startup, the VDIM system defaults to Norma
We had time to drive the IS F on winding two-lane roads in the foothills outside Monterey, California. We followed that with track time and a battery of specific tests at the legendary Laguna Seca road racing circuit. To test performance in the wet, we drove the IS F through a wet slalom, wet acceleration and braking, and on a wet 100-foot skid pad circle.
On the road, the Lexus IS F is pleasingly quick, precise and responsive. The car emits a low growl and feels good on winding roads that invite bursts of throttle, a brief tap of the brake and a smooth glide through the next apex. The transmission, left in full Auto mode, always seemed to know what our intentions were, holding on to gears longer when we stayed into the throttle. It's an easy car to drive at seven-tenths, with a satisfying degree of control.
Around town, the exhaust offers a unique burble. While it can be heard in the cabin, it is not tiresome. But then at full throttle, the sound builds quickly. At about 3600 rpm, a secondary intake opens and an unbridled performance scream begins to intensify, sharpening further and further as rpm increase. It's a sound we associate more with high-performance motorcycles or open-wheel race cars, and the last thing we ever expected from a Lexus. This staged range of tuned sounds provides a good part of the visceral appeal of the IS F. It's as if Lexus turned its expertise at sound reduction upside down, toward sound engineering, with the goal of generating the right sounds to connect with a driver's hidden, compulsive moods.
Pushed hard on a racing circuit, the IS F lives up to the ideals of a professional driver. It's a car with enormous grip, a car capable of connecting on an emotional level with the most demanding driver.
We were given ample opportunity to get in over our head, hitting speeds over 100 mph on twisty Laguna Seca tarmac. Driving instructors from Skip Barber were on hand to make sure we saw what the limits of the car really were, and demonstrated the advantages of the paddle shift system. The paddle shift setup makes lightning-quick, crisp shifts, enabled by throttle blips to automatically match engine rpm when downshifting. The sound is so intoxicating, and the shifting so quick, that we sometimes got lost in the eight-gear sequence, one or two gears away from where we wanted to be. So it might take more than one afternoon of spirited driving to master the paddle shifter, but we can vouch that the potential is there.
We're not experts on that particular course, and only average high-performance drivers, but as the day wore on we noticed our straightaway times getting faster and faster, finally topping 105 mph. We worked on ever-shorter braking distances, but never got to the limit of adhesion, or even close. Bottom line, we could see that there was more handling, more braking, and more power in the car than some of us would have the nerve to use.
The car's weight shifts are subtle under hard braking or full throttle. A double A-arm suspension is used to maintain a stable contact patch, and materials such as high strength steel and forged aluminum are used to keep unsprung weight to an absolute minimum. Even the thicker, stiffer stabilizer bars are hollow to save weight. Combined with a spring rate 90-percent stiffer than that of the IS 350, and anti nose-dive geometry, the F shows remarkably little nose-dive or body roll when subjected to higher G-forces.
We drove mostly with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system on. VDIM is packaged as a safety system, but also functions as a performance-enhancing system; on the race track it corrects mistakes entering corners without slowing the car more than absolutely necessary. VDIM combines traction control with braking control, using input from the steering, transmission position, and throttle. In many cases, intervention by VDIM is nearly imperceptible to the driver except for a warning beep from the dash.
The Lexus IS F is a fascinating car, inspiring and habit-forming. It's the kind of car that can make a driver forget about everything else. From the moment you sit in it, there is anticipation of the feelings, the sounds, and the sensations that it will soon deliver. The IS F would be a hard car to leave in the garage, especially on a weekend.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Monterey, California.