Lexus, a brand whose cars were once derided as Toyotas with fancy badges on 'em, is now one of the world's premier luxury nameplates. The marque that once nipped at the heels of brands like Mercedes and BMW has become the benchmark against which all other luxury cars are judged. From its vault-like silence to its impeccable fit and finish to its Toyota reliability, it's hard to find any faults with Lexus. If you're over the age of 50, that is.
While there is no denying the fact that a Lexus can deliver a serene, comfortable ride, Toyota's luxury division sure doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of excitement. People buy Lexuses because they dislike driving; they want to sit in the most comfortable chair possible on their way to the golf course. And as we said, if there's one thing that any Lexus does well, it's delivering that library-quiet, hyper-cushioned ride-perfect for the elderly. When we get old, we hope to cruise to Bingo Night in a Lexus of our very own.
However, old people generally don't buy lots of cars because, well, they die. But there is a whole new generation of WRX and Evo owners who are now flushed with cash and have many years of auto purchases ahead of them, and Lexus is hoping to attract these buyers to its brand with the introduction of its IS-F. On paper, this car is the antithesis of what the brand is all about, and even Lexus makes no bones about the fact that this car wasn't even supposed to exist. Engineered by a small skunk works team and built atop an existing IS platform (duh), the IS-F packs some serious heat in the form of an aggressive aero package, a 416-horsepower 5.0L V8, a hard-core sports-tuned suspension and some of the finest brakes known to man.
But it's not the prettiest Lexus out there. Yes, the power bulge hood, sloped nose and air ducts are all functional and necessary, but they all have this "tacked on" look, because they were just tacked on. The Lexus' sedan-on-steroids design just isn't as immediately clean as, say, the ripped look of the Audi RS4. While we're sure that the IS-F's more extreme dimensions will grow on us in time, we don't think we'll ever be accepting of the quad exhaust. These tips are fake, kids. Look closely and you'll see a single exhaust pipe resting behind each pair of ovals.
Strap yourself into the high-bolstered buckets, press the start button and things change for the better. The IS-F checks all the boxes that a sports car fan/Internet forum master debater could want: the big-honkin' V8 sports more low-end torque than its Audi RS4 or BMW M3 rivals, its dual-clutch paddle-shifted 8-speed automatic transmission upshifts faster than a Ferrari F430, and it has a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds and an electronically-limited top speed of 170 mph. Best of all, you can actually turn all the traction control aids completely off.
We got a chance to sample this car on both the roads of Monterey, CA and the world-famous Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (gotta add "Mazda Raceway" before we get in trouble... again). While we found the suspension to be a little too jarring (especially for a Lexus) on the streets, the overall package was really good on the track. Laguna Seca is a tough course to master, and though we didn't conquer the track, the brakes grabbed strong and never faded, and the IS-F's direct steering and 371 lb.-ft. of torque let us power through corners and fly through the course at a pace that didn't completely embarrass us-as long as we kept the car in Sport mode.
Put the IS-F in "D" and the car drives just like any other Lexus. The throttle response lags, the transmission takes its sweet time shifting and the steering gets an extra dose of electric assist. In other words, the car is neutered and numb, but its still-stiff suspension crashes over every imperfection in the road. Push that "Sport" button to get things back on-point and the car once again becomes a joy to drive, making the rough ride a lot more livable. Hold that "Sport" button for three seconds and all the driving aids shut themselves off. Now the IS-F is ready for some full tail-out action-provided you have the skills, that is.
Track day warriors will likely keep the driving aids off, as the electronic nannies come in so abruptly that they kill any and all semblance of fun. But then again, we're not sure we can see this car becoming a favorite of track day enthusiasts. There's just too much Lexus DNA in this thing preventing it from being the ultimate kick in the pants explosion-on-wheels that a car like the RS4 is. The IS-F's glorious, bellowing exhaust note from the V8 doesn't exist below 3,600 rpm, and when it does kick in, it's only audible from the outside of the car.
But again, seeing as how this car wasn't supposed to be built in the first place, we've got to commend Lexus for allowing such a slightly rough-around-the-edges car to even be sold to the public. What the IS-F lacks in pure adrenaline, it more than makes up for with sheer capability. It's capable of giving its RS4 and M3 rivals a run for their money at a much lower price point, and that's always a good thing.
That New Car Smell
'08 Lexus IS-F
The Sticker TBA, but probably around $60k
Under the Hood 5.0L 90-degree aluminum V8
The Power 416 hp @ 6600 rpm; 371 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
Scale Tipping 3,780 lbs.
Layout front engine, RWD
Gearbox 8-speed automatic dual clutch w/ paddle shift
Stiff Stuff double wishbone front, multilink rear
Rollers 19x8-in front, 19x9-in rear BBS wheels; 225/40R19 93Y front, 255/35R19 96Y rear tires, manufactured for IS-F
Stoppers Power-assisted w/ ABS and manufactured by Bembo; (F): 14.2-in dics, six piston caliper, (R): 13.6-in discs, two piston caliper
At the Pump 16 mpg city / 23 mpg hwy
The Pack BMW M3, Audi RS4
Deep Thoughts The first Japanese rival to cars like the M3 and RS4. A great car, but it needs to dial up the fun factor if it wants to steal buyers away from the Germans.