It wasn't supposed to go exactly like this. The debut of the spectacular new LF-A was intended to lead the way for the introduction of Lexus' flagship lineup of performance F-Line machines; the nomenclature pays humble homage to Japan's spiritual site of Mount Fuji and the testing ground arena of Fuji Speedway. However, it's the car that you see in the pictures before you now, the impressive IS-F, that bears the considerable weight on its widened body as the first Lexus F-Line to market.
While the casual observer may describe the IS-F as a second-generation IS on steroids, after driving a new '11 model for several hundred miles, it's pretty clear that there's a comprehensive high-performance capability that sets it apart from its siblings. Originally debuted in 2008, the IS-F has proven itself to be a capable sedan, and while the '11 model sports minor cosmetic changes, it's identical in specs and performance to the '08.
The IS-F was designed to be a performance machine first and foremost, and that theme is prevalent throughout the car. For example, there's only room in the sleek four-door to seat four people; the rear seating area has shunned the bench seat in favor of two comfortable and supportive buckets. And believe us when we tell you that the support of those seats is absolutely required when you let the IS-F off its leash a little. To that end, the front buckets are equally backside friendly and the driving position is as close to perfect as any car that we've ever driven.
The ergonomics are simply excellent and well thought out in the IS-F, as everything that needs to be is within easy sight and reach. The brightly illuminated gauges and digital displays provide all the information required, and the feel of textured surfaces and the action of buttons is satisfying and proper. The paddle-actuated shifter is a model of precise movement and feel, with flicks of the right paddle resulting in lightning-quick upshifts, while the left paddle produces rev-matched downshifts of crisp mechanical accuracy. Attention to detail, ergonomic efficiency and an overall feeling of precision in the cabin give each occupant the sense of sitting in a fine Swiss watch, rather than a four-door automobile. It just so happens that this watch runs a little fast.
With a 5.0-liter V-8 grunting out 416 hp and 371 ft-lbs of torque, the IS-F is by far the most powerful IS ever produced. And being matched with the absolutely exceptional 8-speed automatic, acceleration is there exactly when you want it. Throttle response is linear and smooth, and once the tach moves past 4K, all hell breaks loose with a menacing bark from under the hood and a vicious exhaust note.
Sound isn't the only menacing quality to the machine, however, as almost every angle of the IS-F gives those on the outside an idea of the car's capabilities. Sure, the garish stacked exhaust tips are a little over the top for the weak of heart, but the muscular fenders, bulging hood and smattering of scoops and vents all suggest serious business. Add the beautiful obsidian black paint of our test car, the newly styled for '11 19-inch smoked finish BBS wheels and what you have is the Intimidator. The thing is flat-out imposing. To say that the IS-F sits low and wide is like saying Mike Tyson looks like a tough dude.
The F goes good and looks good - we pretty much know that just by looking at the machine and looking at the numbers. Those qualities, however, don't tell the entire story, and it's the rest of the engineering that results in a total performance package. After a few quick laps on a short circuit, the IS-F truly showed its performance worth. The double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension system, all comprised of F-spec components, worked in perfect concert with the torsen limited-slip diff and the beefy 225-40-19 front and 255-35-19 rear Michelin meats. Turn-in was crisp and neat and mid-corner grip was impressive, considering the 3,800-lb curb weight
Perhaps the car's best engineering quality is the response to the Brembo 6-piston front and 2-piston rear aluminum calipers that clamp down on 14.2- and 13.6-inch rotors, respectively. To throw a set of big brakes at a car is one thing, but to engineer a car that can capably shed energy is something next level. From the driver seat, any competent pilot can feel the difference, and it's obvious from the first time you ask the binders to do their work with any urgency that you know this a properly engineered machine. Braking is confidence inspiring, minimally destabilizing to the solid-feeling chassis, and shockingly effective at slowing the car.
Amidst the IS-F's great performance attributes, one of the greatest qualities of the Lexus is its docile nature. While brutal performance can be unleashed at any time, it's the car's docility and comfort that make it such a viable and downright enjoyable everyday driver. Running typical daily chores in the car seems almost obscene based on the performance numbers, but sitting behind the wheel, it feels like the most logical way to do any driving.
Compared to other offerings in the highly competitive class of smaller high-performance sedans, the IS-F looks like a mighty fine buy and a solid alternative to the class standard, the 6-speed 414hp BMW M3 sedan. The IS-F's $59K MSRP is a bit more than the Bimmer's $55K tag, but at this level, seriously, who's counting? The IS-F also looks good, in more ways than one, sitting next to Audi's less expensive (but less powerful) S4.
We dig this car, and it represents everything that's good about Toyota and Lexus at a time when, frankly, they could use it. There will always be something bigger and better - it's the nature of the automotive world, after all - but the way we see it, the IS-F gets it done, gets it done right and bears the weight of being the first true Lexus F-badged car for sale with capable confidence.
Specs & Details
'11 Lexus IS-F
Engine 5.0-liter V-8 DOHC w/ VVT
Horsepower 416 at 6600 rpm
Torque 371 ft-lbs at 5200 rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic