Imagine a car company that-in response to customer complaints about their nice, shiny wheels getting too dirty, too quickly-decided to fit softer brake pads to its cars. That's how deep the sporting philosophy has run at Lexus. But lately, there's been a shift at Luxo-barges R Us.
The company has taken its compact IS sedan, given it a 5.0-liter V8, an eight-speed gearbox, a chassis tune, an aerodynamic revamp, and called it the IS F. Why? Because of one man's vision: chief engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi, who steamrollered the project past the accounts department and on to Laguna Seca, the Nrburgring, and Fuji Speedway. He wanted to create a car he could drive to the track, run 10 laps and still want to do more. Considering this started out as a 'skunk works' project, operating under the product planners' radar, the IS F became the most extensively developed car in Toyota's history.
Yaguchi-san used to work with Kimura-san on the Supra Turbo. Kimura then worked for Yamaha in its F1 division. He brings that expertise back to his friend and the IS F's naturally aspirated engine. Designed and made by Yamaha, the aluminum heads feature titanium valves on the intake side and hollow camshafts.
The rest of the engine (except for the cast iron cylinder liners) is also aluminum. In anticipation of high cornering forces, a head-scavenging oil pump prevents lubrication starvation. Two forms of fuel injection are used. Port injection for economy under low to medium loads and direct for maximum performance.
And there's plenty of performance: 416bhp at 6600rpm and 371lb-ft at 5200rpm. Zero to 60mph takes just 4.6 seconds, a quarter-mile is dispatched in 13 seconds and top speed is an electronically limited 170mph (claimed).
Reaching peak power just 200rpm short of its redline makes the engine highly sensitive to throttle inputs, making the car steer-able with the right foot as well as the hands. As the revs build (with ridiculous ease), a secondary air intake opens at 3600rpm, improving the engine's breathing and making an intoxicating noise as it does so.
With the transmission in Manual mode, the needle will hover around redline until the driver, prompted by a single beep, changes up-using either steering wheel-mounted paddles or the shift lever. This is the first time an eight-speed gearbox has gone into a production sports sedan. Taking up no more space than a six-speed version, it has an aggressive torque converter that only slips in first gear (for getting off the line smoothly) and is locked continuously between second and eighth. Between the software and the shifting mechanisms, upshifts happen in one-tenth of a second, while downshifts take two-tenths. There's no hint of clunkiness, just perfect changes every time.
The Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) has everything else under control. For those of us who don't have the lightning reflexes and uncanny sense of balance that F1 drivers seem blessed with, VDIM is our best friend. It's the nerve center that ties the traction control, electrically assisted steering, engine management and transmission together.
Come up on that corner in Normal mode and it's all about safety. Engine speed decreases, traction control is activated, pulse rate returns to normal. In Sport mode, the fun factor kicks in, giving the driver more room to maneuver, a chance to modulate the throttle and correct the steering, safe in the knowledge that an electronic hand will help guide the car round. It's possible to carry some extra speed through the corner and deliberately set off the VDIM, using it to augment technique. It's that user-friendly.
VDIM also has a Snow mode (fairly self-explanatory) and may be switched off totally. But in this front-engine/rear-drive car, Sport (with its slightly weightier steering and sharpened throttle response) is the best setting.
When self-preservation finally rears its head, the Brembo brakes (developed especially for the IS F) use six-piston calipers (with three different piston diameters) and 14.2-inch vented and cross-drilled rotors. The rears use 13.6-inch rotors, also vented and cross-drilled, and two-piston calipers.
In front of the brakes are bespoke forged, one-piece aluminum wheels, made by BBS. They're wearing 225/40/19 (front) and 255/35/19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires (Bridgestone Potenzas are optional). The car sits on this combo one inch lower than a stock IS 350. And it's three inches longer, mainly due to the bigger engine and aggressive aerodynamic front apron. Note also the vents behind the front wheels, the side skirts, small trunk spoiler and the cool quad exhausts.
The chassis, tuned by Toyota Technocraft, uses the original front double wishbone/rear multi-link suspension, but now has springs and dampers that have been stiffened by 90 percent up front and 50 percent at the rear. Somehow, the ride is completely comfortable, despite the absence of body roll.
On normal roads, the IS F is great to drive: quick, responsive, eager to transition from left to right and with absolutely dependable brakes. Weight distribution is 54/46 front to rear, so the car feels well balanced. The cabin has four leather-covered bucket seats. Being a Lexus, construction, fit and finish are otherworldly good.
In this sector, the new BMW M3 and Audi's RS4 are tough competition, although the IS F beats them with its power numbers. It should also look tempting when the checkbook has to come out. No price has been announced yet, but Lexus traditionally has an impressive standard equipment list, filled with things that are costly options on German machines. An MSRP of somewhere around $63,000 would be a sensible guesstimate.
However, Lexus feels that customers coming to the IS F will be those who have grown out of their WRX or Evo phase and are looking for something more grown up. Does 'more grown up' mean less feel? Because that's what might see someone trading in their Evo IX for an Evo X instead of an IS F.
While this sporty Lexus can tackle anything public roads can throw at it, the track shows up a weakness. Despite being tested on demanding circuits, there's ultimately some feel missing, as if the electrically assisted steering (never the ideal arrangement for feel) and pliant ride are introducing an element of detachment. This is hair-splitting stuff and most drivers will be thrilled by the IS F. It's just that a little immediacy is missing from the equation.
That said, any driver-oriented efforts from Lexus shouldn't be discouraged. Although the company won't say whether any F iterations of other models will be made, like BMW's M cars, its LF-A concept, with a 5.0-liter, 500bhp V10, has been spotted undergoing test runs. The IS F could just be the start of something big.
2008 Lexus IS F
Estimated Price: $63,000
Engine Displacement/Type/Valvetrain: 4969cc, V8, aluminum block and heads, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, VVT-i variable valve timing
Claimed Crank HP: 416 hp @ 6600 rpm
Claimed Crank Torque: 371 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
Drivetrain/Layout/Transmission: Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive, eight-speed auto
Curb Weight: 3780 lbs
Weight Distribution (F/R): 53/47
Suspension (Front/Rear): Double wishbone/multi-link
Brakes (Front/Rear): 14.2-in. vented and cross-drilled discs, six-piston calipers/13.6-in. vented and cross-drilled discs, two-piston calipers
Wheels (Front/Rear): 19x8 (F), 19x9 (R) BBS aluminum
Tires (Front/Rear): 225/40/19 (F), 255/35/19 (R) Michelin Pilot Sport PS2