Lexus IS-F — building a new legend for Lexus

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

Lexus has never built a car so intriguing that we would postpone breakfast for an hour or two of early-morning driving to avoid traffic on our favorite stretches of curving asphalt. We’ve had days over the years when breakfast became secondary to a BMW parked in the driveway. Or a Corvette. Or an Infiniti. Or a Mercedes tweaked by performance division AMG.

We’ve gone to bed a few times content in knowing that with the alarm came a planned BMW experience.

We like virtually all Lexus products. We even love some. To us Lexus is the epitome of modern luxury, more so than the German giants and certainly more so than anything manufactured in recent decades in the U.S.

But getting-out-of-bed excitement?

No way.

Until now.

Things changed when Lexus slammed a 5.0-liter 416-horsepower V-8 with 371 lb.-ft. of torque under the hood of its compact sports sedan turning it into a luxury performance warrior of the first degree.

The emergence of the IS-F last fall turned the high-performance luxury sedan market on edge because this newcomer quite handily competes with the BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG, Audi RS4 and Cadillac CTS-V. All come with huge V-8 engines and all have the go-fast accouterments associated with track racing.

We aren’t here to tell you that the IS-F is better than the Bimmer or any of the other assorted pricey rockets.

But it’s darn good and we believe it’s only nuances that separate these vehicles, the slight variations in suspension stiffness, the subjective feel of steering precision, the slender differences in brake feel, a tenth or two difference in various track times, a foot or two in stopping distance.

BMW assuredly will win most head-to-head magazine comparisons. And we love BMW as much as most. But the Lexus has caught our imagination as a daily driver with the usual Lexus luxury feel and library-quiet interior that will send you to jail just as affectively as any of its competitors if you exercise your right foot at the wrong time.

The necessary mechanicals are in place.

Developed in cooperation with Yamaha the fire-spitting 5.0-liter is mated to a - count em - eight-speed automatic transmission with manual mode shift paddles. This combination brings 0-to-60 in the low four-second range and a quarter mile time of 12.8 seconds at 114 miles per hour.

As speed increases through the gears the IS-F emits a low rumble. Speed and sound – both will get the juices flowing.

Some have complained that there’s no manual transmission option. Whatever! The Nissan GT-R supercar comes sans a manual as well.

The shift paddles serve as the manual shifter, but shifts through eight gears come so fast that blipping the paddles arrives with annoying frequency.

We recommend letting the transmission do its own shifting. You will be rewarded with instantaneous up-shifts, something not possible with a manual unless you have made it your life’s mission to perfect the art of precisely rowing through the gears.

Take the IS-F to your favorite winding road and you will discover that it’s every bit as much a driver’s car as the aforementioned competition.

But here is where the IS-F might lose some potential buyers. Some people who might otherwise love the IS- F performance but have come to expect a more compliant ride from Lexus brand vehicles might be disappointed. The suspension is stiff enough that it can lead to un-Lexus-like body creaking over rough pavement or nasty railroad tracks. Get over it - if you want a sports car you need to understand stiff suspensions.

We didn’t have a problem with the ride, but be forewarned this is generally a no-compromise sedan. And truthfully and strangely, at times we thought it even a bit too compliant, with an underlying softness. At times a stirring sports car; at times just a Lexus.

If the IS-F is more than you bargained for, fall back to the six-cylinder powered IS 350. It has all the usual Lexus traits but with a nicely potent 306-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.

The IS 350 is a force to be reckoned with in its own right with the ability to rocket from a dead stop to 60 mph in around 5.6 seconds. And it starts at $37,070 compared to the IS-F’s starting price of $57,435.

The difference is a fast sports sedan compared to a cutting-edge four-door rocket-ship that edges close to supercar status.

Some of the go-fast accouterments include 19-inch alloy wheels with high-performance tires, massive Brembo brakes capable of pulling the car down  from 60 mph in 111 feet, performance-tuned stability control that can be disabled for those who want some momentary cheap thrills, the lightning-fast eight-speed transmission and the specially built V-8.

The IS-F distinguishes itself from the garden-variety IS with a reshaped hood to accommodate the big engine, low-profile tires wrapped around stylish alloy wheels and dual stacked pipes.

Inside, you will get basically the same cockpit experience that comes with the IS 250 and IS 350, and that’s a good thing. The sports sedan carries the usual user-friendly control layout, excellent fit and finish and quality materials.

The unique IS-F sports seats are comfortable and hold the driver in place without being intrusive.

While the front seats are a great place to reside, the rear seat like the rest of the IS lineup is tight. But so is the 3-Series BMW.

Unlike the standard IS, the rear seat back does not fold down, although there is a pass-through. Trunk space is decent at 13 cubic feet, but efficient packing is necessary for a long trip. Two sets of golf clubs will fit.

We think the IS-F is well priced for the man who wants his weekend thrills yet needs the car for the daily commute. The base price of $57,435 brings all the go-fast goodies as well as a full compliment of amenities.

But there are a couple of desirable options available including the cutting-edge 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, DVD navigation with backup camera and Bluetooth technology. Our test car came with a $4,010 package that included the sound system and navigation. Add in the pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control and it’s another $2850.

The bottom line was $64,295.

The IS-F was originally introduced in February as a 2008 model. Why it wasn’t introduced as a 2009 is beyond us. There are few changes on the 2009. A revised instrument panel center cluster design and if you get the NAV it comes with a piano black finish. Oh…and slightly higher prices; up totally as equipped near $3,000.

The IS-F is a very desirable sports sedan that comes with all the Lexus traits of build quality and quiet interior. Even some big-ticket enthusiasts will find it to their taste.

It’s fast and it’s furious. But before plunking down 60 grand, we recommend you test drive it and determine if this is the kind of Lexus you really want. 


Base price: $57,435; as driven, $64,295
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8
Horsepower: 416 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 371 pound-feet @ 5,200 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Length: 183.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,780 pounds
Turning circle: 33.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 23 highway, 16 city
0-60: 4.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW M3, Audi RS4, Mercedes C63 AMG, Cadillac CTS-V

The Good:

* Powerful V-8 engine
* Track-ready handling and suspension
* Lexus-quality interior

The Bad

* Tight seating for rear passengers

The Ugly

* A strangely complex suspension might not please Lexus-owner sensibilities