As reported to you by AutoSpies last week, the 2008 Lexus IS-F is truly a worthy contender for the crown in the high-performance luxury sedan market.
With that said it is important to note that the IS-F is not an M3, nor is it an RS4 or a C63 AMG. But that’s not a bad thing. What the car is, however, is a powerful high-performance, well handling sedan, with a couple of tricks up its sleeve that Lexus’ German counterparts might not have expected. Furthermore, while other media outlets have taken their half-day or day-long experiences in the car and extrapolated them into all-out comparisons with the other models, the Spies bring you something truly unique: A 4-day 700-mile trek across California and Nevada, bringing you the longest long-term road test that exists for the IS-F!
Started as a “skunkworks” project from within Lexus by a single engineer, the IS-F is the first in what the company has promised to be more high-performance top-end models within their product line.
From the outside, the IS-F sets itself apart from its IS 350 sibling using visual cues that are unique to the top-end model. The car is wider by almost 2” in the front due to flared fenders needed to hold the larger 19” sport wheels and tires. Stock tires as tested were Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 (225/40R19 front, 255/35R19 rear) and are Y-rated to accommodate the IS-F’s top-end published speed of +170mph. Overall height has been reduced nearly 1” from the IS 350 as well. Nestled behind the front wheels is a vent that Lexus claims will help with brake cooling and control air pressure around the vehicle at high speeds. Finally, a larger lower air dam, grille and a slight bulge in the hood to make room for the larger V8 engine round out the front-end cosmetic changes. In the rear the most noticeable change from the IS 350 is the “F” badge and the addition of the stacked quad exhaust tips. While previous reports have surfaced showing pre-production placeholders for the upper tips, our test vehicle was full-functional for all four. Like any other truly differentiating feature found in every car on the roads today, the stacked exhaust will either be loved or hated by fans. For the Spies, they instantly give off a menacing aura to the car, signifying “Don’t mess with me”, and in Lexus’ own way, it may be more bark than bite, but you can’t deny they’re there.
Interior styling is plush and extremely comfortably. The “F” badged leather seats boast large bolsters that function well to keep you in place, but are also flexible enough that the seats remain comfortable over the long haul. During our 10-hour drive through the twisting roads and highways of California, we were continually surprised as to how comfortable the seats were, yet always had enough support when you would get aggressive with the car. Buttons and controls were easy to reach, and the touch-screen DVD Navigation and climate control system was easy to operate, even when driving. The only complaints we found were that you had to be completely stopped in order to input new destinations, even with a passenger in the front seat capable of doing it. Also, the accuracy of the navigation system is somewhat suspect, as we found several occasions where the system never actually told us to exit the freeway; it would just ask us to make a left turn ahead, not specifying to do so at the end of the exit ramp. During the course of our 4-day test we made several wrong turns as a result. Hopefully this feature will be remedied when the system goes into production. Rear seat room was ample, even for tall passengers, and trunk and cargo room was adequate and included a ski pass-through compartment into the passenger space. For $1500-$1800 you can get the optional Mark Levinson premium audio system that boasts 7.1 Surround Sound and Digital DTS decoding for a booming, clear listening experience. Overall, the interior looked and felt very much like other luxury Lexus models.
Under the hood you’ll find a 5.0 liter V8 that provides 416 hp @ 6600 RPM and 371 lb.-ft. of torque @ 5200 RPM. What does that really mean? It means Lexus has opted for a low-revving high-torque engine that provides power but falls a little short of what could be classified as “exceptional performance”. When operated under 3600 RPM, the engine is quite tame and quiet. Anything above that RPM opens a secondary air intake located in the front air dam. This brings on the throaty growl that any true enthusiast would expect from a performance V8. The problem with this engine is you don’t have much opportunity to enjoy that sound. With a 6800 RPM red line, the engine really just barely gets wound up before you’re forced to listen to the system beep at you to shift. Instead, a higher-revving “wind it out” experience is more fitting for this class of performance car. In the end, it’s not always about raw performance, right? It’s about sound and style, too. In this case, where Lexus tries to make up for performance, it lacks in style and sound.
Remember back when we mentioned the IS-F had some tricks up its sleeve? Well the 8-speed automatic transmission is one of them. It supports 3 shift modes: Full auto, semi-auto, and full manual. Full auto and full manual do what the names imply. Semi-auto allows you to control the shifting, but as soon as your speed and acceleration level out the car automatically goes back into full auto mode. A quick flip of the downshift paddle or lever puts you right back into semi-auto mode. To be clear, we’re not fully sold on the need for 8 gears. Sure it makes for closer gear ratios, which may also explain the lower RPM engine, but at the end of the day it’s still a lot of shifting. During our drive which consisted of everything from single-lane back roads to 4-lane freeways, we found that shifting anywhere from 1st to 5th gear made perfect sense. Anything above that was strictly “highway cruising” gear. With the transmission in full automatic mode, we found the car in 8th gear nearly all the time at any speed above 50 MPH, usually at anywhere from 1500 to 2500 RPM. We observed around 19 MPG during our drive 700-mile, which was most likely due in part to the 8th gear highway cruising, as much of the rest of our drive was much more aggressive using the manual shift mode.
The true benefits of the transmission come with the shifting. In full or semi-automatic shift mode, the car acts very much like every other automatic transmission out there. Shifts are reasonably quick, but nothing extraordinary, and certainly not performance worthy. Manual shift mode, however, is another story all together. In this mode, the transmission utilizes a torque converter for 1st gear only. Gears 2 through 8 lock out the torque converter, giving a direct connection from the engine to the wheels. So what does all this mean? .10 second shifts. Yes, really. In short, shifting in manual mode was terrific. It truly felt like a manual transmission car. The shifts were lightning quick, and as soon as the engine was engaged, the power was there. In addition, Lexus has included a feature to “auto blip” on the downshifts. This feature will rev match the engine when downshifting allowing you to maintain your current RPMs as you would in a manual transmission car. You can hear this feature in effect when you view any of our IS-F videos from the Laguna Seca raceway.
Suspension and handling was another pleasant surprise for the car. It was tight and responsive without ever being jittery. The car has an array of handling and traction control modes, collectively termed VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management). You can leave the system fully on, which provides full traction control and stability, you can put it into Sport mode, which tones down the traction control while giving you added throttle and steering sensitivity, and you can completely disable it, which leaves you on your own to handle the car. We drove our car the duration of the 4 days we had it in a mix of VDIM On and VDIM Sport modes, clearly favoring the Sport mode which gave you enough freedom to let the rear end get loose when you wanted it, but having the piece of mind knowing you were not likely to dump it coming out of the grocery store parking lot.
The car’s other real surprise was in its braking. Lexus delivers the IS-F stock with Brembo brakes including drilled rotors and high-friction brake pads. As one of the initial “F” series add-ons, Lexus will be offering carbon ceramic brakes as a “request-only” option. Out on the city streets braking was always solid and assured, but where they really excelled was on the track. During the course of our day with the car at Laguna Seca, the brakes performed exceptionally in sheer stopping power, but more surprisingly in longevity. Not once on the track did we experience brake fade, nor smell the typical “burning brakes”.
So what does this all add up to? Does the IS-F’s 4.6 second 0-60 make it an inferior car to a C63 AMG, which is a tenth or two quicker? No, not really. Does the IS-F’s top speed of 170 mph (electronically limited) make it better than the M3? Again, not really. If you want to be declared victor in this market, you have to look at the sum of all of the parts. So has Lexus beaten BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi? Only time will tell, but without a doubt, they have delivered a very strong candidate to contend with the more established brands. One thing is for sure; when it comes to sheer performance, perhaps the M3 and RS4 can’t be matched. And when it comes to sheer luxury, perhaps the C63 AMG can’t be matched. But put them both together, and it is hard to look past the IS-F.
The $60,000-$65,000 expected price tag may not appeal to all consumers, but the appeal of the IS-F can be summed up in one unexpected experience. While stopped for a photo opportunity along Lake Meade in Nevada, a group of exotic cars out on a group cruise pulled into the parking lot to take a break. That group contained a Mclaren SLR, Lamborghini Gallardo, Ferrari 599, Ferrari F430, and a Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Slowly as the group realized what was parked right next to them in the lot, they converged upon the IS-F, looked inside, opened the hood, nodded their heads, and generally agreed: Great car.