Rather than shoehorning a 5.0-liter V8 into the nose of an IS 350 and simply calling it the IS 500, Lexus has instead cooked up a far more dedicated sport sedan with its new 2008 Lexus IS-F.
According to Lexus, the "F" in Lexus IS-F is derived from Toyota's initial "Circle-F" designation of 20 years ago for what would become the Lexus brand itself. Circle-F later morphed into Flagship One or F1, which in turn became the internal code for the first Lexus car, the LS 400.
Lexus is using this convoluted pedigree to help explain the importance it attaches to the IS-F. It promises that this and subsequent F-type cars will give Lexus real performance credentials, and it hopes that the F sub-brand will become as synonymous with performance as BMW's M Division and Mercedes-Benz AMG.
Frankly, we would've been just as satisfied with a simple "IS 500" badge and far more subtle exterior styling. But from now on, it's all about the F-word.
F Is for Fury
Regardless of what it means to the luxury carmaker (and how it appears to the serious sport-sedan buyer), the 2008 Lexus IS-F is a serious piece of highly engineered hardware indeed. At its heart, the 5.0-liter V8 (2UR-GSE) comes from a stroked version of the 4.6-liter engine (1UR-FSE) found in the luxo-cruising Lexus LS 460. Now that Yamaha (a frequent collaborator with Toyota for engine projects) has had its way with it, an essentially all-new engine pumps out an impressive 416 horsepower at 6,600 rpm with 371 pound-feet of torque available at 5,200 rpm.
Exclusive to this Lexus V8 are trick cylinder heads with solid lifters and titanium intake valves, plus a water-cooled oil radiator. There's also an oil-scavenge pumping system that keeps the engine supplied with life-sustaining lubricant even in high-G cornering, and even the fuel tank uses an offset pump in a sub-tank for the same reasons.
The engine's lightweight reciprocating mass (said to be half that of other UR engines) combines with variable valve timing to produce a lofty redline of 6,800 rpm.
There's an instantly recognizable pubescent change in the IS-F's voice at 3,600 rpm when the dual-path intake system opens the secondary plumbing (located in the right wheelwell), immersing the passengers in a furious symphony of eight-cylinder baritone.
When you pour the 5.0-liter V8's power through the highly modified eight-speed automatic transmission (from the LS 460), the 3,780-pound IS-F is good for a 4.8-second time to 60 mph on the way to a quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 109 mph, and it's still accelerating hard — very hard.
Frankly, we expected even better performance from such a good power-to-weight ratio. In our testing, the IS 350 has run to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and done the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 101.2 mph. Meanwhile, the BMW 335i sedan with an automatic clocks 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 103.9 mph.
And when it comes to BMW's official performance estimates for the 2008 BMW M3 sedan with its 414-hp 4.0-liter V8, the benchmark of 60 mph is supposed to come up in 4.9 seconds. The same stat for the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG with its 457-hp, 6.2-liter V8 is less than 4.5 seconds.
We admit we might've left a tenth or two on the IS-F's table, however. As much as we feel that Michelin Pilot PS2 tires are like sticky Lucky Charms, the IS-F's 255mm-wide rear contact patches aren't wide enough to duplicate a magically delicious launch.
That said, the roar of the rev-happy V8 is one of the most lust-worthy we've heard, rivaling the thrilling sound of the 4.2-liter V8 in the Audi RS 4, which also sounds like a flat-bottom drag-racing boat powered by a small-block V8 with open headers.
F Is for Fuji
Though if drag racing isn't quite the IS-F's sort of environment, road racing is. Besides the four other racetracks where camouflaged IS-F mules spent much of their time during testing, the car primarily was developed on Toyota's own Fuji International Speedway. A nice thing, if you can afford it.
What this did for the IS-F is readily evident in the car's ability to hold a line in the corners, the linearity and tractability of the engine's power, and the magnificent proficiency of the transmission's shift action in manual mode.
The brakes are also track-worthy. The fixed Brembo six-piston front calipers feature three different piston diameters and clamp 14.2-inch drilled and vented discs, while two-piston rear calipers squeeze 13.6-inch drilled and vented discs in the back. Sixty-to-zero stopping distances tumbled down with each successive stop with a best of 112 feet. We tired before these fade-resistant brakes did.
Thank You for Smoking
We had a few laps at a local track and can tell the IS-F is no stranger to an apex. We tried all three modes of stability/traction control and found Sport VDIM mode largely unobtrusive. It's pretty permissive and becomes slightly annoyed only if the driver's corner entry or exit is less smooth than Sir Jackie Stewart would recommend.
Still, we couldn't help but enjoy the drive-at-your-own-risk mode with the stability control switched off. When you briefly lift off the throttle pedal midcorner, then whack it wide open, the tail of the car is easily coaxed into a slide. The faux, brake-induced simulation of a limited-slip differential initially fights the slide, but it eventually relinquishes its hold on the tires and two plumes of magnificent white tire smoke finally emerge.
The IS-F's turn-in is breathtakingly quick, as the car takes a confident and very firm set through corners with pretty stubborn understeer on the car's limit. We measured 0.93g on our skid pad.
Though the steering action is as precise as any rack-and-pinion can deliver, the artificially heavy effort of the two-mode, electric power assist (a 42V system) still cannot communicate as much information about the contact patches of the front tires as other sport sedans we've driven. Even so, the IS-F weaves its way to an exhilarating 70.2-mph slalom run where oversteer becomes the limiting factor. Credit the car's weight distribution of 54 percent front/46 percent rear.
F Is for Fast
Automatic transmissions are slow-acting, power-sapping, indirect hindrances between an engine and a driver's will, right? Yet the IS-F's eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission (AA80E) obliterates this notion with an entirely novel — and we think industry-changing — control system.
While the hardware again has its foundation in the transmission of the LS sedan, lightweight yet robust internals plus a complete rewiring of the transmission's brain have produced an entirely new definition of an automatic transmission. In manual mode, it comes as close to instant shifting as anything we've driven.
When manual mode (shifted via steering-column paddles or the console-mounted gearlever) is selected, upshift times drop from a Lexus IS 350's typical 1.3 seconds (0.7 second to initiate plus 0.6 second to change ratios) to a mere 0.3 second (0.2 second to initiate plus 0.1 second to shift). We also appreciate the perfectly timed tone that reminds you to shift just before you hit the rev limiter in each gear.
The gloriously quick downshifts (with matched revs) sound as if the car has a true sequential gearbox. It's unbelievable. The only other transmission that comes close to such quick, driver-friendly action is the dual-clutch DSG gearbox like the one in an Audi A3, or perhaps the latest $9,000, Formula 1-style automated sequential manual like that in the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano.
When it's in Drive, the transmission behaves much like a traditional automatic with the personality and torque-converter lock-up habits of the latest BMW StepTronic, but with two or three too many gears from which to choose. The mundane cut-and-thrust of everyday traffic produces frequent shifting among the eight ratios and it takes some getting used to.
F Is for Freeway Hop
While the kind of on-track schooling the IS-F has received is generally a good performance-tuning practice that tends to breed more performance-capable vehicles, it doesn't always make for a livable car.
The IS-F short-travel suspension rides taut and firm like a racecar's — all the time. Without driver-adjustable suspension, freeway overpasses that are usually registered by the seat of your pants as a gentle, rolling hop become spine-compressing jolts. Consider yourself warned.
What do you think of when you hear "Lexus"? Maybe it's not performance. Initial quality studies, customer satisfaction ratings and a luxury-car benchmark with a reputation for reliability are more like it, and that's why the median age of a Lexus buyer is older than any of its competition among performance-oriented brands.
The way Lexus sees it, all those WRX and Evo owners are getting older, have increased their earning potential and shortly will be looking for cars that satisfy their inner enthusiasts while avoiding the boy-racer stigma. So the IS-F is the right thing to do for the future of Lexus.
The 416-hp 2008 Lexus IS-F also intends to take a preemptive bite out of the high-performance compact-sedan pie currently sized up by the forthcoming BMW M3 sedan and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
The price of the 2008 Lexus IS-F might make it persuasive. Though the official numbers won't be announced for a bit, Lexus says our estimate of $59,900 isn't "embarrassingly inaccurate," so we used the current IS 350's optional $2,550 navigation system price to calculate this IS-F's $62,540 as-tested price.
If it seems that our enthusiasm for the IS-F is mixed, you're right. While we can appreciate all the work that went into this performance-minded, track-worthy Lexus, we're more than a little put off by its harsh ride on the street. Is this truly a usable high-performance car, or just a car for extreme profiling?
There's also something about the gimmicky styling. The most telling trace of disingenuousness can be found in those stacked quad exhaust "resonators," as Lexus describes them. We discovered that not one of the chromed ovals is directly plumbed to the muffler and are instead part of the rear fascia. They're there just for looks.
There's too much of this car that reminds us of the supersonic jet-powered sports cars we all used to draw on our denim binders back in third grade.
F Is for Future
Yet there's a whole lot more invested in this notion of a high-performance Lexus than the ill-fated "L Tune" kits for the first-generation IS, which were little more than stiffer suspensions, tacked-on body parts and loud exhaust systems.
Depending on its success, Lexus says the IS-F is but the first in a series of F-division vehicles, with the next obvious, though not confirmed, candidate being the GS-F.
We applaud the effort and support Lexus' path down this road, but we hope they spend a little more time on city streets and a little less time on race tracks.
Editorial Director Kevin Smith says:
Before I drove the new Lexus IS-F, the Lexus guys chuckled when I said I expected it would be quick and responsive but still smooth, quiet and refined, and maybe a bit numb and isolated, because that's the way of Lexus.
They knew I was about to discover that the IS-F breaks from Lexus tradition in several key areas, chassis performance being the most striking. Yes, the 5.0-liter, 416-horsepower V8 bellows through its intake and exhaust in a way no Lexus has before. And the eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic makes for instant rev management like no Lexus transmission has ever done.
But pointing the car at the light pole that tells me where I am cresting the blind and always thrilling apex over Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca's Turn One, then hammering the brakes and bending in to clip the Andretti Curve's first apex, the car is steady, crisp, communicative and, yes, stiff, an adjective never applied to anything about a Lexus except maybe its price.
Even more telling was busting through the dip at Turn Six's apex, something that can upset a car enough to have you launching off the hill and not hearing anything until Salinas. The F took one firm hit in the dip, settled immediately and was ready to dash up to the Corkscrew.
Some of my pals have proclaimed the IS-F's suspension intolerably firm on the road. Maybe I was swayed by throwing the car about on Laguna's immaculate new pavement as a first introduction. In any case, the taut, stable, tied-down feel of the F while generating serious velocity is a quality I am happy to proclaim completely and determinedly un-Lexus.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds with this preproduction vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.