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Lexus IS-F (2008) review

Published:07 February 2008

Lexus IS-F (2008) review
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By Ben Whitworth

Contributing editor, sartorial over-achiever, HANS device shirt collars

By Ben Whitworth

Contributing editor, sartorial over-achiever, HANS device shirt collars

The new Lexus IS-F performance flagship arrives here this April primed to take on its BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG rivals. Even its £51,000 price tag (M3 £50,725, C63 AMG £52,567) puts it deep into enemy territory. It may not have the aspiration strengths played on so heavily by M Division and AMG, but that hasn't stopped Lexus wheeling out a pretty formidable rival to rock the Teutonic triumvirate.

Heritage or no, the F has the power, the performance and the looks to face up to any competitor – a track-tuned 417bhp 5.0-litre V8, an eight-speed paddleshift transmission, tweaked wishbone front and multilink rear suspension and steering and Brembo developed brakes, all wrapped in out-my-way sheetmetal.

The F doesn't photograph particularly well, tending to look oddly proportioned and slightly bulbous from some angles, but in the metal it looks mean and sharp – drink in those sinister graphite 19-inch lightweight BBS alloys, vast brake discs and six-pot calipers, the 25mm lowered ride height, blistered wheel arches, that power-domed bonnet, those four distinctively stacked exhaust pipes and the air vents behind the front wheels. It looks both restrained and menacing, a car with a real fast lane-clearing aura, although I felt horribly cheated when I looked closer and saw the four drainpipes were dummies. The real exhausts end just short of the faux pipes, and the air vents are also false. 

Tell me about the Lexus IS-F's engine

Borrowed from the LS600h, the all-aluminium engine features a raft of motorsport upgrades including cylinder heads developed by Yamaha Racing, direct injection, electrically driven variable valve timing, titanium valves, a dual air intake system, sintered conrods and a fuel surge tank and oil scavenge system to feed the engine during high speed bends. Result? Lexus’s most powerful engine – a sledgehammer that develops 417bhp at 6600rpm and 373lb ft of torque at 5200rpm. Enough muscle to rocket the 1700kg IS-F to 60mph in 4.8seconds and onto a limited 168mph top speed. Plenty of grunt to worry its rivals.

FYI, the F in the Lexus’ badge doesn’t stand for fast or the F word – it stands for Fuji, the hallowed Toyota-owned speedway circuit at the base of Mount Fuji where the IS-F’s high-speed dynamics were honed. The development and engineering was undertaken by a small skunkworks team spearhead by top Lexus engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi.

Scroll down the page to the embedded player below to see how the Lexus IS-F matches up against the BMW M3 saloon and Mercedes C63 AMG

Does the IS-F really have an eight-speed transmission?

It certainly does, and anyone thinking that sounds like technical overkill will be proved wrong within the first mile of driving, because it’s a real gem. Like the engine the transmission has been borrowed from the LS600h, rebadged Sports Direct Shift and been given a massive overhaul to prepare it for its F application. In manual paddleshift mode it only uses a torque converter in first gear, with full lock up in second onwards, and shifts take just a tenth of a second – quicker Lexus claims than any current double-clutch transmission, and almost as fast as a Ferrari F30 Scuderia’s gearbox. And as you’d expect, it blips that electronic throttle body with millimetric precision on downshifts for perfectly matched engine revs. And the shifters themselves move with a lovely tactile quality.

What else has been done to the F over a stock IS?

Pretty much everything. To keep you having fun and out of trouble, the F is fitted with a three-stage VDIM system – that’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. This holistic dynamic package brings together the anti-lock brakes, traction control, limited slip differential and stability electronics to work as one cohesive unit, and the system also governs the gearshift speed and the degree of electrical assistance for the steering.

In Normal mode, the steering is light, gearshifts are creamy smooth and at the hint of wheelspin, the electronics wade in to help you out. In Sport, the steering weights up, the gearshifts are incredibly quick – yet still unerringly smooth – and you can play the oversteer hooligan long and hard before the system finally intervenes. There’s a third Snow setting for poor weather conditions. Oh, and don’t forget the F’s Brembo-developed anchors – 360mm ventilated and cross drilled discs with six-pot calipers up front and 345mm discs with two-pot calipers at the back – the uprated suspension, significantly stiffened chassis and the recalibrated electrically assisted steering.

Scroll down the page to the embedded player below to see how the Lexus IS-F matches up against the BMW M3 saloon and Mercedes C63 AMG

I presume the IS-F goes like the clappers?

You’re damn right. This Lexus is searingly quick. Flick the VDIM into sport, hold the F on the brakes, stamp on the accelerator and the Lexus bullets away like a rocket sled. The combination of the engine’s red-line appetite and the transmission’s ability to machine gun its way through its tightly stacked gears means there’s no let up in the F’s vivid acceleration, and whipping through the first four gears is an absolute blast.

But revert the VDIM to normal, and let the gearbox handle things itself and the Lexus can be trundled along in traffic smoothly and effortlessly – much as you’d expect from a Lexus.

Lexus spent a lot of time and money fine tuning the engine’s vocals – up to 3600rpm, the V8 wuffles and rumbles with a muted and downplayed muscularity, but above that, the induction noise drops and octave and the F does a massively addictive impression of a Nascar racer on full charge. It the kind of noise that will have you windows down and seeking out tunnels…

Despite that gorgeous rev-happy V8 and ultra-rapid transmission, the Lexus never for one moment feels even slightly uncouth or edgy. The engine may bellow, the tyres may yelp and the gearbox may rip through its cogs, but the F always feels polished and urbane. It can rocket along roads at thoroughly illegal speeds without ever feeling tricky or snappy. For some buyers looking for raw white-knuckle entertainment, that may go against the grain, but this welcome edge of civility in normal day-to-day driving.

So it’s fast in a straight line, but can the IS-F do corners?

The F’s electrical steering doesn’t exactly let the dynamic side down, but it’s a little short on feel and backchat although no worse than an RS4’s. It is direct, though and there’s an immediate and accurate response to small off-centre inputs through the thin-rimmed wheel. Once you grow accustomed to the slightly artificial feeling, though, the F can be poured cleanly and accurately down a favourite road.

The F also rides with a fluency and poise that will leave most M3 and C63 drivers green with envy. There are no trick adjustable dampers or active anti-roll bars, but the firmly tied down ride rarely feels brittle or harsh, and some might even find it too soft for such a performance package – the back end can really squirm about if you get on the power early out of tighter corners, but for around town and on regular commutes – arguably where the F will spend most of its time, the compliant ride quality is spot on. The brakes also deserve a standing ovation – as well as effortlessly dealing with any amount of speed thrown at them, they’re also full of feel, allowing you to repeatedly lean on them right up to the point the anti-lock intervenes.

Scroll down the page to the embedded player below to see how the Lexus IS-F matches up against the BMW M3 saloon and Mercedes C63 AMG

So what’s not to like?

The cabin is a bit of a let down. Sure, it’s stuffed with enough gear to satisfy the most sybaritic driver - active bi-Xenons, satnav, ten airbags, a pre-crash safety system, adaptive cruise control and a fine Mark Levinson sound system are standard features, with only a sunroof as an option – but the centre console has been shotgunned with buttons, there’s little coherence between the hues of the plastics used, the fonts for the labels and the size of the buttons. And rather than use universally understood symbols, every button has its function written on it, resulting in a dash with more words than a Thomas Hardy novel. Rear accommodation is hardly generous and the F also seems to bing and bong endlessly at you, telling you off for opening the door or not putting on your seatbelt the nanosecond you get in the car. Ultra cool blue instrument needles and excellent chairs aside, it just doesn’t feel particularly special inside.

Verdict

With a razor sharp blip of its screaming V8, the F single-handedly alters Lexus’ image. It makes Lexus interesting, injecting a welcome and much needed dose of character into the brand. Despite its lack of motorsport heritage and track-based pedigree it looks, feels, goes and stops like a bespoke model rather than a go-faster version of an existing model. It’s a very credible gatecrasher to the German super saloon party and effectively breaks their stranglehold on small fast executives. For many potential owners, simply not being German will be a good enough reason to buy it. And with only 150 earmarked for the UK this year, and that allocation unlikely to change, it will be a rare sight, too. That said, there are already around 45 confirmed orders in the UK for the F according to Lexus UK boss Miguel Fonseca.

How Lexus will reconcile the IS-F with its carefully cultivated green credentials remains to be seen but think of it this way – by having both an award-winning line-up of hybrids and this blood-spitting muscle car for purists, surely Lexus is enjoying two bites of the cherry?

Scroll down the page to the embedded player below to see how the Lexus IS-F matches up against the BMW M3 saloon and Mercedes C63 AMG

Specs

Price when new: £51,000
On sale in the UK: April 2008
Engine: 4969cc V8, 417bhp @ 6600rpm, 373lb ft @ 5200rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 4.8sec 0-62mph, 168mph (limited), 24.8mpg, 270g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1700kg/steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 4660/1815/1405

Rivals

Lexus IS Cars for Sale

View all Lexus IS Cars for Sale

Lexus IS Leasing Deals

Photo Gallery

  • Lexus IS-F rear
  • Lexus IS-F interior
  • Lexus IS-F rear three-quarter
  • Lexus IS-F front three-quarter
  • Lexus IS-F front three-quarter
  • Lexus IS-F side
  • Lexus IS-F engine
  • Lexus IS-F front three-quarter

By Ben Whitworth

Contributing editor, sartorial over-achiever, HANS device shirt collars

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