Now here’s a leftfield choice if ever there was one. The Lexus IS-F is a pleasingly alternative performance saloon and one that’s consequently rare as hen’s teeth viewed alongside the BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG and Audi (R)S4 set. Is its scarcity justified?
We've just driven the 2010 IS-F ahead of a modest facelift for the 2011 model year. Cosmetically, little will change (bar the arrival of LED day-running lights outside and faux carbonfibre trim inside), but tech changes will bring Euro 5 emissions compliance and aim to fix the IS-F’s weakest suit: a lumpen ride and handling that lags behind the competition.
Lexus IS-F (2010): first impressions
There’s still a sense of occasion with the IS-F. I’ve always admired the crisp simplicity of the IS compact exec, and the F performance derivative builds upon those qualities. The wheelarches blister aggressively and the double-decker exhausts are unusual and eye-catching. It still draws admiring glances from outside.
Clamber into the IS-F and you’ll be more disappointed. The IS range is now five years old and it shows. The new 2011 IS-F will scrub up with a fresh instrument pack placing the rev counter centrally and some dark-silver fake composite trim, but it still feels ancient in here. It’s cramped too. You’ll be lucky to squeeze anyone behind a 6ft driver (there is seemingly no space at all for feet under the front seats). Other ageing details predominate: there is no exterior boot handle, for instance, and some of the switchgear feels cluttered and scattered.
So is the IS-F an alternative M3?
Thankfully yes. That exterior beefkit is matched by a compelling drive. Start up the 5.0-litre V8 (keylessly) and you burble away on a wave of big-cubes torque. Peak thrust doesn't arrive until 5200rpm, but there's ample shove from low down. Unlike the twin-clutched BMW, the IS-F uses a full eight-speed auto and the driveline is smooth, shuffling away the gears in the background. It’ll cruise or sprint all day long, depending on your mood.
Lexus will shortly retune the suspension to improve the IS-F’s waftability - and it needs it urgently. The ride is still bouncier than the class norm. I remember taking my wife to hospital for the birth of our daughter in a 2008 IS-F and the crashing ride nearly caused an early arrival of the wrong sort. It doesn’t absorb bumps efficiently either around town or at higher speeds compared with an M3.
But is it fast?
You bet. The IS-F’s most deeply compelling ace card is its engine. And that bodes well for the next generation of Lotus models, which will use this V8 for the top-end models. Although the Lotus Esprit will be supercharged, the naturally aspirated Lexus edition is high on character and power delivery. Pin the throttle and the IS-F hurls itself forward with a pace that would’ve had scared a Ferrari a generation ago. No wonder Lexus claims 168mph (or faster with the limiter removed) and 4.8sec 0-62mph.
The auto ’box is well judged and the paddles flip up or down a ratio instantly; their metallic solidity is a lesson in how Jaguar should craft its (currently plastic) gearchange paddles in the XF and XJ.
What of the handling? The 2010 revisions included a limited slip diff on the rear axle and it's perfect for oversteer indulgence, say the more sideways types in the office. If you don’t like peering through the side windows at every corner, you’ll notice improved traction and rarer deployment of the stability control lamps flickering. For the 2011 model year, Lexus will soon upgrade the rates of springs and dampers at both ends, along with the geometry at the rear.
The IS-F remains a curio choice. At £57,105, it is in fact the most expensive of its competitive set, outstripping both M3 and C63.
While keen drivers will prefer the tactility and dynamic sharpness of the BMW or Merc, the IS-F serves up a different take on the high-performance saloon. That’s a lot of money for a Lexus, but the quality feels as unburstable as you’d expect and this is a distinctive, interesting saloon.
Now when are they going to build the next F derivative? One five-year-old hotrod and a sold-out, £336k supercar don’t a full performance line-up make.
>> The Lexus IS-F takes on the Audi RS5, BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 AMG in a group test in the new November 2010 issue of CAR Magazine out on 22 October