When asked what the "F" in the new Lexus IS-F (TM) stands for, I was dumbfounded. While further research did not turn up an exact answer, many have claimed it is in homage to Fuji Speedway. But I beg to differ. After driving the Lexus IS-F for several days, I think the F has to mean either "fast" or "first."
In pictures, the IS-F's exterior styling appears over-the-top and garish. However, in the flesh, it is rather subtle. Even revving the car's monstrous 5.0-liter V8 past that magical 4,000 rpm mark -- where the exhaust note changes from a hefty burble to what sounds like the scream of a chainsaw-wielding maniac -- did not draw much attention.
Keeping the motor below 4,000 rpms allows one to drive around town without frightening grandparents. However, open it up and you will wake the neighbors. Thank the vehicle's dual-inlet air cleaner for the wondrous roar; it opens up above 4,000 rpms and bypasses the muffler while increasing air flow.
The F's profile remains tastefully low to the ground, sitting one inch lower than a standard Lexus IS. Although one would suspect the ride to become teeth chattering, I found it relatively painless. The car rides very smoothly and manages to take bumps surprisingly well, considering it is fitted with 19-inch wheels and low-profile tires.
Let's face it, the standard IS is a mid-size sedan, and for someone like myself with a giraffe-like frame (6 feet 8 inches tall and 215 pounds), my expectations of comfort were low. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself pampered in the 10-way powered sport seats which had fantastic detail; contrasting blue stitching and an understated blue tone underneath its perforation. One thing to get used to is the low windshield and high beltline, which yield windows reminiscent of a tank. At first, I was skeptical of the "aluminized" interior trim but I grew to love it by the end of my time with the car -- blinding sun glare and all.
Under the Hood
The IS-F is the first installment of Lexus' F division and the first of its kind for the brand. Aimed at German competitors (such as BMW), the IS-F is prepared for battle. Crammed into its engine bay is a 416 horsepower, 371 lb-ft torque engine mated to an eight-speed "Sport Direct Shift," paddle-shifting automatic.
Plant your foot into the accelerator while in first gear and feel the IS-F squirm for traction, shifting into second chirps the rear tires. When was the last time you saw a Lexus do that? The era of Lexus cars tooling around town, with what were originally thought of as sewing machines for motors, is over.
Its potent motor requires significant stopping power. Brembo-sourced cross-drilled brakes do the trick quite well without fade. The front rotors measure 14.2 inches and are coupled with six-piston calipers, while the back rotors measure 13.6 inches paired with two-piston calipers. Downshifting from eighth gear produces a delightful symphony of throttle-blipping, while pedal feel remains firm.
One pitfall of the Lexus is its numb steering feel. I want to feel the road's every single nook and cranny in a performance-based vehicle. Offsetting this issue, the IS-F's steering at speed acts heavy while remaining precise and direct through corners. Have no fear, parallel parking remains a cinch, due to more power steering boost at low speeds.
The revolutionary eight-speed transmission does a damn good job of maintaining a higher fuel efficiency, relative to its class, with an EPA rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. I averaged 16 mpg over the duration of my time with the car -- quite surprising considering I was not being easy on the accelerator. Its head-snapping shifting speed of 1/100 is quicker to shift than Ferrari's F430 F1 variant, but a lesson can be learned from Ferrari's paddle setup, which is attached to the steering column rather than the wheel. In the IS-F I constantly found myself playing hide-and-seek with the paddles, which are attached to the wheel, when turning in first gear. If the transmission was more flexible and allowed second-gear starts, this would not be an issue. Also, the transmission is overbearing and downshifts constantly while driving -- extremely annoying. I would prefer a transmission that allows substantially more freedom, as say, the Lexus IS 350 I piloted.
It's important to note that the IS-F is actually both a traditional automatic and a manual. According to a Lexus engineer, in "D" mode the transmission has a torque converter and acts as a traditional automatic transmission. In "M" mode, it is a direct manual link with no slippage between gears. Watch for this technology to filter into future Toyota (TM) products.
Overall, the Lexus IS-F is a tremendously capable vehicle. As a matter in fact, the car has changed my perspective of Lexus as a whole. German automakers have something to worry about. If Lexus' next F model has more steering feel and (gasp!) a true manual transmission, the ultimate sport-sedan battle will not become such a difficult contest to judge.
Although it is safe to say this car has its foibles, all of its respective competitors do as well. Audi's questionable reliability, BMW's iDrive and Mercedes' arguable styling are several things that come to mind. But, in the meantime, if you are looking for a reliable daily driver with spunk and easy-to-use technology, then look no further than the Lexus IS-F.