Lexus\'s first performance car, the IS-F, has been tweaked since it first debuted in 2007. Does that make it more of a BMW M3 rival?
Lexus’s core brand values have always been about exceptional build quality, loads of luxury kit and a great reputation for reliability.
It’s precisely those kinds of values that have seen the brand near the top of ownership satisfaction surveys by the likes of J D Power.
Power and performance? Well, that had always been the domain of Lexus’s German rivals – Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Specifically through their respective performance arms: RS, M division and AMG.
But then came the Lexus IS-F in 2007, a model that dared take up the challenge of competing with the Audi RS4, BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
On the other hand, power and performance were never big players in the Lexus ethos, so why the obsession with a dedicated performance sedan? As it happens, the IS-F project is a great story and one worth recapping.
It was effectively one man’s ambition to build a dedicated performance vehicle under the Lexus brand. His name was Yukihiko Yagushi.
Yaguchi – a “performance hard-case”, according to Lexus - pitched several ideas for a performance car under the Lexus brand, but with little success. He finally received a green light to go ahead with a concept in 2004, but that didn’t mean he had a budget or any staff. The IS-F (that’s ‘F’ for ‘Fuji Speedway’) became a covert operation within Lexus with a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts working after-hours.
Yaguchi started with a clean slate, so he recruited the best possible people and the best component companies such as Yamaha, Brembo, Bridgestone, BBS as well as Toyota Technicraft (who worked on the SC 430 Super GT cars) to work on specific parts of the project.
For example, Takaaki Kimura, who ran the Yamaha’s F1 engine program, did most of the development on the IS-F’s 5.0L V8 powerplant.
It’s an all-alloy quad-cam, 32-valve with high-flow cylinder heads, dual VVT-I with electric VVT-iE inlet camshaft actuation, titanium inlet valves, high-lift camshafts, dual D-4S fuel injection, dual intake air system, tuned length surge tank and stainless steel dual exhaust system. It’s high tech, and it’s also Euro 5-compliant.
Basing the build on the regular IS250 platform meant that right from the beginning, the Lexus IS-F needed to stand out from its regular IS siblings if it wanted to play in the same game as such formidable rivals as the Audi RS4, BMW M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
The styling isn’t as blatant as the M3 or C63, but from almost any angle the IS-F looks the business, however understated it might appear alongside its German rivals.
However, there are plenty of styling cues that do more than just hint at the car’s performance intentions, especially with the 2011 model, which includes several updates including suspension, wheel and tyre package and several interior enhancements.
Those features that set the IS-F apart from its standard IS siblings include the extra deep front bumper that flares outwards for an unmistakeably aggressive stance.
You can’t miss the side vents in the front three-quarter panels either; they direct heat away from the engine, and like everything on the IS-F, it’s more function over form.
The same cannot be said of the dual-stacked exhaust tips that are unique to the IS-F and a distinct point of difference from the side-by-side quad exhausts on the M3 and the heavy-hitting Benz. The exhaust tips themselves are only faux pipe outlets and aren’t connected to the exhaust system, but we like them regardless.
The front wheel arches are heavily flared to accommodate the all-new 19-inch, fourteen-spoke forged alloy wheels (less over the rears), which are finished in a smoked metal finish and go a long way in establishing the IS-F’s more aggressive on-road presence.
The original IS-F press kit was quick to point out “The unmistakable bonnet bulge” as a design highlight, but it’s not a power bulge in the traditional sense, more of a bulbous look. For such a prominent feature, it’s not quite proportionally sound either. The M3 does it better, with a semi-Jaguar E-Type bulge that is more visually appealing.
It’s even less dramatic at the rear of the car. Apart from the quad exhaust tips and small boot lid spoiler, the IS-F looks decidedly similar to its less powerful IS350 stablemate, except for the prominent ‘F’ badge. But even then, the current IS350 F Sport gets a similar looking ‘F’ badge on the front side panels.
Inside the cockpit there’s a new dark carbon fibre look centre console, but overall, it’s much like the standard Lexus fare, the exception being the all-new GS model.
However, there are a few new details worthy of praise. The sports seats for example are some of the most comfortable in the business yet and give nothing away to the IS-F’s rivals in the bolstering department. They’re also brilliant on a long trip.
There’s enough leg and shoulder room in the rear seats, which are equally comfortable and provide that same cosseted feeling.
The revised steering wheel now has more grip and feel, along with the same extra-long paddle shifters and an “F” embossed into a blue leather insert reminiscent of the LF-A supercar.
An LF-A inspired instrument panel is also better fit, along with an oversize centre-mounted tachometer that includes iridescent blue needles and a large shift indicator - perfect for high-speed track work.
What’s not so good is the large slab of soft touch plastic, which makes up the dashboard. It lacks design and is frankly dull and boring - and certainly not in keeping with the IS-F’s elevated status as a high-performance luxury ride.
In its defence, though, the IS-F has been around since 2007, with only minor updates along the way. We’d like to see the interior from the all-new Lexus GS installed in the next generation IS-F; that would be a significant step-up and more in line with the model’s elite position in the range.
Fire up the 5-litre V8 and you’re treated to an immediate high-tempo bark that settles down to a super smooth burble. The tacho needle also performs some theatrics against a dark background before the dial lights up.
The default setting for the eight-speed sequential transmission is the “D” mode a lazy automatic mode that will move the car off in second gear from a standing start for gentle getaways. It’s perfect for peak hour traffic or dawdling off to the shops with almost imperceptible gear changes and lower fuel consumption.
Hit the “Sport” button on the steering wheel and the IS-F driving experience livens up somewhat as the steering weights up, shift points change upwards on the rev counter and the car’s VDiM system allows for more slip from the stability control functions. Mind you, it’s still a relatively smooth driving mode until you plant your right foot and things get a whole lot more rowdy.
At around 3800rpm under hard acceleration the IS-F produces a heroic exhaust note to rival that of the C63 AMG, not quite as boisterous, but every bit as rewarding.
For that full racecar-inspired experience, you’ll need to move the shift lever across to the manual “M” mode, for a complete and utter character change. Gone are the lazy upshifts and in their place there are shift times that seem as rapid as any of the current dual-clutch transmissions.
It’s even better on the downshifts, with perfectly timed throttle blipping to match the engine speed in 0.2 of a second. The induction noise and the sound of those ‘on-song’ rapid-fire gear changes are truly inspiring.
The steering also weights up even more and the shift points are left completely up to the driver. This is a proper sequential manual box that won’t shift for you, regardless of the revs.
You can push the IS-F into corners with tremendous loads and while it gets the job done, the effect of the car’s 1700-plus kilograms over the front end is certainly felt. However, despite its weight the car feels well balanced, even on sharp turn-ins.
While the latest IS-F doesn’t get today’s tricky adaptive suspension, it does come with new front shock absorbers, with monotube damper from specialist suspension company Sachs, for a slightly better response over bumps, but it’s still what most would consider a firm ride.
The brakes, too, are very solid and there’s little if any retardation, even when driven repeatedly with serious intent on some very twisty sections of downhill road.
Dynamically, the IS-F isn’t as sharp as an M3 or even a C63 AMG (Benz has narrowed the margin between the C63 and M3), but with a manufacturer’s list price of $126,800, the Lexus IS-F makes a compelling case against it’s significantly more expensive German rivals.
Add to that Lexus’ historically low running costs over the life of the vehicle and the case gets even stronger.