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Tim O'Brien | Feb 4, 2009 | 33 Comments

Take one smallish sedan, drop a thumping 5.0 litre V8 in the snout, give it hard-core handling and tough, out-there style... been done before? Yup. But Lexus does it again and gives us its own howling 'Hound of the Baskervilles', the IS F.

It can be an exercise in futility splitting hairs over the performance margins of premium performance cars.

It's a bit like blokes standing around talking about the size of their dicks. As if there is something to be concluded from the information that is volunteered in these manly discussions. Wide? Thick? Yeah... good, good, huh-huh... great.

But you and I, we both know that it's not the implement. No, it's the expertise of the user behind the blade that determines its effectiveness. A sleek, racy implement used ham-fistedly (is that a verb?) will be beaten all-ends-up by a 'lesser tool' in expert hands. Or so I've been advised.

Now this brings me neatly to the Lexus IS F.

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In the showroom, it's lined up against BMW's M-Series. This may not have been the intent of Lexus (nah, I’m kidding myself, it probably was), but it has certainly been where the motoring media and enthusiasts have focused discussion. Is it as good as the M3? Is it as quick in a no-holds barred smoke-off? Who's the winner, and who's the loser?

That's the way most of the discussion has gone. And that’s what His Royal Rabbit-ness, the barking-mad Jeremy Clarkson attempted to settle on Top Gear.

But does it matter? Isn't this debate a bit like 'dick-talk'? Each is such a riotously powerful and competent performance machine that it is only at the margins - at the extreme edge of performance driving - that one holds an edge over the other, only to be shaded somewhere else.

And, if we had the necessary pfennigs and were to put, say, a Lexus IS F in the garage, most of us will get nowhere near its potential, let alone that of an M3. Ok, maybe we’ll stretch it out occasionally, the odd furtive excursion... you know how it goes, the quick hard stamp on the loud pedal, hold onto your hats for two, three, maybe even ten seconds, howl into licence-shredding territory, then back hard on the brakes and a few nervous glances over the shoulder and in the rear view mirror… ok, all cool.

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That’s how it is for most of us who love our performance cars. We don’t have an airstrip handy with a couple of hundred metres of lateral run off to catch us if we over-cook it. And unless we’re in a car club, we’ll likely never (or rarely at most) turn a wheel in anger on the race-track.

But by Bardot’s beard we love a thumping kilowatt – especially one with the thunderous howl of a high performance V8 behind it. That’s why, if you spend just a few minutes behind the wheel of the IS F, you will be smitten.

Few V8s make a noise like this V8. It defies description: put the pedal to the floor and it gathers itself with an outraged bellow rising rapidly to the sweetest-singing yowling wail. If anything, it is a little reminiscent of a highly-tuned Windsor V8 of a decade or more back.

It is absolutely intoxicating and heart-thumpingly fast (and I mean f-a-s-t.) Lean hard on its performance, throw it through a few curves, whip it back through the gears – one, two, three, four - then floor it and it’s like being shot from a cannon. Yup, this is one mad hell-hound under the whip.

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Interestingly though, when you’re not wielding the leather, the IS F can be as docile as a floppy puppy. And as compliant and as easy to live with. That is also one of its strengths.

So let’s untangle the elements of this car: where is it strongest? Why would you buy one, why would you not?

A fastidious, premium interior

It is hard to not sound a little stupid describing a Lexus interior. Everything is so astonishingly-well put together, with such premium materials and such finicky attention to detail, that you end up sounding like a women’s fashion magazine: “Oh and the seats dahlings, they’re exquisite and such gorgeous supple leather…”

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But that’s how it is. For fit and finish and quality of materials, Lexus is the benchmark. The seats in the IS F are sensational. The leather, soft and luxuriant, feels like it has been removed from the flawless pink cheeks of new-born deer.

The metal finishes are equally striking. There is a glassy epoxy-sheen over the metal of the console, repeated in the doors, and it looks fabulous; as do the electric blue gauges, drilled metal pedals and highly polished shifter. The neat recessed information display, the switch-gear and console is as good as you’ll find. It all ‘fits’ and it all ‘works’.

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Even the headlining (who notices headlining?) and the rubber edging, everywhere you look reeks of quality.

If you’re going to spend more than $100k, then this is how you want a car to look and feel. It is also loaded: sensational Mark Levinson surround-sound audio system, satellite radio, iPod integration, park assist, sat nav, back-up camera and Bluetooth capability. There are also air-bags everywhere and all those safety acronyms that keep the nannies happy.

Well, ok, if I have to pick something I’m not crazy about, it’s the heavy black-all-over dash… there’s too much uninterrupted black in it, and it’s too big and organic, like it has been carved out of a huge block of cheese (er… that would be black cheese).

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Funnily enough, proving my sense of taste and style disappeared into my bottom at around the time of the first Punic Wars, others in the TMR team loved it.

But style differences aside, one thing is beyond argument: for fastidious attention to detail, the interior of the Lexus is, simply, exquisite. It’s a Lexus thing. If you want to be pampered like an Oil Sheik, buy a Lexus. I can’t fault it so I’ll just shut up now.


The beast within the beast

Sitting in the bulging snout of the IS F is a thumping beast. You might otherwise recognise it as a 5.0 litre V8 producing 311 kW at 6600rpm and 505 Nm at 5200. The bulge in the bonnet, the Gerard Depardieu nose, is to accommodate it.

It is a fearsome tool. On full-noise it will have your neck hairs standing on end and shivers rattling through your spine. You simply have to stretch it out just to hear it… again, and again. It is simply irresistible and an absolute highlight of the IS F.

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From standstill, the launch away from the line – whether in full auto or flicking the paddles – is blistering. Our performance testing gives it a sub-five second 0-100kmh, Lexus claims 4.8 seconds; whatever, the effect is electrifying.

Wickedly free-spinning, above 4000rpm the induction roar of that bent-vee suddenly changes, rising to a head-spinning wail as it surges to the 7000rpm redline. Part of the secret to its free spinning characteristics and the relatively high rpm before the mass of torque is right on song, is in its ‘oversquare’ nature with a 94.0mm bore and 89.5mm stroke.

With eight speeds, yes, eight, the transmission can keep you busy if you elect to use the paddles. Better, in my view, to mostly leave it to its own devices. In truth, there is probably two gears too many. With all those ergs at its disposal, the IS F would likely have been as well-served, and as quick, with a sensible six speeds.

And there’s no manual. That’s a debit to the ledger; some of us like to use the stick. It might not be noticed much in the US, but here, and in Europe and the UK, the no-manual option will likely deter some buyers. After having spent a week in it, and a long-legged highway run to Mallacoota and back, I came away undecided about the transmission.

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Certainly, with 100-millisecond up-shifts, there is nothing wrong with the way it performs. Whipping it through the sequential box in M mode (Sport Direct Shift) is boy’s own fun. And whether in M mode or normal D mode, you can use the paddle shifters for “temporary sequential control”. This is really handy for downshifting into corners and will revert to the D mode (and then resume self-shifting duties) if you hold the up-shift paddle for one second.

On a long highway drive, it is also a welcome feature, especially for over-taking (all clear… flick back… fire!).

The eight speeds also assist in producing some remarkable fuel figures. At 110kmh, things are ticking over between 1700-1800rpm. At 140kmh, 2300rpm. On the trip there, even with some ‘tourist-type’ dawdling, a few excursions down side roads to the coast (and some spirited stretching of the legs), we returned an amazing 9.8 l/100 kmh.

For part of the return trip, plus a couple of days of city driving on the same tank, it averaged 11.3 l/100km. (Lexus claims 11.4 l/100km average - in anyone’s language, with all those kilowatts at the toe, that’s a damn good result.)

So, a great engine. Better than great really. It’s an absolute hauler.

On the road

On the road things are not quite as certain for the IS F.

It’s got all the good gear: up-front, double wishbone suspension with upper A-arm, lower L-arm, coil springs, monotube gas shocks and ball-joint mounted hollow anti-roll bar. Rear suspension is multi-link independent with castor locating rod, coil springs, monotube gas shocks and anti-roll bar.

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The thing is, while it works very well, it perhaps falls a little short of the engineers’ intentions. When pushing hard, it can be exposed a little.

Though the wheel provides accurate feel for where the wheels are and initial turn-in is sharp, you feel it fighting the weight of the 5.0 litre V8 in the nose. On some corners, those ones common on Australian country roads where the inner line has dropped leaving a hollow on the apex, the front end can wallow a little when you hit them hard, leaving it a little unsettled on exit.

Some have also found the IS F’s ride too firm and uncompromising. Not me, it is just the way I like it, but the TMR crew were split on the matter. It is set-up for initial compliance, but then firms rapidly. With big 19-inch wheels and low profile tyres (8J front, 9J rear), the result, notwithstanding the weight over the front wheels, is that it is great fun on a twisting mountain road and hangs on like a terrier.

Especially if you’re prepared to keep it under the lash.

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Perhaps it’s missing some of the balance and casual aplomb at speed that the very best (and considerably more expensive) European stormers can manage, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch or lacking. Far from it. It’s a tremendous steer, just not quite at the top of the class.

In normal driving, showing off its luxury saloon origins, the IS F is commendably quiet. Wind noise, there is none. Tyre roar, despite the large rubber down below, is also quiet over all but the coarsest of country bitumen.

On the highway, it’s a superbly relaxed tourer. With radar cruise control, sat nav setting the course, a thumping 14-speaker Mark Levinson CD/DVD surround-sound audio system, and a distant throaty growl emanating from the glorious donk up front, the hours on any long trip simply melt away.


The wrap up

So that’s the IS F. ‘Ours’ in electric blue and soft cream leather interior turned heads everywhere – some drawn to its muscular, hunkered-down lines, some simply to the sound of that V8.

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Would we buy one? Would you buy one? If you had 130 big ones lurking in the pocket and you were in the market for a howling performance saloon, you would have to consider it. With a price advantage of nearly $25k over the M3 Sedan in Oz showrooms, and that’s before you start optioning the M3 up, it almost buys itself.

Performance wise, there are just margins in it – most leaning to the advantage of the brilliant M3. But that price differential, that leans things back a-ways; and that brute of an engine… you’d consider the IS F on the sound of its V8 alone… and the flawless Lexus quality…

Which brings us back to where we started.

It’s a margin thing.

The Big Statement

The IS F is a stunning car. Though enjoying a price advantage, it is perhaps still a little costly and perhaps a little too raw-edged on the road. But there is no denying its strengths and no denying its potential. If Lexus sticks to the mission on this – please do, Lexus - we will have a truly sensational sporting sedan one or two models distant. As the first out of the mould, the IS F is surprisingly good in so many ways. If it gets the years of development that BMW and Audi put into their performance flagship models, then it will really be ‘game-on’ in the luxury performance sedan segment.”

Tim likes:

  • The IS F’s fabulous, truly fabulous quad-cam V8 donk
  • Rocket-ship power off the line
  • Stunning attention to detail and quality of interior trim and fit
  • Brutish road ‘presence’
  • Remarkable fuel consumption
  • The IS F’s significant price advantage over its obvious rivals

Tim doesn’t like:

  • Not sure about the eight-speed auto
  • Lack of a manual option
  • Showy quad pipes at the rear (that aren’t really pipes)
  • ‘Heavy’ black dash
  • Having to give the keys back (tears before bedtime)

Gallery

[Gallery=873]

Specs

Engine: 5.0 litre V8
Type: 2UR-GSE, alloy block, DOHC VVT 32-valve
Displacement: 4969cc
Bore x stroke: 94.0mm x 89.5mm
Compression ratio: 11.8:1
Maximum power: 311kW @ 6600rpm
Maximum torque: 505Nm @ 5200rpm
Performance: 0 – 100km/h in 4.8 seconds
Max. Speed: 270 km/h
Transmission: Eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic, electronically controlled with lock-up torque converter (2nd to 8th speeds)
Suspension: Front: Independent, double wishbone, upper A-arm, lower L-arm, coil springs, monotube gas dampers, ball-joint mounted anti-roll bar.

Rear: Independent, multi-link type, with castor locating rod, coil springs, monotube gas dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes: Front: Aluminium Brembo six-piston caliper, 360 x 30mm cross-drilled and ventilated discs

Rear: Aluminium Brembo two-piston caliper, 345 x 28mm cross-drilled and ventilated discs

Steering: Rack and pinion, power-assisted, electric DC motor.
Wheels: Front: BBS 19 x 8J forged alloy, 225/40 R19 93Y tyres

Rear: BBS 19 x 9J forged alloy, 255/35 R19 96Y tyres

Kerb Weight: 1700 kilograms
Safety: Switchable Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management system links VSC, TRC and ABS, eight SRS airbags, including knee airbags, full-length curtain-airbags
Fuel consumption: 11.4 l/100km average
Price: $129,000 (plus dealer delivery and statutory charges)
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