No more Mr. Nice Guy

The Lexus IS-F is intent on squaring up with BMW's M3 and Mercedes' C63. Pat Deveraux thinks that, contrary to reputation, it might be up for the fight
Feb 11, 2009

IT'S ANYONE'S guess what the F in the IS-F name means, but after your first blast in it, I'll bet there's only one word that springs to mind: fast. That's what I was thinking anyway, along with a couple of other choice F words, as I slid off the on-ramp and onto the freeway in a haze of white smoke.

I hadn't meant to make such a dramatic entrance to the rush-hour grind but, having spent 20 minutes inching along in traffic, I needed to see if the IS-F really had the bite to go with its fantastic bark. Simple answer: it has, and then some.

I don't know why I doubted it so much. No, actually, I do. It's all to do with the Lexus badge. Even though I like to think I don't make sweeping generalizations, I do because it's just easier. So I say, ‘All Aston Martins are cool,' rather than, ‘Some Aston Martins are cool, but the N24 is a social liability.' And I'll always give Belgium a verbal kicking even though parts of it are properly nice.

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Where my keep-it-simple plan falls apart, is when a company like Lexus, which has only ever made brilliantly built but dull cars, produces something like the IS-F.

It ruins the whole generalization game and forces you to be specific. Now, whenever anyone asks me about Lexus, I'm going to be forced to say, ‘They're all OK, but the IS-F is the very definition of exceptional.' Anything else would be wrong, because that's precisely what it is. Only ‘exceptional' really describes accurately what it is, because the rest of the range is as interesting as a blank sheet of paper next to the IS-F. This car is very interesting indeed.

Just as well it is, though, as it would have been laughed out of the bar by the pack of rabid German competitors if it was anything like its parents. The Audi RS4, discontinued or not, remains one of the most complete driver's cars ever made. The Mercedes C63 has already delivered a defeat to the new M3 in TG, but the BMW is still the best-handling car in the class.

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To even get close to these cars on the first attempt would have been a towering achievement, but Lexus doesn't do first attempts unless it has completely finished its homework. It doesn't launch cars it thinks are right for the market - it develops them in private until it knows they are right. Then we get them. It's why their cars don't squeak or creak. It's why nothing ever comes loose or falls off. It's also why they are generally bland to drive. All of the emotion, the stuff that creates character that can't be measured and replicated exactly, is replaced by cold, solidly reliable efficiency. A dishwasher has more soul.

But with the arrival of the IS-F, all that has changed. In the same way the company studied microscopically, then reinvented, the luxury car market - creating a car it felt matched or bettered all the competition in every key area - it's now done the exact same thing with the luxury performance sedan space. And, for the first time, it's created a car with more spirit than a distillery. It's like it's poured the M3, C63 and RS4 into a blender, given them a good mix and come up with its own blend of tire-shredding über sports sedan.

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You can sense it from the moment you get in. Even at walking pace, you don't just feel the road surface; you have a heated affair with it via the tight suspension and direct steering. It's fabulous when you're looking to find the last bit of grip out of a roundabout, but then it's also kidney-jarringly tedious on any journey through town. There's nothing particularly tricky about the suspension - it looks pretty much the same as the standard IS's setup. It's more to do with the way it's all been lightened and tuned that makes the difference.

Same with the Yamaha-fettled 417hp/503Nm 5.0-liter V8 engine, which is a bored-out version of the lump that powers the LS460 limo. It doesn't just move the car - it sends a death threat to the rear tires every time you get on the throttle in a hurry. Can't say for sure, but it feels more severe than an RS4, which is saying something. There are plenty of switchable electronics - no diff lock - to keep the chassis in check and stop the whole thing fishtailing down the road in a cloud of smoke, but it can be hard to drive smoothly when the road surface isn't smooth.

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Particularly with the eight-speed gearbox, also from the LS460 retuned for the IS-F, in manual mode. The change through the paddles is superquick - just 100 milliseconds if you're counting - but when in Sport mode, you get a significant jolt every time you make an upchange. This jerkiness has clearly been engineered in to give the car a sequential race gearbox feel, but it reminded me a bit of the first BMW SMG gearbox, which I hated. It's nowhere near as bad, particularly on the downchanges, which are silken and seamless. Or when you are in Auto mode. Just in manual.

As another perspective, my girlfriend wasn't that impressed with it either. She normally likes performance cars but, in her own words, said that the IS-F felt ‘angry' and ‘upset', the way it bounced over every bump and threw her back in the seat when it accelerated. The loud engine noise also didn't go down too well with her.

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But it did with me. If there's one thing Lexus has got completely right with the IS-F, it's the way it bellows and gurgles its way through a tank of petrol. Which it does with an alarming regularity. I know we were thrashing it most of the time, but even when we took it easy, a tank would only just stretch to 402 kilometers.

When I collected the car, the onboard computer said the average km/L was 6.8 and I just assumed that it had been sitting in traffic for ages. But when I took it back it said 5.95, which is rubbish. Toyota's going to have to sell a lot of Priuses to compensate for every one of these. Plus, it dresses like a group of Vegas strippers: false bits all over the place. The vents behind the front wheels are just for show, and the side skirts don't appear to have any real use.

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But the worst bit of fakery are the four exhaust pipes, which are not connected to anything. Really, they're not. The real pipes finish a couple of inches before the four chrome rings even start. It's not really a problem for me as I don't like the way they look, so they'd be the first thing I'd change if I owned the car. The fact that they are false is actually a bonus. Unlike the most un-Lexus-like squeaks from the dash - from the center speaker grille - and the dodgy boot release that locked us out a couple of times.

But if these are the price we pay for Lexus building a car like this, fine. I know I've been hard on the IS-F so far, but that's only because Lexus sets such high standards that you can't help but notice small issues, which on other cars you'd probably ignore.

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The fact is, I had a blast driving this car and I know you would, too. And that's a first for Lexus

What does the F stand for? Fun, that's what.
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