Monday
May282012

Test Drive: Lexus IS-F

With stringent CAFE regulations forcing auto manufacturers to produce cars that are more efficient and deliver greater fuel economy, sport sedans powered by normally aspirated V8 engines are being shown the door in favor of smaller displacement turbocharged engines. You’re starting to run out of choices if you really want a stonking four-door sports sedan with a naturally aspirated V8, but there are a couple of them still around, including the Lexus IS-F.

Lexus is not exactly the brand that comes first to mind when you think sports sedan, but there areplenty of engineers at Toyota that are performance-minded enthusiasts and enjoy nothing better than taking the fight to BMW, Mercedes and Audi in the premium sports sedan market. The IS-F is largely the creation of engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi, a 30-year Toyota veteran who was involved in the creation of the first two generations of the Lexus LS sedan, as well as the Toyota Supra and the first Lexus GS sedan. Yaguchi created his own small team to develop and build the IS-F, which put in plenty of testing and development time at tracks like the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Circuit Paul Ricard, Laguna Seca and its home track, Fuji Speedway.

Based on the IS sedan, Toyota engineers followed a similar recipe to what AMG and BMW M do with their hottest sedans, by installing a bigger engine, stronger brakes and a stiffer suspension. At the heart of the IS-F is a 5.0-liter V8 with titanium valves, direct fuel injection and variable valve timing. Developed with help from Yamaha F1 engine program engineers, the powerplant puts out 416hp and 371 lb-ft of torque, which moves the 3,780-lb car to 60mph in 4.6 seconds. Stopping is handled by Brembo brakes with 14.2-inch cross-drilled rotors and six-piston calipers in front and 13.6-inch rotors with two-piston calipers in back. The suspension has been reworked for improved handling and features double-wishbones up front and a multi-link setup at the rear, with stiffer springs and larger stabilizer bars. Helping to put the power to the ground is a TORSEN torque-sensing limited slip differential. An 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters is the only transmission option.

From the outside, the IS-F is easily distinguished from the IS sedan it’s based on, as it’s muchmoremuscular with its flared fenders, aggressive front spoiler and BBS wheels. Besides giving the IS-F a more aggressive demeanor than the IS, Lexus also says the revised bodywork (including a trunk mounted spoiler) works to reduce lift. From the back, the IS-F’s most unique visual characteristic is the stacked quad tailpipes, which are certainly unique. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the stacked tailpipe layout, but I like the overall look of the car. The IS-F has been around for a few years now and while it still looks good on the outside, the cockpit feels a bit dated and the infotainment system is not that intuitive. On the plus side, the IS-F has supportive sport seats and provides a lot of good information to the driver, including a digital readout for water and oil temperatures. The tach is featured front and center in the gauge cluster – something most enthusiast drivers appreciate but also something that seems a little odd in a car with an automatic transmission.

Yukihiko Yaguchi and his team of engineers have worked to continuously improve the IS-F over the course of its model life, and this latest version we drove is an entertaining and engaging car to drive. First off, the engine is fantastic, as it pulls hard and smooth and snorts like an angry bull through the exhaust when you’re hard on the throttle. It also works well enough with the automatic transmission that you won’t find the need to use the paddle shifters too often. When you do, the shifts are precise, but not nearly as quick or smooth as they are in some of the newer competitive cars on the market. The presence of the limited slip diff is certainly a plus, as the car powers out of corners with authority and control.

One of the major modifications that came in the 2011 IS-F model year were a significantly reworked suspension, with reduced spring rates, larger anti-roll cars and longer bump stops. We never drove the IS-F before those changes, but the current one has good balance on twisty roads, though it does give you a dose of understeer if you carry too much speed into corners. Overall, the car provides good feedback to the driver, though it does feel a little larger than and not quite as responsive as the BMW M3, which is the benchmark in the class. The IS-F is also a comfortable car to take on a long trip. We drove it over 400 miles roundtrip to Watkins Glen and it was a pleasing highway companion, with a firm but composed ride and comfortable but supportive seats. It also delivered a little better than its highway mileage estimate of 23mpg, which by the way is 3mpg more than the M3.

Overall, I liked the IS-F. It’s more fun to drive than I expected it to be and is certainly worth taking a close look at if you want a powerful, rear-drive sport sedan with a normally aspirated engine under the hood. It’s also pretty rare to see another one on the highway, so is a more exclusive car than competitors like the BMW M3 or Mercedes C63 AMG. We’re hopeful that Toyota doesn’t focus so much on fuel economy and selling as many cars as possible over the next few years that they lose sight of the performance side of the market. The new Lexus GS sedan and Scion FR-S seem to be good signs that Toyota hasn’t forgotten, so we’re hopeful that a new IS-F (one with a good dual-clutch transmission would be nice) is also on the drawing board and will stick around when a new IS sedan comes along. In the meantime, you can find out more about the current IS-F at http://www.lexus.com/models/IS/

Specs:


MSRP

$61,300 (+$875 destination charge)

Engine

Four-cam 5.0-liter V8 with direct injection and variable valve timing and electronic intake valve timing

Power

416hp @ 6,600rpm

Torque

371 lb-ft @ 5,200rpm

0-60mph

4.6 seconds

Transmission

8-speed automatic with manual mode

Suspension

Front: Double-wishbones with high-mount upper arms, coil springs, gas-pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar

Rear: Multi-link with lower mount upper arms, coil springs, gas pressurized shocks and stabilizer bar

Brakes

Front: 14.2-inch vented discs/six-piston calipers

Rear: 13.6-inch vented discs/two-piston calipers

Fuel economy

16 city / 23 highway

Curb weight

3,780 lbs.

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