"The brakes are on fire," says a bystander, pointing to the front wheels of my matador red Lexus IS-F as I pull into the pits after a few hard laps at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. "No, really-they're on fire!"
And they are. Six-inch flames are shooting out of the six-piston front calipers; thick smoke is billowing out of the two-piston rears. Someone hops into the IS-F and drives off in the hope of extinguishing the fire before it ignites the whole car.
From the driver's seat, I had zero indication that the big Brembos had gotten so hot; neither pedal effort nor travel increased, and their ability to scrub off speed didn't diminish one bit. The Lexus just kept putting a smile on my face, generating huge lateral grip, demonstrating its remarkable balance, and showing off its big underhood muscle.
Lexus? Smile? Track? Seriously? Seriously.
The IS-F's engineering team had a clear goal: create a car that you won't want to stop driving even after ten hard laps on a racetrack. If that sounds like something you never thought you'd hear from Lexus, that's because it is. The goal was decreed instead by an ambitious engineer, Yukihiko Yaguchi, who started the project on the down-low.
In 2002, while in charge of global brand strategy, Yaguchi suggested creating a high-performance division for Lexus. Lexus executives said no, but Yaguchi secretly started development of that division's first car-the IS-F-anyway. When he finally presented the car to management, or so the story goes, they liked it so much that they green-lighted the project for production.
The first thing that any skunk works hot-rod team-factory-backed or not-does is shoehorn a big engine into a little engine bay, and so the IS-F received a V-8 transplant. The 5.0-liter unit produces 416 hp, which is right in the range of the IS-F's competitors: the 414-hp BMW M3, the 420-hp Audi RS4, and the 451-hp Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. The IS-F's 0-to-60-mph time, at 4.6 seconds, is also right in the middle of its peers' times.
Unlike the German cars, though, the IS-F isn't a high-rpm screamer. It's actually very much like an American hot rod in its power delivery: its 371 lb-ft of peak torque might arrive at a high 5200 rpm, but the curve drops off steeply thereafter. Despite Yamaha-developed cylinder heads with titanium intake valves and hollow camshafts, the oversquare V-8 feels like it's running out of breath by 6000 rpm, and the engine note goes flat by the time the computer pulls the plug at a mere 6800 rpm.
So, it doesn't scream, but the Lexus engine won't win any singing competitions, either. A secondary air intake opens up at 3600 rpm, filling the cabin with a contrived, nasal induction honk under big throttle openings. It's not particularly pleasing inside the car, and it completely stifles the exhaust noise-the noise that makes the German V-8s so desirable.
The IS-F is available exclusively with an automatic transmission, and Lexus wisely eschewed the slow-witted, jerky six-speed in the V-6-powered IS in favor of the eight-speed automatic from the LS460. It has been reprogrammed to include a paddle-shifted manual mode that keeps the torque converter locked up in all gears but first. The locked converter eliminates a major portion of the slip that is inherent in automatic transmissions, and it stays locked even during shifts, which are practically instantaneous. Gear changes aren't nearly as smooth as they would otherwise be, but the locked converter's direct connection between the engine and the wheels makes you forget that you're driving a car with a conventional automatic, which isn't a bad thing.
Unfortunately, the transmission uses the same curiously spaced gears as it does in the LS460. To wit, first, second, and third are so far apart that you're constantly wishing for another couple of gears in between, especially on slow, twisty roads. Conversely, the higher gears are so closely spaced that half of them seem superfluous. Case in point: when you are cruising at 50 mph in eighth gear, you need to pull the left gearshift paddle six times to downshift to your optimum passing gear. This confuses the transmission and results in no additional forward progress for what seems like an eternity.
The solution is to drive in the normal automatic mode, which allows the transmission to perform a magnificent eighth-to-second downshift at the nudge of your right foot. In automatic mode, though, there is no permanently locked torque converter and no lightning-quick shifts.
In the process of becoming an F, the IS has lost its perfect visual proportions. The front overhang has been lengthened by three inches to accommodate the big engine, and the hood, the grille, and the front fenders have swollen in sympathy. The wonky front fender vents do nothing to help, nor do the strange-looking, stacked exhaust diffusers in back (don't call them tips, because the mufflers release their gases into the air an inch or two before the rear valance). Despite its slightly awkward appearance, the IS-F doesn't look much different from the regular IS. In fact, the young driver of an IS350 with aftermarket wheels and suspension sitting next to us at a red light didn't even notice our IS-F. Until the light turned green and we dusted him, of course.
Unlike the German competition, the IS-F isn't a complete rework of the chassis it's based on. It includes no additional chassis stiffening or unique suspension mounting points; Lexus deemed them unnecessary, since the IS's basic structure is shared with the larger GS, which was engineered to carry a V-8 engine and more weight. The truth more likely lies in the fact that, since the IS-F wasn't a planned derivative of the IS from day one, it was simply too late to engineer those changes. That's not to say that Yaguchi's team left the suspension untouched, as the front springs and shocks are a full 90 percent stiffer than those in the IS350, and the rears are 50 percent stiffer. The antiroll bars are thicker, and the ride height was reduced by 0.8 inch.
The IS-F rides on nineteen-inch BBS wheels that are forged rather than cast, saving somewhere around ten pounds each, but the result of all these changes is still one stiff-riding IS. The ride is fairly brutal, so your passengers certainly won't mistake this for a regular Lexus.
Then again, how could they? There are F badges strewn all over the interior, and the hand-finished composite trim, which looks like aluminum in a carbon-fiber weave, is positively stunning. The IS-F's cabin seats only four, but the front passengers are the luckiest, because their sport seats are supremely comfortable and hugely supportive. And there's no need to worry about that missing exhaust note, because you can fill in the acoustic blanks with the optional Mark Levinson fourteen-speaker stereo, one of the best sound systems in the business.
Surely no one will buy the IS-F because of its stereo, so what's it like to drive? On the road, it feels like an IS350 with another 110 hp, a much stiffer suspension, and a transmission that stays in the gear you select. But unlike the IS350, which is a numb and floaty disaster on the track, the IS-F is a tied-down, capable tool, with good steering feel to boot. Quick turn-in masks the weight of the big engine up front, and the chassis loves to settle into a four-wheel drift, corner after corner. With stability control completely disabled, copious throttle applications induce smooth, sweet oversteer. Compared with the tail-snappy M3, the IS-F is a pussycat-albeit a quick pussycat. We wouldn't be surprised to see an IS-F keeping up with an M3 around a racetrack.
But is that enough to turn the IS-F into the kind of icon that the M3 has become? We don't think so. The small sport sedan category is less about track prowess than it is street cred. The M3 has that in spades. Like the C63 and the RS4, it shares precious little of its driveline, suspension, and chassis with the more pedestrian car that it's based on. And, unlike the IS-F's relatively prosaic engine, which seems to have gained nothing from Toyota's involvement in Formula 1 racing, the M3's 8400-rpm V-8 starts its life in the same factory that builds BMW's F1 engines.
The IS-F simply cannot compete with that kind of lineage, no matter how charming it might be that it's the product of an underground skunk works team. Yaguchi's team has fulfilled its mission-the IS-F is so good on the track that you'll still be smiling even when the brakes are on fire.
But that hot-rod mission is one-sided, and the IS-F's potential customers will expect their cars to do more than simply tear up the tarmac on a racecourse. For all the speed the IS-F gained on the track, it lost even more of the ordinary IS's drivability and good looks. And on the streets and in the showrooms, that's what really counts.
V-8 Sport Sedan Smackdown
Twenty years ago, the Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars that created this lunatic-small-sport-sedan category beat up the big-boy sports cars by using highly tweaked four-cylinder engines under their hoods. But now, this segment is chock-full of V-8s. What happened? Weight.
Today's "Baby Benz" C63 weighs just as much as the S-class did back then. The same goes for the M3 - it weighs almost as much as the 1980s 7-series. It seems our baby sedans aren't really babies anymore - they're big, heavy fighting machines. There are now four V-8-powered competitors in this segment.
Here are the cars that the Lexus IS-F will go up against when it goes on sale early in 2008.
The 2004 Audi S4 was the first sport sedan in this class with a V-8. Its 340-hp, 4.2-liter engine made seven ponies more than the benchmark E46-chassis M3, but its heavy all-wheel-drive system meant that it could never quite keep up with the BMW. Three years later, the 420-hp RS4 stunned everyone by besting the six-cylinder M3 not only on straight roads but in the corners, too.
Unlike the S4, the RS4 isn't just an A4 with a big engine and a few suspension tweaks. Its completely revised suspension gives a firm-but-never-harsh-ride, and the V-8 is strong throughout its ultrabroad rev range.
The RS4 is nearing the end of its life as Audi starts production on the next A4. But from behind the wheel, nothing about it feels like last-generation goods. It's still the only all-wheel-drive car here, and unlike the Lexus and the Mercedes, it has three pedals.
The M3's 8400-rpm V-8 makes about as much power as the Audi's but with 0.2 liters less displacement, and its haunting, tenor exhaust note sounds even better. Its well-balanced chassis has a surprisingly easy time coping with all the power, although power oversteer is still very much an integral part of the experience.
Available only as a coupe (at least for now; we expect that a sedan version will debut at the L.A. auto show in late November, followed by a convertible in 2008), the M3 gives up a little practicality to its four-door brethren, and preliminary drives have given us the impression that the brakes arent up to repeated abuse.
Nevertheless, the M3 still owns this segment. Its weight might have ballooned over four generations, and its cylinder count might have doubled, but it has remained true to its manual-transmission, rear-wheel-drive roots.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG
If the rest of the cars here are black cats, the C63 AMG is Pep Le Pew. Not in smell, of course, but in speed. If you recall, the lovestruck cartoon skunk always kept up with his disinterested feline objet damour without breaking asweat, no matter how hard she scrambled, scratched, and oversteered to get away.
It is with exactly such ease that the C63 AMG chases its prey. While the V-8s in the M3 and the RS4 are tuned to within a horsepower of their lives, the AMG engine was electronically detuned for C-class duty, and yet it still makes 148 lb-ft more torque than the M3's.
The seven-speed manu-matic performs perfect blip-throttle downshifts as you enter a corner. Add to that near-perfect chassis balance, spot-on suspension tuning, great brakes, and a plus-size cabin. The C63 might have dethroned the M3 if it weren't missing a clutch pedal.
*Please note that Lexus has just updated its earlier preliminary figures. The IS-F's top speed has been raised to 170 mph instead of the 168 mph indicated in the chart above.