What does the F stand for? It's a question we were asked a lot during our year with the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2013/lexus/is_f/index.html">Lexus IS-F</a>, which has F badges scattered liberally over the exterior and throughout the interior. Their quantity is perhaps not surprising, as F is what designates this as a special model, one that is quite different - and a lot more expensive - than the IS250/350 sedan on which it's based. You wouldn't want people confusing the two.
Other brands have used letters - such as R, S, M, V, and AMG - to identify their high-performance variants, but <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/lexus/index.html">Lexus</a> chose the letter F. The official rationale is somewhat convoluted: "Internally within our corporation, the F designation has signified specially designed vehicles, high-output powertrains, and development processes outside the norm," says <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/toyota/index.html">Toyota</a> PR man Craig Taguchi, adding that the Lexus project was internally known as Circle F and the original LS400 was called F1, for Flagship One.
In the case of the IS-F, it could also stand for Finally. After all, it took nearly two decades from the launch of Toyota's luxury division before Lexus saw fit to introduce a high-performance model. But never mind its official origins. After we settled in for a yearlong stint with the IS-F, we usually gave the obvious answer: F is for Fast.
Is it ever. And we couldn't help drinking from its deep reservoirs of speed. "I ran the IS-F up to triple digits on a deserted stretch of I-196," wrote one staffer during the car's first few weeks in the office. "It got there very quickly and the car was rock solid - and it felt like it still had more to give." Well, it did. In our performance tests, we reached an electronically governed top speed of 170 mph. We also recorded a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds, just fractionally slower than our Four Seasons <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/audi/index.html">Audi</a> RS4 (4.6 seconds) and the most recent <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2013/cadillac/cts/index.html">Cadillac CTS</a>-Vs we tested (4.4/4.5 seconds, automatic/manual). It's also right in the mix with the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2013/bmw/m3/index.html">BMW M3</a> (factory figures of 4.5/4.7 seconds, automatic/manual) and the claimed time for the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/mercedes_benz/index.html">Mercedes-Benz</a> <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2013/mercedes_benz/c_class/c63_amg_sedan/2990/index.html">C63 AMG</a> (4.3 seconds).
As in all those cars, a big V-8 has been stuffed into a small sedan's engine bay. Seen elsewhere in the LS600hL, the 5.0-liter is modified for IS-F duty, pushing output from 389 hp to 416 hp at 6600 rpm, although torque drops by 14 lb-ft, to 371 lb-ft. Among the changes are new cylinder heads - courtesy of Yamaha - with titanium intake valves, hollow camshafts, and an oil-scavenge pump that expeditiously returns oil to the pan, ensuring adequate supplies during high-g cornering. A two-stage air intake opens a second passage at 3600 rpm, triggering a change in the engine note from mild to wild. Some editors thought the V-8's Jekyll-and-Hyde sound track was odd and contrived, but New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman said he "loved the sound of the V-8 when all hell breaks loose."
The engine is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission, also from the LS sedan. Here it includes a manual mode, a sport mode, and shift paddles - the latter usable with the gear lever in either M or D. In manual mode, the shifts are ultraquick, the engine matches revs on downshifts, and the torque converter stays locked in gears two through eight. In drive, you have the operation - and shift smoothness - of a conventional automatic. The best of both worlds? Sadly, no.
The conventional automatic aspect works exceptionally well. As senior Web editor Phil Floraday put it, "The <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2013/bmw/m3/index.html">BMW M3</a> and the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/mercedes_benz/index.html">Mercedes-Benz</a> <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/99/2013/mercedes_benz/c_class/c63_amg_sedan/2990/index.html">C63 AMG</a> have nothing on this car when driven for smoothness." Added executive editor Joe DeMatio, "I found it almost mesmerizing to count the very quick, very smooth upshifts as I pulled away from stop signs." On the flip side, the manual mode's shifts are plenty quick. But some drivers wished for a performance-oriented middle ground between the plush, but slower, automatic shifts and the quick but harsh manual action. "This car has two very distinct personalities," noted Floraday. "There's a very demure <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/lexus/index.html">Lexus</a> when the transmission is in auto and you drive normally. Then there's an insane track car when you switch to manual mode. I just don't see much middle ground to keep an enthusiast happy on a daily basis." Actually, there is a sport button, which is supposed to change the shift mapping, but no one felt that it made a noticeable difference. We contrasted its operation with that of the seven-speed automatic in the C63 AMG, which is a mind reader during fast driving.
The transmission modes were a pretty subtle issue; more often, drivers wondered whether eight speeds were simply too many, especially since the gearing mimics that in other Lexus models, with so many of the top ratios bunched together. Cruising in eighth means slapping down through four or five gears to make a quick pass. Of course, the upside to all those tall ratios is impressive fuel economy for such a fast machine - both in the real world (we got about 21 mpg) and in EPA tests, where the IS-F, unlike its German competitors, evades a gas-guzzler tax. "If you don't like the eight-speed automatic during fast driving," suggested one commenter, "just leave it in manual mode and don't use the top two gears."
Unfortunately, there's no similar workaround for the suspension, which is in ultra-hard-core mode all the time. It's perfect for the track, where West Coast editor Jason Cammisa had a blast flogging an IS-F at the car's launch - so much so that he ended up being the lone apologist for the car's ride quality: "The suspension does beat you up a bit," he admitted, "but in around-town driving, it's fine, and it's exactly what buyers of this car will want." Others weren't so sanguine. "I was surprised by the harshness and searched in vain for the button to the nonexistent comfort setting," said DeMatio. On the crumbling highways of our fair Midwest, we found that the IS-F (which has a one-inch-lower ride height than the standard IS250/350) could crash against its bump stops repeatedly. More surprising was the way it managed to deliver a bouncy ride even on roads that appeared smooth, as the hyperstiff springs easily overwhelmed the dampers.
Despite the busy suspension, the wide Bridgestone Potenzas (225/40YR-19 front, 255/35YR-19 rear) kept us well connected to the road. Their ample footprint combined with indefatigable Brembo brakes to haul the IS-F down from 70 mph in only 159 feet. The nicely weighted steering also earned kudos, praised for being "confident and quick to turn in." Interestingly, not a single driver commented on the sport button's change in steering effort. When dancing on the ragged edge, we also appreciated the ability to switch off the stability control completely, but a few drivers were cranky about the fact that the IS-F doesn't come with a limited-slip differential. In less extreme, but no less intense, maneuvers - say, negotiating the weekend mob scene at Costco - the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/lexus/index.html">Lexus</a> won points with its tight turning circle and rearview camera.
The rearview camera is part of a $3990 package that includes navigation, Bluetooth, and an excellent Mark Levinson sound system. Your perch for enjoying the fourteen-speaker concert is a highly bolstered sport seat, which most found comfortable and a key component of the generally faultless ergonomics. The back seats, though, are tight, and a rather pointless plastic tray divides the cushions, making the IS-F strictly a four-seater. At first blush, there isn't much in the cabin to denote this as a superpremium machine (one with a base sticker price of $56,765), but the longer we lived with it, the more F emblems and special blue trim bits revealed themselves, and the interior's overall quality is high. So, too, was the overall quality of the car, as reflected in its problem-free service over 25,322 miles, a commendable result for such a high-strung machine.
As to the exterior, many questioned the aesthetic merits of the changes visited upon the IS-F - the wider front fenders with their massive gills, the longer front overhang and swollen hood (necessary to accommodate the big V-8), the nineteen-inch wheels with their smoke gray finish - but the total package had undeniable impact. "People seem to know they're looking at money and speed," said Kitman after piloting the IS-F in and around New York City for a couple of weeks. Particularly in our test car's livery of ultrasonic blue mica, the IS-F is far from the typical, shy, retiring <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/lexus/index.html">Lexus</a>. It's an intense and, in places, highly successful attempt to vault into the demanding realm of the extreme sport sedan. As technical editor Don Sherman wrote: "The IS-F is exceptional in two key F categories: fast and fun. Zigging through traffic, thrashing a winding road into submission, or shredding speed limits, this ride is tough to top." As you'd expect from a company as serious as <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/toyota/index.html">Toyota</a>, it hits all the hard points; but, as you also might expect from a first effort, it falls short in some of the subtleties. Nonetheless, we can get behind Sherman's closing statement, "The IS-F's burning essence should be infused in every other Lexus with a sporting intent."
6138 mi: $0
11,921 mi: $168.07
17,337 mi: $108.34
23,095 mi: $250.81
14,521 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Bridgestone Blizzak LM-25 winter tires, $1169.61
24,457 mi: Mount and balance stock tires, $108.55
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.23
($0.99 including depreciation)
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; BBS forged aluminum wheels; air-conditioning; dual-zone climate control; keyless entry; power windows, mirrors, moonroof, and door locks; tilting/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; front, side, and side curtain air bagsOur options
Headlamp washers, $100; navigation/Mark Levinson package, $3990; intuitive parking assist, $500; preferred accessory package (trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks), $210; XM satellite radio, $486
*Estimate based on info from kbb.com and edmunds.com
A compact footprint, a straight-six engine, and rear-wheel drive made the 2001 <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/used_cars/11/lexus/is300/index.html">Lexus IS300</a> a direct competitor to the <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/bmw/index.html">BMW</a> 3-series. The current, follow-up version arrived five years later, in the fall of 2005 as an '06 model. It switched to V-6 power and - like the 3-series - offered two models, the IS250 (204 hp) and the IS350 (306 hp). But <a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/new_cars/01/lexus/index.html">Lexus</a> had nothing to match up against BMW's M3 until the arrival of the IS-F, which debuted at the 2007 Detroit auto show and went on sale in February 2008. In an effort to raise the profile of its F sub-brand, Lexus created an F line of performance accessories for the IS250/350 and recently added items for the GS350 and the new IS convertible as well.
<a href="http://www.automobilemag.com/am/2008/lexus/is_f/index.html">2008 Lexus IS-F</a>