"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.