2008 Lexus IS-F

Brian Konoske

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.

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