REVIEW DATE: 12 Nov 2009
Until quite recently, Lexus didn't have any track record to speak of when it came to sporting cars. Today, we've the LFA supercar but the model that really showed that the brand could mix it in the true performance league was this one, the IS F. The latest Euro 5 compatible-version is even faster courtesy of a clever Torsen limited slip differential and suspension tweaks. Jonathan Crouch reports
Trying to go where the BMW M3 and the Mercedes C63 AMG currently reside is the transparent mission of the Lexus IS F and, on paper, the latest Euro 5 version looks to have the tools for the job, especially with the addition of a Torsen limited slip differential and some clever suspension tweaks. With a 417bhp V8 up front, the IS F is no makeweight but simple badge equity may still count against it.
In launching this car, Lexus set itself quite a challenge - but then, the brand has never been shy of taking on those. As a first stab at a market dominated for years by German heavyweights, it was pretty close and you can expect the gap to continually narrow between this Japanese brand and its Teutonic rivals. Lexus' engineers have a whole series of improvements planned for this car over the next few years and we've already seen a few. The addition of a Torsen limited slip differential has been followed by a whole raft of suspension changes - featuring on the IS F model you can buy right now.
How much difference, we wondered, could all this make to the Lexus IS F's performance? Two seconds a lap around the Fuji International Speedway is apparently the answer. Replacing the conventional differential has produced a significant increase in traction and stability in high speed cornering, resulting in the vastly improved track times achieved by Lexus's test team. Sixty is 4.8s away en route to 168mph.
The compact Torsen LSD is capable of handling the 500Nm-plus of torque produced by the IS F's V8 engine, and automatically diverts drive torque to the rear wheel with the most grip, for example to the outside rear wheel when cornering. The unit uses low viscosity multigrade oil to reduce bearing rolling resistance and oil agitation resistance when the oil temperature is low, and a friction adjuster has been added to suppress the stick-slip phenomenon when sliding the car and to improve quietness.
"As a first stab at creating a state of the art sports saloon, the original Lexus IS F was extremely good. This one is even better.."
In other respects, the IS F's powertrain remains unchanged: its 5.0-litre V8 engine generates 417bhp at 6,600rpm and 505Nm of torque at 5,200rpm, working through an eight-speed Sports Direct Shift. This is an impressive transmission. Yes, there's a fully automatic mode for when you're noodling through traffic but otherwise it's that rarest of things - a genuinely purposeful sporting auto. Suspension spring rates have been stiffened by 100% compared to ordinary IS models and the IS F features a two stage stability control system with a Sport mode that allows adventurous drivers a little more leeway before the electronic cavalry comes over the hill.
And those clever suspension changes? Well, the front and rear coil springs and shock absorbers have been revised to improve ride comfort. The rear suspension geometry has also been tweaked to gain greater stability under higher loads when accelerating, braking and cornering. The result is all-round advances in damping control, cornering stability and steering response.
The IS F isn't the most overt styling job, but the exterior changes made over the standard IS are well judged, now enhanced thanks to the fact that the intensity discharge (HID) headlights are now paired with trendy LED daytime running lights, configured to echo Lexus's signature arrowhead styling motif. The IS remains a very smart piece of design and the dynamic makeover of gently bulging wheel arches, four tail pipes, anthracite alloy wheels and air vents in the trailing edge of the front wings gives it just the muscle it needed without lapsing into cliche or caricature. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the interior which falls a little flat in the visual drama stakes. Yes, there is a smattering of carbon fibre, paddle shifters peek out from behind the steering wheel, there's a drilled pedal set and the instrument needles are finished in blue, but some beefier seats wouldn't have gone amiss, nor would a classy alcantara-trimmed steering wheel. Still, some effort has been made in the latest versions: the instrument binnacle has been redesigned, placing the tachometer and gear shift indicator in the centre of the display. New dark silver carbon fibre-style trim details have also been added.
At 1716kg, the Lexus IS F is quite a hefty piece of kit but you'll feel reassured every time you feel the doors thunk shut. It feels a good deal more substantial than an M3 and, if the company's JD power customer satisfaction scores aren't to take a sudden and unexpected lunge southwards, that impression of quality is far from superficial. In terms of space, those in the front are well catered for but the rear seating area and boot are less amply proportioned.
One body style and one engine. IS F customers aren't going to be bewildered by choice but they certainly may be left stroking their chin when their friendly dealer comes up with a figure against which they will be expected to sign. The IS F is more expensive than the BMW M3 coupe and comes within a few thousand pounds of the awe inspiring Nissan GT-R, a car that targets even mightier fare such as the Porsche 911 Turbo. Had Lexus been able to offer the IS F for around £45,000, it would have been a bolt-on success but it's hard to see many people being swayed to the Japanese ingenue against the formidable competition histories of BMW and Mercedes.
Equipment levels remain strong though, as you'd expect from Lexus. Massive 360mm diameter front brake discs with six-pot calipers, 19-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport boots and the additional cost of that massively sophisticated gearbox all help to explain the hefty asking price. IS-F customers also get eight airbags, twin-mode stability control, traction control, brake assist and brakeforce distribution. Security too is out of the top drawer with locking systems to confound the cleverest crooks.
You can't have everything. Buyers spending in excess of £57,000 on a super saloon will still have to foot the associated bills and in the case of the IS-F, just as with its luminary rivals, they will be big. Fuel consumption is supposed to be 24.8mpg on the combined cycle but if you replicate that on a regular basis, then you probably shouldn't have bought this car in the first place. CO2 emissions are hefty too at 270g/km and insurance is a top of the shop group 20.
As a first stab at creating a state of the art sports saloon, the original Lexus IS F was extremely good. This one is even better. As before, perhaps its biggest obstacle to success may be badge equity. For those not overly concerned with a premium German badge on the bonnet however, this car makes a satisfying and rather unique choice. Here's a rare car that offers a very appealing blend of everyday utility, huge performance and metronomic reliability. Is it the most exciting choice in its class? Probably not, but if you're buying rather than trying, it might just be the one you'd most like to own.
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