Lexus IS F: A genuinely awesome car
Italians have given the world treasures like the Ducati 916, Riva V8 speedboat and the Gaggia Classic. And even though Germans alphabetise their neighbours' junk mail for recreation, and Dumb & Dumber is considered a drama over there, we still love them. Because of Porsche 911s, BMW Batmobiles and Mercedes 300SL Gullwings.
The Japanese though… Well, they bow, a lot, live in their office cubicles, they're extremely disciplined, anxious, really smart, organised and they're experts in maximising efficiency. Their greatest achievement is the Toyota Corolla. Oh dear…
Of course the world's ultimate car would be designed by the Italians, engineered by the Germans, manufactured by the Japanese and marketed by Americans. The Lexus IS F is none of those. Well, it's one of those actually.
The Lexus IS F is utterly, devotionally Japanese. But it's not shy, it bows down to nobody, lives wherever it damn well pleases, thinks efficiency is 14mpg and is as disciplined as Sid Vicious.
It's impeccably well built, Orientally styled and more reliable than its homeland's high-speed rail network. It's also the first time Lexus has done anything close to a performance car — no, the SC definitely does not count and the LFA came after. Maybe that's why it looks so harmless. Well, compared to a C63 AMG which is just about ready to burst at the seams from all the testosterone. The IS F is basically an IS in styling, with a slightly more aggressive front splitter, a bigger bonnet, flared arches, a Gurney flap and 19in smoked alloys which look like shurikens wrapped in Bridgestones. Oh, of course, how could I forget the stacked quad exhausts; rather ridiculous, but they growl like grizzly bears on heat. Seriously, eyes closed, you'd swear on your Abu Dhabi Grand Prix VIP pass that you're listening to a rip snorting Yank big block. Running on nitromethane.
But even more intoxicating than the thunder shooting out the back is the piece of Japanese wonderment sitting up front under the aluminium bonnet. It's the 5.0-litre V8, found in similar form powering the Lexus LS 600h. Only here, Yamaha did the honours tuning the head and extracting 416bhp and 503Nm of torque. No surprises there, as that company is a bit of an old dog in the world of high performance engine tuning, even though you normally associate it with the two-strokes powering your rubber dinghy. But let me remind you that Yamaha was responsible for Ford's 220bhp aluminium V6 two decades ago, the supercharged 2ZZ-GE in the Lotus Elise's bay as well as Eighties and Nineties F1 engines. Another neat difference between the LS's lumpand the IS F's 6,800rpm screameris a scavenge pump, which ensuresa steady supply of oil even whenyour hooning exceeds cornering forces of 1g.
Now here is the big upset; Lexus chose an automatic gearbox instead of the trendy double-clutch jobbies. Everyone knows automatics are for pensioners, so what's it doing in an M3 baiter? All the right things, it seems, because it's flawless during normal driving and isn't even over endowed, despite eight ratios. So this is an eight-speed automatic, swapping cogs with the urgency of a twin-clutch 'box… Almost. The differences are so minute anyway, you'll never notice. And during hard driving the ratios are geared so that you only really use six of them, meaning it behaves like any other car and you don't need a brain the size of a watermelon to remember which gear you're in. Because things happen pretty fast in an IS F…
The IS F is, of course, lower than your average IS, with double-wishbone suspension, stiffer dampers and hollow anti-roll bars. It has a mechanical LSD, big brakes with six and two piston aluminium Brembos front to rear, as well as 225/40 and 255/35 tyres. Put the last three paragraphs into a blender, and you get a milkshake from the abyss. Or Japan, which in this case turns out to be the same thing…
Driving the IS F is like spending the day with a chronic schizophrenic. Firstly, it does everything you expect of a Lexus and I can't agree with some of my peers that an M3 rides better on its stern runflats. Yes, the suspension is a little busy, sort of like a rocking chair strapped to a jackhammer, but I've heard phrases like ‘bone jarring' applied to the IS F! You want bone jarring? Drive an A4 or any fast BMW. Fine, the IS F is bone jarring… fora Lexus. But bone jarring for a Lexus is still like sleeping on a cloud of marshmallows.
So it covers that bit just fine, thank you, also throwing in wide American-sized seats, supple leather, all the infotainment bits you'd expect and a great little steering wheel. The 2011 model has some nice updates too, such as the tacho now sitting proudly in the middle of the instrument console. The only downer is rear passenger room which can't match its rivals, but most people will be laughing so hard when you take them for a spin, they won't care about their deforming feet.
Then the road opens up and the schizo comes out — the typical Japanese persona hides in its cubicle, and some kind of sick manga horror movie leaps out. Every time you shoot over four thousand revs, an extra set of speakers joins the rig of that V8, gouging out your ears with pleasurable pain. So you strive to keep it in that sonorous note, running out of road more often than succeeding. This is because the IS F feels faster than it is due to its relative compactness and engine note, and it's rapid enough on its own anyway with brutal and instant in-gear acceleration and a 4.8-second sprint to 100kph. The chassis is so wonderfully compliant and communicative and surprisingly enough, so is the assisted steering which never lies about its intentions. Still more impressive are the Bridgestone Potenzas which are unbelievably sticky, but don't have much life in them as a drawback. They never squeal, even when the tail finally gives up. Actually I shouldn't say ‘finally', because the tail will give up quicker than France. Thankfully the chassis and steering tag team let you know exactly what's up, so you can easily make adjustments and let the diff help you on your way out of the turn. It's still a nervous drive at the limit, and not as easy to control as the less powerful M3.
I'd say the Bimmer offers no advantage in feel, but does in suspension settings, which are stiffer, and weight distribution. Presumably Munich's best would go quicker around a lap of Yas, but it certainly doesn't offer the best of both worlds like the Lexus.
In the IS F, the grip is definitely limited to the tyres, suggesting that there are still improvements left in the chassis and suspension set up to match the performance of the rubber. So it could be even faster, but Lexus wants you to be able to drive this car every day, with bulletproof reliability which its rivals simply can't match.
Yet the most prominent characteristic — yes, this is a Lexus with character — of the IS F is simply that it's so much fun to drive. It's edgy, sure, but even when pottering about, that engine is always ready to pounce, the steering constantly in attack mode. It can feel like a sportscar when sitting still, and cosset like a Lexus when ripping up soft tarmac through yet another slide. It's a Japanese muscle car basically, and it's been years, in fact forever, since anybody has done a muscle car right. Because if the Japanese were making muscle cars back in the Sixties, we'd have had some that actually went around corners.
The thing is, this is the first time Lexus has ever done this, and it's not just beginner's luck — it's a great achievement to take on M and AMG and run them this close out the box.
The IS F is a genuinely awesomecar that shows the world an entirely new, mischievous side to the Japanese. Their carmakers havenever challenged this class of car before; there is no other sports saloon from the Land of the Rising Sun. This is it, people. And it's as good as they come.
Lexus: smooth, comfortable, reliable, inconspicuous. Lexus ISF: psychotic, brash, edgy, monstrous. Dejan Jovanovic is smitten. Images: Christopher List
America's answer to European engineering is a 21st century muscle car offering a horsepower for Dh530. In other words, a supercharged 6.2-litre V8 making 556bhp for Dh295K. It's a huge step up for American chassis design, but still can't cut it in an M crowd. Can't beat the value though; Dh295K.
A BMW M3 saloon may be the ultimate all-round car in the world, but it's not without faults: an extremely stiff ride, artificially super-heavy steering and a general feel world's away from the traditional M3 characteristics. An M3 is more like an M5 today, but it's still brilliant. ‘Only' 414bhp from a free-revving 4.0-litre V8. Dh345K.
Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG
6.2-litre V8, 457 hp at 6,800rpm and maximum torque of 600Nm at 5,000rpm. What do you get? A slithering beast that's Europe's way of doing muscle. It offers all the amenities of a Mercedes-Benz but in devil's clothes. And with the AMG Performance Package, you can crank it up to 487bhp. DhXXX.
This British bomber is healthily resurrecting Jaguar's image with a sublime supercharged 500bhp 5.0-litre V8, good build quality, wonderful design, stylish detailing and much improved resale value. It's definitely the softest in this group of cars (and quite expensive) but taking 4.7 seconds to reach 100kph, it's no clouch. Dh390K.
Yukihiko Yaguchi is an engineer, but not just any kind of engineer. He goes to work in a race suit — figuratively. Yaguchi's love affair with driving hard is one of the main reasons for the IS F's existence. For the 30 years he's been at Toyota, he's dreamed of building a proper driver's car. Sure, he's worked on the turbocharged Toyota Supra, but even that didn't scratch his peculiar performance itch.
So, beginning in 2004, he worked on the side grabbing every spare moment he could to develop the IS F. His special "Skunk Works" team was an under-radar group of speed-addicted rogue engineers who went so far as to recruit the help of Yaguchi's old friend Takaaki Kimura, who worked on Yamaha's Formula 1 engines. The result is the sublime 5.0-litre V8 packing 416bhp. Once done, the team tested the IS F at the legendary Nürburgring Nordschleife, Circuit Paul Ricard, Zolder, Laguna Seca and Fuji Speedway. Fuji is actually the IS F's home circuit and its turn one inspired the shape of the F-logo design. Yaguchi finally stopped dreaming, and started driving. Hard.
Powered by a tuned 5.0-litre V8 engine, the Lexus IS F also utilises a fantastic eight-speed automatic transmission. We needed serious convincing that it's in fact an automatic and not a double-clutch automated manual. In manual mode, shifts take just one-tenth of a second and the gears hold to 6,800rpm. And during normal conditions it's as smooth as a baby's bottom.
As for the 416bhp masterpiece up ahead, it makes its peak at 6,600rpm with a specific output of 83.2bhp/litre. This engine shares its basic structure with the Lexus LS 600h powerplant, but Yamaha took care of the 100 or so additional horses with high-flow cylinder heads featuring a lighter valvetrain with forged cam lobes on hollow camshafts which serve as oil passages. The forged crankshaft is mirror finished to minimise friction between the connecting rods and the crank. An electric motor alters intake cam phasing, while hydraulics control the exhaust valves. There is also an oil scavenger pump which means you never starve the cylinder heads, even during heavy cornering exceeding 1g.
Specs & rating