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In the style of BMW's M3, the new Lexus IS-F is the brand's toe in the water of the factory-tuner segment -- though it's less like a toe than a fiery cloven hoof. This car started life as a Lexus IS350, a roundly capable and syrupy smooth sport sedan of no great note or interest. Boring, actually. Then it got rabies.
Now the car is very interesting: a rudely bulging front end, a 416-hp mountain motor bolted to a (count-'em) eight-speed transmission, gargantuan Brembo brakes and a suspension stiffer than Dita Von Teese's corset stays.
Pointless? Deeply so. Was there ever an answer to a question so unasked as a hyper-performance Lexus? Still, here we are, and we shouldn't be surprised. The hole in Lexus' bucket has always been high-performance variants to rival the Mercedes-Benz AMG cars, BMW's M-series and Audi's S and RS cars. These cars matter little to a luxury brand's bottom line but mean everything when it comes to landing magazine covers. And, God knows, Lexus -- the haute couture outlet of Toyota -- has the money.
Lexus aspires to sell between 3,000 and 4,000 IS-Fs in the U.S. in the first year, which would make it a very rare car, the automotive equivalent of Zoroastrianism.
A curious historical note is that the IS-F's direct-injection V8 is the same basic motor under the hood of the Lexus LS600h hybrid limousine -- though "basic" it's not. This engine -- co-developed with Yamaha -- hyperventilates like the front row of a Cher concert. Among its performance modifications: titanium intake valves, hollow camshafts, better-breathing cylinder heads and an extra oil-scavenging circuit to keep it all lubricated during high-G cornering. The business end of this unit cranks out 371 pound-feet of obscene, tire-murdering torque at a relatively busy 5,200 rpm.
The engine's most vulgar feature, however, is the dual-inlet intake manifold, found somewhere inside the maze of engine plumbing. If you mash the gas in this car hard enough, this second inlet channel opens and the engine note transforms from a mellow Japanese wooffle to a soul-tingling, lycanthropic howl. Stay off da moorrrs, laddie!
The car also sings. The IS-F is equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission, in which the gear ratio intervals are very evenly spaced. Eight speeds happen to correlate to eight notes of the diatonic scale -- do, re, mi, etc. If you hold the throttle and speed steady, and you shift up and down with the shifter paddles, you can actually coax simple melodies out of the stacked-pipe quad exhaust, for instance, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." And, yes, I get paid for this.
The eight-speed gearbox is truly the heart of this car and the source of its license-losing magic. In manual mode, the lock-up clutch remains engaged in second through eighth gears, so that the automatic transmission behaves like a clutchless manual transmission -- which is to say, when you lift off the gas going into a corner, you get engine-compression braking and big crackling overrun sounds from the exhaust. That's filthy hot. Meanwhile, this is the quickest and smoothest-shifting automatic south of the Porsche 911 Turbo. At full throttle, the gear changes require less than a 10th of a second and are heard more than felt.
Put it all together and you've got a major piece of hardware, but a car of two distinct temperaments. Driven with restraint, the IS-F motors along like any other Lexus: quiet, tractable, with a miles-deep sense of quality (although our test car had a creaky driver's seat mount). Start poking the accelerator and the car wakes up like you've thrown a cat on it -- angry and ready to fight. Hole-shot acceleration is ferocious: zero-to-60 mph goes by a shade over 4 seconds, which is just plain crazy in a four-door sedan with an automatic transmission.
But where this car really shines is in mid-range acceleration. Puttering along at 65 mph in D, tap the right-side shifter paddle four times and bury the pedal. The big, deep-bolstered sport seat gathers you up like a jai alai basket and hurls you at the horizon.
Now you know what a front-side wedgie feels like.
And yet, for all its babbling brook of future tech and inscrutable acronyms like VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management), in one respect the IS-F feels very old school: the low-revving engine. A very annoying warning tone sounds when the revs go over about 6,300 rpm and the fuel cutoff (the redline) is set at what feels like an unnaturally low 6,800 rpm. A warranty protection system? A Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS revs higher. I guess it's a good thing the Lexus has eight gears.
For chassis upgrades, Lexus ordered parts from a stone quarry and Bethlehem Steel. The front and rear spring and shock packages are super-stiff and -- with the wheels tied together by major anti-roll bars front and rear -- the ride quality varies from brisk to brutal. Because the ride height is so low, and the suspension travel so flinty, the car can easily run out of compliance on bumpy roads and get into a jarring, head-tossing, kidney-bruising fit. Also -- as I found out on some of the local canyon roads -- once the suspension travel is used up, the thing will skip and skitter madly through a turn. Never mind development on the Nürburgring, Lexus. Try Latigo Canyon Road.
Otherwise, the handling program is great: The car offers up spectacular amounts of lateral grip on its 19-inch, no-profile Michelin tires. The steering is heavy but tight and precise. On smooth asphalt, the car is more neutral than beige carpet. Switch the VDIM to Sport mode and you can easily rotate the car with the throttle and gather it back up like a hero.
So it kicks like a rented mule and runs like winged Pegasus. It's also a respectable performance value, retailing at $56,000 to start. Am I interested? Well, I'm curious. AMG and BMW's M division have been around a long time. They have built credibility from the ground floor. Lexus seems to want to move into the penthouse right away. There was never any doubt that Toyota/Lexus could graft cojones onto one of its cars. But can it make people care?
2008 Lexus IS-F Base price: $56,000
Price, as tested: $62,000 (est.)
Powertrain: 5.0-liter 32-valve DOHC V8 with variable-valve timing and dual-inlet intake manifold; eight-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; rear-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 416 at 6,600 rpm
Torque: 371 pound feet at 5,200 rpm
Curb weight: 3,800 pounds
0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Overall length: 183.5 inches
EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city, 23 mpg highway
Final thoughts: F for "felony"