The night following our first day with the Lexus IS-F, after our own Wes Siler managed to procure two trashcans full of beer, a bunch of us auto-journo types sat around telling war stories involving crochet mallets (don't ask). After we'd laughed most of the oxygen out of the room, I asked the question, "So, what do you guys think of the IS-F?" For a moment the room went quiet. People began blinking then looked to the person next to them. The towering Brian Scotto, editor-in-chief of 0-60, was first to speak, "Great brakes," he said. And within moments, all present were agreeing that, yeah man, the IS-F has absolutely killer brakes. And not much else.
Let's rewind. Our first day driving the IS-F involved a scenic, albeit congested, drive through Carmel Valley. It was a strained affair. My companion on the morning drive, representing a lifestyle mag, finally and quite forcefully begged me to slow down! So I took the downtime to compare the IS-F's interior to that of its less-tweaked sibling, the IS 350, which I had driven the day before. They seemed identical, save for an absence of air-conditioned seats, radar-guided cruise control and nav system on the IS-F. The seats did feel a tad more snug.
Soon, though, we arrived at Laguna Seca, where we teamed up with Skip Barber instructors. During the first lap we were told to keep the IS-F's VDIM system in Normal mode with the transmission in D. It was tedious. Remember, behind all the fab tech and ultra-lightweight forged aluminum wheels, the IS-F is a Lexus - i.e., a luxury cocoon. Sure, there's a secondary air intake that opens up at 3,600 rpm, making the engine growl. True, we took the back stretch at 8/10ths, but I felt totally isolated from the machinery.
On the next lap, we switched it into Sport mode, began pullin' the paddle shifters and goodbye tedium. While the computers are instructed to ease up on nannying, the best thing about Sport mode is much quicker throttle response that really uncorks the engine. There's still enough electronic interference to prevent Top Gear style drifting. Considering it was my first time attempting Laguna Seca's infamous Corkscrew, that was fine by me.
Once alone with the IS-F, I switched everything off. That added about 30 seconds to my lap time. I was constantly hanging the back end way out. Fun? Hell yeah, but with only 255 tires out back and a propensity to oversteer, I was spending way more time counter-steering (or, more accurately, attempting to) as opposed to getting her straight and whacking the throttle. With so much torque available at all times in all gears, fatter meats would both help handling and launch times. Back with the VDIM in Sport mode, I ripped off about a dozen more laps, trying my hardest to make heads or tails of the ludicrously short-geared transmission. Long track-day story short, with 371 ft-lb of torque, you simply don't need eight gears. Four would be plenty.
The paddles move with the steering wheel, so on the back side of Laguna Seca — where it is turn, turn, turn and turn — I could never find the damn things. The Ferrari/Maserati solution, where huge, never-moving paddles are connected to the column, would make much more sense on the track. One last tranny gripe — if you are too close to redline and pull the down paddle, you hear a double beep which is the computer's way of telling you no. But as the revs eventually slow, it does downshift and blip the throttle, which spins you into the rev limiter, ensuring more beeping, less power and at least in my case, a middle finger aimed at the center tunnel. Lots of swearing, too.
If it sounds like I wasn't exactly smitten with the IS-F on the track, you have good ears. And I wasn't alone. Wes was wandering around the paddock shaking his head no. The rest of us were trying to figure out the difference between third gear and fifth. Yeah, the IS-F did some things real well (straight line speed + stopping), but it just felt out of its element. In fairness to the car though, I can't move on without mentioning the exquisite brakes. On one lap, I actively tried to grenade them, just drop kicking the center peddle again and again and then again. They didn't give an inch. No fade, no drama, no weird over/under-boosted ABS skittishness — no nothing save constant, mega, all-day stopping power.
The next day I woke up early and took an IS-F for a drive through a nature preserve on a private road. Was this even the same car? On the track I felt insulated from the tarmac and confused/frustrated by the technology. But today, the IS-F seemed perfectly paired with the road. The power was satisfyingly overwhelming, and with the sunroof cracked a bit I could hear the mesmerizing, viscous growl of the engine. Suddenly the chassis was composed and nimble, the paddle shifters made total sense and the brakes, well, the brakes were still completely stellar. To underscore how great the IS-F felt, I burned a quarter-tank of gas in 20 miles. I convinced Scotto to drive the same route and after he returned, he stepped out of the car and said, "That road's better than the Nürburgring Nordschleife." And while he agreed with me that the IS-F felt super duper extra great, was it the car, or the Carmel Valley Nordschleife?
Turns out it's the car. I found a not quite as superlative but still challenging stretch of twists and turns in the hills above Berkeley. If my passenger, who squealed and hissed and yelped the entire time, is any indication, the IS-F is a Japanese joy-buzzer. Over the ensuing week I made passengers scream, holler, carsick, beg me to stop and howl with delight and glee. As for me, the driver, I was always in control, pushing it and pushing it harder and harder and never being let down. Not by the engine, the handling or the brakes. The transmission started to make sense and I've even got a callous on my middle finger from ripping the up-paddle. Lexus is practically doing handstands to convince you that the IS-F has legitimate track credentials. Why bother? No 3,774-pound sedan is a good track-day proposition. But, as a back-road carver, no sedan is better.