Lexus IS-F, Part 3

Exterior Design: ***
Among the people to whom I showed the IS-F, reaction was mixed. Some absolutely loved it. Others, not so much. I'm right in the middle. Not counting the fab-looking wheels there are three major differences between the steroidal F model and a regular IS. 1) Front end. The brake-cooling inlets both look good and work. The power bulge on the hood however, looks like a dolphin's skull. 2) The brake-cooling vents just aft of the front wheels are my favorite part of the design. 3) The stacked, off-center tail "pipes" look awkward. Worse, they aren't hooked up to the actual quad exhausts. Lexus calls them "sound resonators." We're scratching our head. The other factor to seriously consider is stealth. Unless you know what to look for, the IS-F looks nearly identical to the butch but anonymous IS 250/350. And that's a good thing.

Interior Design: ***
The bulk of the cabin is essentially carried over from the lesser IS models. While a nice break from carbon fiber, the weaved aluminum trim is still on the gauche side. Our real gripes are with the seats and the floppy paddle shifters. While the white leather arseholders (Alpine in Lexus speak) are fantasticly comfortable, and an improvement over the base cars' seating, but a vehicle capable of pulling 0.93g requires a lot more bolstering. The paddles are way, way, way too small. I have large hands and I had trouble reaching them. Also, they move with the steering wheel, which is bad for a number of reasons (like if the airbag goes off with your arms crossed, your forearms will be blown through your skull).

Acceleration: *****
As it is, 371 pound-feet of torque makes this puppy fly. When the transmission is in manual mode, you are controlling the shifts; the torque converter only saps power in first gear. Once you click into second, the transmission connects directly to the wheels. Lexus quotes zero-to-60 times of 4.6 seconds. That's fast by any yardstick. We still claim that with the grip of wider wheels, that number would fall. But is there any way 45 mph to 65 mph in 2.2 seconds is not a five-star proposition? Moreover, the IS-F is so bloody fast there's nowhere within a 25-mile radius of Downtown LA where you can drive it hard for longer than 12 seconds. Just to rub it in, this is one of the best sounding engines in the world. V8 brutality at its symphonic best.

Braking: *****
Ninety stars. Kidding! But if I could give those gigantic Brembos six stars I would. I've never experienced better brakes. Nuff said.

Ride: ****
Lexus was trying to sell us that the IS-F's target audience is WRX/STI and EVO owners that are all growed up and looking for something more serious. Well, despite the lack of turbo boost, all-wheel-drive and a manual tranny, one thing familiar is the extra stiff ride. This ain't your rich aunt's Lexus. Now, I happen to love stiff-riding performance propositions (and own a WRX) most of the time. Hence only four stars. Cause if you do go across broken pavement, your teeth will chatter.

Handling: *****
Probably the most surprising aspect of the IS-F is its handling. I mean, who can't built a powerful engine? But making a car dance, well, that's something else entirely. Especially considering how unsporting the IS 350 is compared to a Bimmer or an Infiniti. The IS-F however, eats up turns. There's a touch of on-center slack in the wheel, but once you start turning in, the steering is quite precise. Like, German precise. We'd love more feedback, but then again we'd always love more feedback. The IS-F can take a scary stupid amount of speed into a corner, and get you out safely around the apex.

Gearbox: ***
That's right, just three. Now, please understand that this is the best automatic transmission I've ever experienced. Better even than my former personal favorite, the Mercedes-Benz 7-speed. And the upshifts are indeed blindingly, addictingly, head-whackingly fast. But here's the issue. All the time you gain by the Ferrari-fast cog swapage is lost when the transmission refuses to do what you tell it to. Hitting an apex out of gear is always going to be slower than shifting for yourself. Also, most of the time the automatic throttle-blipping on downshifts is very cool and very much appreciated, but there times when it isn't. At all. Let's say you want to go from sixth to second. With a manual, you can take your foot off the accelerator to drop the revs and plant the stick in second. Done. With the IS-F, you yank on the down paddle four times and have to wait as the revs match and then die down low enough to allow the tranny to shift again. Remember, when you are close to redline, instead of downshifting immediately, the computer double beeps at you and waits for the engine to slow down. Do not like.

And finally, why eight speeds? Lexus reps explained that the eight-speed unit is essentially the same shape and size as the family six-speed. However, at 70 mph in eighth gear, the IS-F's engine is spinning below 2,000 rpm. Case in point, on a spirited 400-mile jaunt back to Los Angeles, I managed 22.3 mpg. If you actually owned this car, that's huge. All in all, I saw a 17 mpg average. Driven exactly as hard, the last year's Audi RS4 returned less than 11 mpg.

Audio/Video: *****
We heart Mark Levinson and all his stereos. Especially the kind Lexus shoves into the IS. The only video is the fish-eyed backup camera that flashes on when you slip into reverse. Very handy.

Toys: ***
Does the backup camera count as a toy? One nice feature is the ability to see your overall mpg and your mpg for a particular tank of gas. The navigation system is decent and female passengers all loved the seat heaters. But my favorite piece of kit is rather silly. When you flip the tranny from D to M, a big fat digital "F" logo pops up between the speedo and tach. That's all it does, but I love it. Also — check the sunroof-delete box. Saves you 55 pounds up top.

Trunk: ****
Pretty big, considering. By the way, if the IS-F's trunk in any way factors into your decision-making process when considering this car, don't bother checking your pulse. You're already dead.

Value: ****
The bleeding-heart liberal that refuses to ever cross a picket line in me simply cannot give a $60,000 luxury sport sedan five stars for value. I just can't. However, if Lexus can keep the sticker price around $60,000 that's a hell of a bargain and would undercut all the IS-F's major competition by nearly $10,000. Also, remember the reason the IS-F produces 416 horsepower is because the new BMW M3 makes 414.

Overall: *****
I walked into this thing with low expectations. In my head, the notions of Lexus and high performance couldn't even park next to each other. Color me impressed. A perfect car? No. There's too much sound insulation. While lighter than the Audi RS4, it's still too fat. While some will be happy with the eight-speed slusher, kids like me will always yearn for the stick. The rear wheels should be wider. The seats need three times as much bolstering. And even if they were real, I'd hate the stacked, offset oval pipes.

Despite all that, the upstart IS-F is a bona fide prizefighter in a very competitive weight class. Brutally fast, challenging yet rewarding to fling around a bend and sporting brakes to simply die for a great car make. And for those of you who don't drive bat-guano style 99% of the time, the Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hoon split personality of the IS-F might be just what the doctor ordered. Even if the doctor is actually a chiropractor. Hey, we said it rides rough. And we love it rough.

[Part 1, Part 2] [Part 4]