Lexus IS F – 2008 First Drive: At one time or another, be it as a youngster with friends or while sacked out watching HBO on a dreary weekend, we’ve all watched one of those cheesy high school flicks in which the main character, in highly dramatized fashion, sprouts from a wallflower into the sudden focus on all the cool kids’ attention. The scenario varies, but usually includes a John Cusack look-alike knocking out the varsity quarterback, saving the prom queen, or drawing the delirious admiration of drunken teens as he pounds out some serious guitar licks at a party he had to sneak into.
This extension of established expectations is found beyond the bounds of straight-to-DVD movies, a fact proven with the launch, literally and figuratively, of the 2008 Lexus IS F. About two decades have passed since Toyota introduced American consumers to its newly-created premium brand, one that’s transformed from a slightly-veiled Japanese version of Mercedes-Benz to a class-leading favorite among car buyers seeking everything from entry-level IS 250 luxury to top-notch coddling from the capable LX 570. Aside from the Cadillac Escalade EXT pickup, Lexus had a competitor for most all segments. But there was something missing. Without any true performance models, luxury buyers intent on filling their garages with serious horsepower, handling prowess and muscular styling dismissed Lexus and filled their day test driving a BMW M3, Audi RS 4, the Cadillac CTS-V, or another equally capable sedan.
Enter the 416-horsepower IS F. You know, the baby Lexus that looks like it’s been off its be-nice medication for a few weeks, wears hardware with names like Brembo, and uses a unique secondary intake system to announce to all within earshot that the reservation list has been permanently amended. In other words, consider the luxury sport sedan party crashed.
Like the kid who has his breakout moment at the school dance, the IS F demands that we all view Lexus in a new light. Even so, is the IS F ready to hold the spotlight all on its own? Not quite – it’s fast, capable, comfortable, flashy, and competitively priced, yet it requires front end styling less reminiscent of a swollen nose and more of the “it” factor. But if Lexus’ history of success is any indication, we shouldn’t have to wait long.
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The Basics: Model Mix
With one trim and only a few options available, the 2008 Lexus IS F is perfect for car shoppers who dislike an abundance of choices. The list of standard features is quite long, including items such as rain-sensing windshield wipers; bi-xenon adaptive headlights; and a memory function that controls the heated exterior mirrors, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and heated, 10-way adjustable front sport seats. As you might expect, there’s also leather upholstery, the same 13-speaker sound system found on lesser IS variants, an MP3 jack, keyless ignition, and the usual bevy of goodies like power windows and door locks.
For shoppers desiring a bit more, Lexus offers the IS F with an optional 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound system pushing 300 watts and incorporating a six-disc CD/DVD changer; a touch-screen navigation system that features Bluetooth connectivity, voice activation, and a rear back-up camera; an intelligent cruise control system with pre-collision technology that tightens the seatbelts and readies the brakes for what it senses as an unavoidable collision; headlight washers; and a park-assist system.
Lexus has priced the 2008 IS F at a cool $56,765, including a $765 destination charge. That’s about $20,000 more than a base IS 350 and $25,000 more than an IS 250. Clearly, the performance and visual flash associated with the F nomenclature don’t come cheap, but what might be more significant is how the IS F’s window sticker measures up amongst its classmates, the likes of which wear M, AMG, and RS badges. BMW has announced pricing for the redesigned M3 Sedan, which will come in at about $55,000 and the Audi RS4 sedan rings up at about $67,000 (Mercedes-Benz has not published pricing for its IS F fighter, the upcoming C63 AMG). With those figures in mind, it appears that Lexus IS F, while not exactly marked for the bargain bin, hits lots with a competitive price.
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What’s New: Outside
If you happen to catch the 2008 Lexus IS F whistling by at its top speed of 170 mph, there’s little likelihood that you’ll notice the visual cues that distinguish it from the IS 250 and IS 350. You’ll need to find one at rest to pick up on the F badges; 19-inch BBS forged-aluminum wheels rolling on 225/40 and 255/35 rubber front and rear, respectively; flared rocker panels; and a more pronounced rear spoiler, below which are vertically-stacked quad exhaust tips. But those modifications are relatively subtle compared to what’s been done up front. To accommodate the F’s larger engine, the hood features a noticeable bulge and the fenders have been widened to give the sedan a much more aggressive appearance while making room for upsized vents directly behind the front wheels. At the heart of the styling tweaks is an F-specific face that employs a larger grille with mesh inserts, a more pronounced bumper, and gaping lower air intakes with round fog lights serving as bookends.
In contrast to the exterior, the IS F’s interior is treated to less obvious modifications. Unlike the IS 250 and IS 350, the F version is dubbed a four-passenger sedan, a designation deemed appropriate thanks to a rear console that makes the center hump wholly unsuitable for even the plumpest of derrieres. Up front are sport seats featuring more substantial bracing and padding along with F badges on the outer edges and embroidered into the head restraints. Unique instrumentation includes gauges with blue LED illumination, while the sportiness factor is upgraded with aluminum pedals, blue stitching that complements the backlighting, and aluminum composite (read: fake) trim decorating the center dash.
Under the Hood
Lexus may be new to the world of luxury hot rod sedans, but even this newbie understands the bare essentials – lots of power, an intoxicating engine growl and exhaust note, and stout hardware designed to keep the whole package in line. To that end, the rear-drive IS F packs a 5.0-liter, 32-valve V-8 with direct injection pushing 416 horses at 6,600 rpm and 371 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,200 rpm. Redline is achieved at 6,800 rpm, and the EPA suggests drivers will record 16 mpg in they city and 23 mpg on the highway. Those are decent numbers provided in part by an eight-speed automatic transmission sporting a manual mode and paddle shifters. Backing up the powertrain are double wishbones up front and a multi-link setup under the rear, each with high-rate coil springs and upsized stabilizer bars. The speed-sensitive steering can be switched into sport mode for even more responsiveness; Brembo drilled rotors, about an inch larger than the stock discs found on the IS 350, work with high-friction pads that aim to bring the 19-inch alloys to a quick and sure stop.
When the needle’s pegged at 170 mph, you want to make sure you’re in a car packed with every conceivable safety feature. The IS F comes close with front-side airbags, knee airbags, side-curtain airbags, a tire pressure monitor, and a host of other technologies such as traction control, stability control, antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake assistance, and Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which works with all of these components to keep the IS F on the road. Also available is the optional pre-collision system. The regular IS, on which the IS F is based, has received top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
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Driving: Lexus IS F, Lake Las Vegas, Nevada
Just a short drive away from the 24-hour glitz and “glamour” of the Vegas Strip is Lake Las Vegas, an affluent and well-manicured community that affords its residents and visitors a breathtaking view of the entertainment city’s skyline. It’s a place we called home for a few days while testing the all-new Lexus IS F, and as luck would have it Mother Nature coated the valley’s surrounding peaks with snow as we slept, proving that Nevada’s inner sanctum of sin can actually be quite beautiful. That type of scenery complemented the lake’s floating ice rink and the chilled air blowing across the desert. For people who want to enjoy Vegas action during the day yet escape after hours to a coddled and quiet place of rest, the Ritz Carlton at Lake Las Vegas is worth considering.
We skipped the city altogether, but the Ritz’s comfortable surroundings ensured we were well-rested and prepared for long days of romping along the perfect pavement found in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Our particular hot rod was coated in Ultrasonic Blue Mica, a color specific to the IS F, and came fully loaded with the Mark Levinson sound system, touch-screen navigation system, and more.
Until now, the 350 was the fastest IS variant, hitting a top speed of 142 mph and reaching 60 mph in only 5.6 seconds. That kind of performance is more than enough for even the most aggressive daily commuter, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the 416-horsepower IS F, which uses its bullish V-8 engine to score 170 on the top-speed-o-meter while passing the 60 mph mark in only 4.6 seconds. Obviously, anyone planning a test drive of the IS F needs to cleanse their mind of all they’ve come to know about Lexus, and prepare to introduce their senses to a new side of this Japanese luxury brand.
It starts with a tap of the push button ignition, followed by a healthy rumble emanating from the exhaust and a view of the speedometer and tachometer needles doing a full rotation before returning to their resting positions. Put some pressure on the oversized Brembos, slip the eight-speed tranny into drive, check the mirrors, and pound the go pedal with all your might. Make sure to hold on tight, as the IS F launches with tremendous authority, marked by negligible squat as the transmission glides through all its gears and the V-8’s secondary intake opens wide at about 3,600 rpm with an unmistakable roar. This is one of those cars that will indeed push you into its well-bolstered seats.
Impressive, yes, but some of us demand more control over our rides. The IS F satisfies that need, as well, thanks to the automatic transmission’s manual mode operated via up/down shifts on the gear lever or sizeable paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. If you’re having too much fun and lose focus, a single beep tells you its time to shift up and a double beep means you’ve got to get the rpm lowered before executing that downshift. Transitions are smooth, and Lexus suggests that in automatic mode they’re accomplished in 0.1 second – we didn’t pull out the stopwatch, but our gut reaction would seem to back up this claim. For those times when you and your IS F are stuck traveling amidst the masses, there will be time to appreciate the linear action of the throttle and the seamless operation of the transmission in regular ol’ drive, making this Lexus genuinely suitable for work and play.
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Driving: Ride and Handling
If modern sport sedans were singularly about grunt, Lexus engineers could have bolted in the 416-horsepower V-8 and called it a day. Problem is, that’s not the case – today’s hot rods need to tackle corners with the same tenacity as drag strips. To accomplish this, the 3,780-lb. IS F packs a performance nut’s dream collection of handling hardware, including Brembo discs and calipers and high-rate coil springs fastened under all four corners. The result is a luxurious four-door that feels immensely stable at speeds best reserved for the oval, provides impressive grip by aggressive 19-inch rubber on gradual sweepers, and offers a minimal amount of body roll in tight turns. Push the IS F real hard at high speeds and the front end will unleash a bit of understeer, but it’s hardly enough to truly complain about, and to its credit, the ride during gentle commutes is a bit stiff but well short of jarring. Turn off all the traction control systems and the IS F will wag its tail with ease, not to mention allow its driver to execute one helluva brake stand.
Without the benefit of track time, we were left to test the IS F’s limits on deserted roads, and we determined that any limits regarding capability will almost always be imposed by the driver and not the car. Simply put, unless you’re a regular on the F1 circuit, the IS F will never leave you wanting. Part of that is due a speed-sensitive steering system offering plenty of feedback and response in normal mode, even more so when the Sport button is pressed behind the steering wheel, and those well-modulated Brembos that slow things down in a hurry. After a few days of abuse, the upsized discs never exhibited any shuddering or fade, though there was a coarse feeling transmitted through the brake pedal after repeated hard stops. We’d be content with the stock stoppers, but word is a ceramic brake package will be available for drivers desiring the ultimate in brake components.
Since the 2008 Lexus IS F is designed to be driven with more enthusiasm than the regular IS, the front seats feature a stronger frame and a substantial bump in side support. In hard corners the driver and front passenger are kept relatively still by the thick bolsters, yet the 10-way power adjustable seats are soft enough to be plenty comfy while stuck in traffic or traveling for hundreds of miles at highway speeds. Of course, the inclusion of multi-setting heat, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and padded door sills and armrests helps, too.
In terms of room, there’s enough to accommodate a wide range of body types up front, but the rear seat, limited to two passengers with the addition of a standard center console, is tight, especially when long-legged friends are riding shotgun. If you’re looking for a sports car that will transport you and three of your buddies or family members in comfort, the IS F is a better choice than a two-door coupe, but don’t be surprised if full-grown rear seat passengers start asking “Are we there yet?”
Controls for the IS F have been carried over from the IS 250 and IS 350. Equipped with the optional touch-screen navigation system and Mark Levinson sound package, we found our tester’s primary buttons to be within easy reach and very intuitive. Those on the door panels were also laid out well, as were the steering wheel-mounted buttons. If we were to make changes, they’d include the inclusion of a simple fan-speed dial and not controls buried in the touch-screen display, and heated seat buttons included with the climate controls instead of being placed forward of the gear lever.
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Advice: Selling Points
Shoppers considering a luxury sport sedan will find a lot to appreciate in Lexus’ first attempt at meeting their needs. Among the highlights are the 416-horsepower V-8 with its vicious intake growl, a smooth and quick-acting eight-speed automatic transmission that’s ready for interactive fun or a tranquil ride to work, Brembo brakes that are all business all the time, and a modified suspension system which offers a pleasing balance between a comfortable ride and sports car handling. Then there’s technology such as eight standard airbags and an optional pre-collision/intelligent cruise control system, and a base price that makes the 2008 IS F highly competitive amongst its well-known competitors.
After a long bout of testing, we discovered that as much as we loved the aggressive sound the secondary intake makes whenever the tachometer needle climbs north of 3,600 rpm or so, well, that aggressive sound comes out whenever the tachometer needle climbs north of 3,600 rpm or so. There are times when you want to simply drive or have a conversation not interrupted by an explosion of noise from under the hood. Granted, that may be a rare request, but it’s something to consider. There are also the tight rear quarters, admittedly more of an issue for those along for the ride than they would be for you, the lucky driver.
Lexus has set some serious competition in its sites as it aims to put the IS F on the shopping lists of car buyers considering the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, and Audi RS 4. Based on pricing for the 414-horsepower M3 and 420-horsepower RS 4, the $56,765 Lexus is well positioned on the affordability scale, and those 416 ponies under the hood put the IS F right on par with the German heavyweights. But for you domestic fans, or horsepower junkies in general with superfluous quantities of cash, the updated 550-hp Cadillac CTS-V soon destined for public consumption will certainly demand equal attention.
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Test Vehicle: 2008 Lexus IS F
Base Price: $56,765 (including a $765 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 5.0-liter V-8
Engine Horsepower: 416 at 6,600 rpm
Engine Torque: 371 lb.-ft. at 5,200 rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Curb Weight, lbs.: 3,780
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 16/23 mpg
Length: 183.5 inches
Width: 71.5 inches
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Height: 55.7 inches
Legroom (front/rear): 43.9/30.6
Headroom (front/rear): 37.2/36.7
Max. Seating Capacity: Four
Max. Cargo Volume, cu.ft.: 13.3
By Thom Blackett
Photo credit: Lexus