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First drive: Smokin' IS F is the wildest Lexus ever

Rapid: Hottest Lexus packs a 5.0-litre V8 punch, wrapped in velvet.

Lexus finally hands us the keys to its answer to BMW’s M3 – the IS F super sedan

25 Aug 2008

IT HAS been a sell-out success in the US and Japan this year and in little more than two months it will be Australia’s turn to take delivery of the quickest, fastest and most powerful production Lexus ever.

‘Our’ IS F is about to enter production ahead of a November release here and GoAuto was last week among a select group of Antipodean journalists to drive the first local-spec production examples at their ancestral home, Toyota’s Fuji Speedway.

The first serious tilt by the Japanese giant at Germany’s BMW M and Mercedes AMG high-performance divisions was actually conceived by a small band of performance-loving engineers in an unofficial skunkworks led by Yukihiko Yaguchi, who helped develop Toyota’s turbocharged Supra coupe, the first Lexus GS sedan and the first two LS limousine flagships.

Several failed attempts to build a high-performance Lexus, including a 5.2-litre V8-powered version of the previous IS300, preceded the 2004 approval for Yaguchi-san to produce a direct rival for the likes of BMW’s iconic M3 and the bahnstorming Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, using the medium IS prestige sedan as the basis for Lexus’ first high-performance “F” model.

“Our goal was to build a premium sports model with a focus on the engine, to bring emotion to the Lexus brand. The most important thing was not the quickest lap time, but to be the most fun. Getting approval for this model was difficult,” said Mr Yaguchi, chief engineer of the most potent Lexus yet – at least until the LF-A supercar concept reaches production reality.

Development of the IS F took place primarily at Fuji - in the foothills of the mountain that shares its name, on the racetrack whose title and layout start with the letter F – but also included confirmation testing at Nürburgring in Germany, Paul Ricard in France, Belgium's Zolder circuit and Laguna Seca in California.

At the heart of the IS F, which is claimed to be the most heavily tested Lexus to date, lies a 5.0-litre V8 developed from the 2UR-FSE quad-cam direct-injection V8 that powers the LS600h hybrid limousine.

The 900kg-lighter IS F’s 2UR-GSE V8 adds Yamaha-developed “G-type” higher-flow cylinder-heads with electronic “VVT-iE” inlet camshaft actuation, a wider included valve angle, larger titanium inlet valves, higher-lift camshafts, roller rockers with maintenance-free lash adjusters, D-4S direct fuel-injection and a stainless steel dual exhaust system.

Also exclusive to the IS F’s 226kg, Euro 4 emissions-compliant 32-valve V8 is a dual air intake system, tuned-length surge tank, scavenge oil pump, water-cooled oil-cooler and an offset fuel pump with sub-tank to suit racetrack driving. Compression is 11.8:1.

The result is a 6800rpm rev-limit and 311kW of power at 6600rpm, which is 21kW and 200rpm more than the 290kW LS600h V8, as well as 31kW up on the LS460’s 280kW 4.6-litre V8 – both of which it therefore betters with a specific power output of 62.6kW/litre.

However, in performance-per-litre terms the IS F engine falls between its two most direct rivals, with the M3 V8 producing 309kW from just four litres (which equates to 77.3kW/litre) and revving to a stratospheric 8400rpm – almost 2000rpm higher. The C63’s 6.2-litre V8, meantime, produces 336kW at 6800rpm (and has a 7200rpm cut-out) to deliver just 54.1kW/litre.

Of course, the big-bore Benz offers the most torque of this trio with a beefy 600Nm (at 5000rpm), but the IS F’s respectable 505Nm torque peak (at a slightly peakier 5200rpm) represents a superior specific torque output of 101.7Nm/litre (versus 96.6).

The M3, with ‘only’ 400Nm on tap from just 3900rpm, splits the pair with a neat 100Nm per litre. The two-door M3 is also the lightest of the bunch at just 1580kg, however, which translates to claimed 0-100km/h acceleration in 4.8 seconds in manual guise.

The twin-clutch M3 M-DCT is two-tenths quicker to 100km/h at 4.6 seconds, but the 1730kg C63 remains the straightline king with claimed 0-100 acceleration in 4.5 seconds.

Lexus says the 1700kg IS F (which features 54/46 per cent front/rear weight distribution) has bettered than that in testing but, at least officially, its official 0-100 acceleration time of 4.8 seconds matches the manual M3 – despite being available exclusively with a heavily reworked version of the world-first eight-speed automatic that’s employed in the LS and GS Lexus sedans.

31 center imageFitted with an air-cooled fluid cooler and breather, the IS F’s eight-speed “Sports Direct Shift” automatic transmission even runs the same tall (2.93:1) final drive ratio and cooling-finned differential with electronic brake-actuated limited-slip function as the LS, but features full torque converter lock-up in all but first gear in M (manual-shift) mode, as well as in sixth, seventh and eighth gear ratios in D (auto) mode.

The high-tech auto is highly adaptive, has an automatic throttle-blip function during downshifts in manual mode, shifts gears in a claimed Ferrari-matching 200 milliseconds and features larger steering wheel shift paddles than the IS250 upon which it is based, which can also be activated in D mode.

Despite its improved performance, the eight-speed auto contributes significantly to the IS F’s relatively good ADR 81/02 fuel consumption figure of 11.4 litres per 100km – a full litre better than the M3 (11.4L/100km) and more than two litres less than the C63 (13.5L/100km).

The IS F also packs a heavily modified version of the IS250’s double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension systems, which feature a unique calibration via stiffer springs and anti-roll bars plus larger-diameter monotube dampers.

Similarly, upping braking performance is a Brembo brake package featuring monobloc aluminium callipers – six-piston items gripping 360x30mm pillar-fin ventilated discs up front and twin-piston units with similar 345x28mm discs at rear.

Rounding out the mechanical upgrade are unique staggered-size 19-inch BBS forged alloy wheels (one-inch larger than on the M3 or C63 as standard), with a chamfered multi-spoke design that’s said to extract brake heat.

The 19x8.0-inch front wheels are claimed to be 30 per cent lighter than the 19-inch cast alloy LS wheel and wear 225/40-section Bridgestone Potenza RE050A directional tyres, while larger 255/35-section Bridgestones are fitted to the 19x9.0-inch rear wheels.

The IS F features a switchable Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM) system that links its VSC stability control, TRC traction control and ABS anti-lock braking systems, plus the engine management and electric power steering (EPS) systems.

The latter features 2.91 turns lock-to-lock, VDIM modes include Sport, Normal and Snow, and the system can be fully disabled by holding the button for three seconds while stationary. Top speed is electronically limited to 270km/h.

The four-seater IS F is fitted with hip-hugging sports bucket front seats with full leather trim and power adjustment, blue needles for its unique tacho and (300km/h) speedo with machined aluminium surrounds and a 300-Watt 14-speaker Mark Levinson sound systemAustralia’s version will also include radar-operated active cruise control (ACC), the Lexus Pre-Crash System (LPCS) and eight airbags including front knee airbags and full-length side curtains). Apart from six exterior colours (including one metallic hue: black) and three interior colour schemes, the only option will be a sunroof.

The IS flagship is differentiated from its lesser siblings by a full sports bodykit comprising an aggressive front bumper with mesh grille and F-shaped lower air inlets, a bulging aluminium bonnet, side skirts, a subtle rear spoiler, wing mirrors that eschew the facelifted IS model’s repeater-equipped items and a deeper rear bumper with a pair of vertically-stacked oval-shaped chrome exhaust outlets on either side. The IS F has an aerodynamic drag co-efficient of 0.30Cd.

Lexus Australia is still negotiating its retail price for the IS F with head office, but currently holds around 40 orders on the basis of a $150,000 pricetag.

Final IS F pricing depends on those negotiations and the outcome of the proposed luxury car tax hike, which currently sees the C63 sedan priced at $144,365 and the M3 coupe costing $162,900 - just shy of the high water mark set in this class by Audi's storming (but sadly discontinued RS4 sedan).

BMW has delivered 420 M3 coupes so far this year and in December the two-door will be joined by a direct rival for the IS F and C63 sedans - the four-door M3, which is expected to be priced around $145,000.

Mercedes-Benz plans to sell 550 examples of the C63, which arrived in March, for the whole of 2008.

About 50 IS Fs are expected to be sold this year, at a price Lexus hopes will be competitive with its two key rivals, after which supply will be limited to just 10 examples a month.

Drive impressions:

FIVE years in the making, Lexus finally has a fitting performance flagship - not just for its mid-size IS sedan model line, but for the premium division of the world’s biggest car-maker as a whole, which has hitherto offered plenty of luxury but not much in the way of performance. Not in the German sense of the word, anyway.

As the first no-holds-barred performance model from the notoriously cautious Japanese giant, and a direct rival for highly accomplished German stalwarts like the M3 and C63, the IS F pushes the right buttons in most of the areas that matter.

Okay, so it lacks the M3’s trick launch control function and conventional manual transmission, and despite bigger standard alloys and the striking air-extracting go-fast vents behind its oversized front wheel-arches, the IS F bodykit looks more tame than game beside the C63’s slammed-down-and-pumped-out stance, and the M3 coupe’s carbon-fibre/plastic roof.

Slide into the driver-focussed, leather-clad interior of the IS F and, if the cosseting and supportive fully-electric (and heated) front buckets don’t do it, then the carbon-look centre console, blue-needled 300km/h tacho and F badging on the seats and steering wheel differentiate the F flagship from garden-variety IS models sufficiently enough without being too overt.

Unlike the M3’s fat tiller the leather-trimmed IS F steering wheel falls nicely to hands and its up-sized shift paddles are discreet yet tactile and a cinch to use: the left-side paddle changes down, the right side changes up.

The IS F’s twin rear bucket seats offer enough legroom for full-size adults but aren’t as generous in terms of headroom, though there is a centre armrest and rear ventilation outlets to compensate. And it goes without saying that the familiar Lexus hallmarks of attention to detail, impeccable fit and finish and even the unmistakable smell of Lexus leather have not been overlooked here.

Finger the start/stop button and the 5.0-litre V8 thrums into life with an audacious burble not previously heard from a road-going Lexus. The strict 60km/h pitlane speed limit at Fuji Speedway is enough to hear the dramatic change in engine note at the secondary induction system takes over from 3600rpm.

In the LS600h hybrid limo, this 5.0-litre engine is smooth as silk and barely audible, but in the 900kg-lighter IS F it rumbles like a German V8 when opened up. Linear yet characterful, the tailor-made V8 offers off-idle throttle response that approaches the hairy-chested C63 off the line, even if it can’t match the 6.2’s sledgehammer midrange – just as it’s stronger than the M3 down low but lacks the Beemer’s banshee-like top-end.

Change ratios via either the console lever or the paddle shifter and even in Drive mode you’re greeted with a rapid-fire change as it snaps into second gear without the expected torque converter slur, ready for instant acceleration or, if you’ve followed the three-seconds-at-standstill stability control disabling process, tyre-smoking sideways action.

Select Sport mode and the eight-speed auto’s gearchanges become Ferrari-quick, at the expense of being more abrupt than the C63’s seven-speed self-shifter. This is easily the most aggressive conventional automatic we’ve driven, and on a few occasions seemed to shift as more instantly and violently than a twin-clutch M3 or 911 does under full noise.

For all intents and purposes it’s an automated manual transmission that only slips its clutch in first gear in Sport mode, yet transforms back into a slusher in D mode, which is everything most buyers will probably ever want or need – and that’s something we thought we’d never say.

Straight out of the LS600h, the overall gearing is tall, however. We saw about 240km/h at the end of Fuji’s 1.5km front straight as we briefly snicked sixth gear. With two overdriven gears going begging, the IS F should easily surpass its electronically governed 270kmh top speed to crack 300km/h, given enough road.

With the 6800rpm rev-limiter ending the fun almost 2000rpm sooner than in the M3, the IS F lacks the high-rpm rush of the mad M3 V8, and nor does its feel as muscular or flexible as the AMG V8, which offers 95Nm more grunt but weighs only 30kg – and delivers a similar 500Nm of torque from just 2000rpm.

There’s not a great deal in it it, but a shorter final drive ratio would improve the IS F’s straightline acceleration and midrange punch - at the expense of fuel consumption, which at least on paper is one of its strengths. With 400rpm fewer revs to play with than the Benz (whose 6.2 V8 is limited to 7200rpm), it would also make the IS F V8 spin up so quickly that the audible shift warning chime would become an invaluable feature.

While the IS F was firmer than we expected and maintained a surprisingly flat attitude even when forced hard and deep into corners with alacrity at Fuji, we’d be surprised if its ride quality was as compromised on B-roads as it is in the M3 and, even more so, the C63. But there’s no sign of the M3’s variable damping technology.

The well-weighted and perfectly progressive electric steering was a confidence-inspiring ally around Fuji’s high-speed sweeper, especially in Sport mode which allowed a sizeable (but perhaps not an M3-sized) amount of opposite-lock attitude before throwing out its seamless, unobtrusive and super-consistent safety blanket.

But both of Fuji’s tight, late-apex hairpins showed up the IS F’s lack of turn-in precision compared to either German, as well as its far more pronounced bias towards understeer, which arrived so early under brakes it would make even an E36 M3 driver look for stickier, wider rubber.

Alas, despite wearing larger 19-inch tyres as standard, Lexus the 225/40 front and 255/35 rear rubber (one size smaller than on the M3) is the widest that will fit within the IS F’s wheel-arches.

Combined with the Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres that will come standard on Australian versions (rather than the stickier Michelin tyres it will be sold with elsewhere), our IS F simply doesn’t have the grip to see which way even a moderately well-driven M3 went.

That said, despite lacking the BMW’s 50/50 weight distribution, at Fuji the IS F felt extremely well balanced, well sorted and neutral enough to get away with stunts few M3 drivers would attempt.

More forgiving at the limit than the M3 yet just as stable at speed as the C63, the IS F possesses a certain suppleness the others don’t share, but retains predictable, progressive and adjustable under power mid-corner.

Lexus engineers say they wanted the IS F to deliver 911-style driving thrills that didn’t necessarily produce the fastest lap time but offered the most fun, and it’s clear they’ve succeeded in making a car that will not just make bad drivers feel fast, but reward punters of all skill levels at all speeds.

There’s no question the IS F delivers similar upper-echelon performance to that offered by its closest rivals, but the same user-friendliness that stops it creating a new class benchmark in terms of outright acceleration and dynamic ability also makes its performance more accessible to more drivers.

As the new Japanese sports sedan benchmark, the IS F is an impressive first effort from Lexus that lacks the bottom-end barrage of the C63, the top-end flurry of the M3 and the pedigree of either German model. Rest assured, BMW fans: the M3 remains king of the class dynamically, just as the C63 retains its reputation title as the most brutally ballistic.

The IS F will undoubtedly bring a whole new breed of customer to Lexus showrooms, however, and may even draw some away from BMW and Benz dealerships in their search for a longer warranty, better customer service or just something different.

Throw in shorter overall gearing, more grip and a lower pricetag, and the IS F would almost certainly be the most compelling high-performance compact sedan alternative ever seen outside the established Teutonic square.

Read more:

Lexus IS-F to match Benz C63 benchmark

Melbourne show: Lexus tempts with LX570 and IS-F

First look: Lexus slides V8 under IS bonnet

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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