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Car reviews - Lexus - IS - IS F sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Outstanding racetrack performance, V8 go and growl, slick eight-speed auto, comfy seats, refined cabin, practicality, affordability, value for money, likely Lexus reliability
Room for improvement
Persistently fidgety road ride quality, infernal foot-operated parking brake, hidden stability control switch, cabin’s lack of occasion

12 Nov 2008

FORGET what you might expect a BMW M3 rival to be like. Forget that this wears a Lexus badge. And forget what you might have read in overseas drive reports.

It’s time to lose the baggage that might otherwise outweigh a very, very competent compact sports sedan that is the Lexus IS F.

This car is as much a part of the Japanese culture of street racing and drifting as it is a luxurious Lexus.

So the fact that Toyota’s Luxury EX-port US department has managed to reconcile performance and refinement as harmoniously as it has in this – its first production-car attempt – is absolutely remarkable.

Consider this: apparently, without the electronic speed-limiter, the IS F can almost crack 300km/h.

Or that world-class racing car driver Scott Pruett – and Lexus ambassador, it must be said – drove a stock-standard IS F around Melbourne’s demanding Phillip Island racing track with incredible poise and control as well as speed, powering through the apexes, bends and hairpins with astounding ease.

The German M, AMG and RS cars do too, with varying degrees of excellence, and some do it with more feel, or finesse, or veracity, but then you would expect them to. The Lexus, on the other hand, surprises you with its deep well of talents.

Off the track, nothing changes. Go for broke and one of three things will happen.

With the VDIM stability and traction controls on, a pleasingly long safety leash is there so you can have some tail-out fun turn that off and you have to be ready to catch and control the awesomely powerful car you are man-handling or you will not realise how fast you are going until it is probably too late.

The latter is important to keep in mind because, engine note aside and left in Drive, the IS F doesn’t feel all that especially fast off the mark. But it is deceptively quick, and easily piles on the miles at a rate of knots only a big V8 in a relatively compact, lightweight car can.

Push Sport and the change-up points lengthen, the steering smartens up and you have a resounding soundtrack to goad you on. Selecting the manual shift has you hitting the rev-limiter in no time, making rapid-fire gearchanges via the large paddle shifts (the floor shifter is too close for comfortable use), and in no time the Lexus is thundering down the road with a rapid determination.

In fact, it's something akin to a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG in, well, Lexus clothing. Which is no faint praise.

The eight-speed automatic is a great transmission, modified from its creamy-smooth application in Lexus limousines to do duty in its most aggressive iteration in the IS F, in which it offers instant torque converter lock-up from second gear onwards - effectively making it even better than a seven-speed auto or even a double-clutch autmated manual.

It does a god job of wearing enough hats to satisfy most drivers' needs and wants and, really, with seven reasonably closely-stacked speeds, a moon-shot eighth assisting as a super-overdrive and 505Nm of torque sloshing about from very low revs, there is much to explore and plenty of scope to have fun. But don't go looking for an M3-style launch control feature.

Whether you would like a slightly quicker (electrically-powered) steering rack is up to the individual (we would), but overall steering feel and response is very well resolved for the sports/touring duties that this Lexus is likely to be used mostly for.

Unfortunately the drive route was virtually devoid of twisting roads, so we can’t really tell you how natural or flowing the IS F’s handling and roadholding really is.

What we can reveal is how busy the ride feels on rural Victorian country roads that were admittedly some of the worst that could have been chosen. Fidgety on some surfaces and downright busy on others, the IS F’s unsettled demeanour irritated most occupants expecting Lexus-levels of suppleness.

We didn’t get a chance to sample the Lexus around town, but the constantly jiggling ride quality out in the country doesn’t auger too well for it in our capital cities.

The suspension is clearly biased toward the racetrack, and this is where you will be pleased how toweringly capable the IS F really is. Away from it, this is a real try-before-you-buy scenario.

Will potential buyers care, given this is a car that operates within the M3 performance envelope?

Interestingly, a Lexus engineer said a ride fix is on the way sometime in the next two years, as running changes and modifications are rolled out.

The interior is not gaudy in the way that German performance cars can be, and there’s an impression of both slush-moulded soft-feel quality and high comfort levels in equal measure.

But surely Lexus could have done more than lay down plastic-looking carbon-fibre trim, fit blue tacho/speedo needles and install a quartet of sports seats to differentiate a vehicle that is around 2.5 times the price of a base IS 250? We hear that if the IS F continues to be the sales success that it has been over the last 12 months, then Lexus’ management will green-light extra development dollars to devise greater differentiation.

The console shifter might be awkwardly positioned, but the paddles are perfectly placed. However, what on earth was Lexus thinking in putting the vital VDIM and Normal/Sport/Snow buttons where you might find the steering column adjuster?

And that foot-operated parking brake is nothing short of an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, as Lexus’ first focussed performance sedan, the I SF absolutely shines as a civilised racetrack hoon, even if it doesn’t match the ultimate precision and finesse of BMW’s (soon to be four-door too) M3.

But ferocious on-road performance, safe and incredibly easily accessible driving dynamics, and all the refinement of other Lexus models make this a highly appealing and amazingly well priced alternative.

Yes, ride quality is an issue - even more so than with the still relatively expensive C63 - that needs to be fixed, and a greater sense of occasion in the cabin would be appreciated inside, but otherwise we think Lexus has pretty much nailed this multi-layered compact performance car in its first go.

For many folk out there, the fact that it doesn’t feel like its German rivals is a good thing. At last Japan provides a real choice in the premium sports sedan sector and for that we are pleased.

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