Having gotten used to cars with iPod and USB drive connectors, we found the in-dash six-disc changer in the IS-F kind of quaint. The only means for connecting an MP3 player is through an auxiliary jack in the console. The changer can play DVD-audio discs and MP3 CDs, so you can load it with quite a bit of music. XM satellite radio and an iPod connection are available as dealer accessories, but we wouldn't expect the integration to be very good.
What music we could play came through an impressive 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. This system has a centerfill in the dashboard, tweeters, mids, and woofers on each side in front, tweeters and woofers on each in back, and two mids and a subwoofer in the rear. The 300-watt digital amplifier and digital signal processor create 5.1 surround sound. Clarity is excellent with this system, although the bass isn't particularly strong. We found the system well suited for orchestral works, where detail is important.
Our car also came with a couple of driver aids, the most prominent being the adaptive cruise control. This system lets you set the car's speed, but will match the speeds of slower cars ahead. We tested it on a freeway with moderate traffic and found that it worked very well, even to the point of not overreacting when a car cut in front of us. Our only complaint about the system is that the controls are on a small stalk below the steering wheel, making it hard to see how you are supposed to activate it. Further confusing the issue, the button to adjust your following distance is on the steering wheel. We would prefer if the cruise controls were all on the steering wheel. The IS-F also has a back-up camera, which comes in handy, but there aren't any advanced features, such as guidance overlays.
Under the hood
The whole point of the 2008 Lexus IS-F is the engine, a 5-liter V-8 monster with variable-intake and variable-exhaust timing, using direct and port injection for efficient and smooth running. The result is 416 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 371 foot-pounds of torque at 5,200 rpm. As we noted in our acceleration testing, the engine makes a beautiful sound out of its quad exhaust pipes when the tach needle gets above 5,000. At lower rpms the engine takes on a luxury car character, barely intruding on the cabin, due to the port injection taking over at lower speeds.
Lexus built some high-performance tricks into this engine; for one, using oil and transmission-fluid coolers to keep overall heat down. Likewise, a cylinder head-oil pump pushes oil back into the pan, preventing loss of oil pressure during repeated high G cornering.
The IS-F's transmission is pretty remarkable, an eight-speed automatic designed for quick shifts. In automatic mode, it shifts up pretty quickly, ensuring low engine speed and good fuel economy. Press the gas down hard and it delivers upshifts at around 5,000 rpm, and with this engine you won't get above third gear under these circumstances unless you have a long, clear straightaway. But we also found that automatic mode isn't useful for sport driving, as the transmission doesn't aggressively downshift. Hit the brakes before a corner, and you will probably be in fourth on the way out of the turn. Manual mode is required for any aggressive driving. Change gears using the shifter or the steering-wheel mounted paddles and you're treated to very fast gear changes, maybe not on par with the Mercedes-Benz C63's automatic, but still very workable.
In the corners, the IS-F responds like a rear-wheel-drive car should, giving just a little drift from the rear wheels so you can pivot quickly on a turn. We observed similar behavior from the BMW M3. The IS-F uses Lexus' collection of road-holding gear that goes by the acronym VDIM, which stands for Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. VDIM uses vehicle stability programming along with antilock braking technology and the electronic power steering to adjust the car's performance based on sensor input from the wheels and body. VDIM is adjustable, with a rocker switch letting you choose from Normal, Sport, or Snow modes. Snow will give you the safest ride, while Sport loosens things up considerably, letting you drift the wheels out closer to the edges of control. If you are really proficient and confident, you can also turn it off entirely.
In practice, the IS-F was more than able to work the turns. We ran it over our local roads, places where we could challenge it with some hard cornering, and it handled like a dream. The steering was precise, and on the sharper corners we could feel the rear wheel drift. On public roads, it is very hard to tax this car--it will be at its best during hot laps on a track.
Usually, this type of performance comes at a price. We're used to fuel economy of around 15 mpg from cars of this caliber. But the IS-F gets a rating of 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway from the EPA. We observed a tank average of 18.3 mpg while we had the car, and an overall average of 20.1 mpg from the car's previous 5,000 miles. Those are impressive figures, and largely can be attributed to the eight-speed transmission. Even more impressive, the car gets a ULEV II rating for emissions from the California Air Resources Board.
As a high-performance model, there are few options available for the 2008 Lexus IS-F, but Lexus does make you pay for the cabin tech. The car's base price is $56,000, but the navigation and audio system package adds $3,990. Adaptive cruise control costs $2,850, and destination charge is $765, putting the total for our car at $63,605. You will pay about the same for a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, and probably a little more for a BMW M3, but the IS-F will cost less for gas in the long run.
We like this car's looks, the performance additions to the standard IS body showing that it is something special. And the electronics interface in the cabin is usable and aesthetically pleasing, earning the IS-F a good mark for design. It also earns a top mark for performance, a rating helped along by the decent fuel economy and emissions rating. But we do have to ding it for not having aggressive automatic downshifting on the transmission. Cabin tech is the only area that lets this car down in the ratings. The stereo sounds great, and it has all the right pieces, but most are far from cutting edge now.
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