In its continuing attempts to lose a reputation for boring luxury cars, Lexus takes its IS sedan and turns it into an M3 competitor. The 2008 Lexus IS-F uses the same platform as the standard IS line, but gets fitted with a powerful 5-liter engine. Lexus isn't really into manual transmissions, a legacy from its luxury roots, so an eight-speed automatic transmission, similar to the one in the Lexus LS 460, puts the power to the wheels. Lexus knows how to make an adaptive suspension--we've seen it in the Lexus GS 460--but sticks with more traditional sport-suspension tuning in the IS-F. The result is a car that evinces the same dual personality as the BMW M3. It drives like a small luxury car in traffic, but put the power on in the twisties and it lets you get your yah yahs out, with just enough rear-wheel drift to find its way out of the turns.
Although the engine, suspension tuning, and some of the body work is new, the electronics are the same as what we saw in the 2006 Lexus IS 350 two years ago. That car impressed us enough to give it an Editors' Choice award, but times have changed. When we got into the IS-F, we were disappointed to see no traffic reporting on the navigation system and no iPod connection from the factory.
Test the tech: F = fast
With music limited to CD and broadcast radio, we decided to spend more time listening to the engine. During normal driving, with the engine speed at 2,000 to 3,000 rpm, it doesn't sound very impressive--just a quiet purr as it moves the aggressive-looking car around. But kick it up to 6,000 and the note changes dramatically. The sound is pure music to any gearhead, a melodic roar punctuated by each gear shift. To play that music, we ran the IS-F through some zero-to-60 mph tests.
Editors Antuan Goodwin and Wayne Cunningham took turns driving the IS-F up to 60 mph. For our first test, we let the IS-F do the shifting, using the transmission's automatic mode. Goodwin took the wheel for this one, although his input was limited to keeping the wheel straight and flooring the accelerator. And when he did, the car jumped forward with minimal wheel spin, the engine's 371 foot-pounds of torque making the tires bite the pavement under Lexus' traction control system. The engine ticked up, shifting once, and before we knew it, we hit 60 mph, with the computer reading 5.5 seconds.
Then it was time to test the manual shift mode, seeing if we could best the automatic's time. Goodwin stayed in the driver's seat, bringing the car back to its start point. With everything recalibrated and the shifter pulled to the left--its manual shift position--Goodwin hit the gas. Again, the car maintained composure as it jumped forward. Just before redline, Goodwin used the paddle shifter on the wheel to shift up, making the engine drop revs slightly and then pick them up again. Past 60 mph the computer gave a time of 4.77 seconds, an impressive figure.
Cunningham took his turn, setting up the car at the start line. Again a blast off from stop, the car running speedily and the engine making a beautiful noise. Cunningham shifted to second just above 6,000 rpm, short of redline, and was soon past 60 mph. But this effort was slower than Goodwin's, returning a time of 4.85 seconds.
With both manual shift times at well under 5 seconds, we were impressed by the IS-F. We were confident that some practice time would have yielded even better times, coming closer to 4.5 seconds.
In the cabin
Lexus knows how to build a luxury interior, and doesn't skimp out in the 2008 IS-F. An Alcantara headliner, leather seats, and quality dashboard materials let you know this is a Lexus. But performance touches are also evident, from silvery carbon-fiber patterned material on the console to metal sport pedals. The F logo also gets a prominent place on the steering wheel. Lexus also keeps the tech cues, with an engine start button, smart key, and LCD on the instrument panel.
The Lexus IS-F uses a touch-screen interface, with hard buttons on either side of the LCD to access navigation and audio. It's a very intuitive interface with an aesthetic design. The maps for the navigation system are rich and full-color. But while this navigation system was cutting edge in the 2006 Lexus IS 350, now it offers only a minimal feature set. The maps are stored on DVD, although we didn't find it particularly slow to redraw maps or calculate routes. You can enter destinations by the usual means, such as address, point-of-interest, and telephone number. It offers a choice of three routes when you put in a destination.
But it lacks traffic reporting, a feature quickly becoming de rigueur for luxury cars. There is no text-to-speech, where it would read out the names of upcoming streets. And competitors are already adding features such as weather reporting and gas prices to their navigation systems.
Although its Bluetooth hands-free phone system is also the same as that in the IS 350, it's not bad. We had no problem pairing it to our Samsung D-807 phone. But transferring our phone book to the car would have involved pushing each entry one at a time from phone to car. Other phones allow pushing the entire phone book at once.