DRIVEN: 2009 Lexus IS-F

Written by By: Dave Pankew Photos By: Mike Gazda on .

More Sport than Sedan

The undisputed heavyweight of sports sedans hailing from Bavaria never had cause for concern for over two decades of dominance. BMW enjoyed years of being on top of the list when executives were shopping for luxury and style with a heavy dose of performance out of four doors – times have isf-side1_optchanged. While we hate to make the cliché comparison with BMW sport sedans, they are the benchmark that spawned the entire sector. And other manufacturers have had to deploy teams of engineers to play catch-up. Although Lexus has had some spirited sedans since their inception in 1989, there has never been anything remotely close to the legendary M cars.

When Lexus tossed their hat into the ring at the Detroit Auto Show there was no mistaking that the IS chassis overhauled with F-upgrades meant business. Without even reciting the specs, it was visually obvious the compact sedan would be a threat. And that threat was directed squarely at the new M3. While it may not be tailored to be the M3s equal in every aspect, it is an excellent first attempt.

The similarities are not a mistake, they are just a shade over $5000 apart in their base price and the power ratings are separated by an insignificant 2hp! At $64,450 the IS-F is quite a deal but one will really have to ponder the purchase to see why they would select it over the renowned M3 at $70K. However, the spoiler in both Lexus and BMW programs is certainly the C63 AMG. Mercedes saw their “Low-400” and raised it a solid “451horsepower and 443lb-ft.”

But without having the opportunity to test the M3 and C63 at the time of publishing, we’ll stick to the merits of the IS-F. And what a wealth of meritsisf-tach_opt there are. Our tester came in the trademark IS-F blue that has been carried throughout their entire campaign for the car. The interior was a silky off-white perforated leather with rich black carpeting. Picking the car up in the evening and having the interior splashed in the bluish LED lighting Lexus has an interior design reminiscent of a luxury condo. The kind of luxury interior that might make you feel guilty that your soles aren’t clean enough.

A quick walk around revealed the power bulge hood and air flow vents aft of the front wheels. These vents were not active though which did surprise us that it was only an aesthetic touch…tsk-tsk. And the same goes for the rear quad stacked tail pipes which we appreciated for their unique styling but missed the mark considering they aren’t even connected. The balance of the exterior fit and finish was impeccable as were the stunning 19-inch forged gunmetal wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sports sized in 225/40R19 and 255/35R19.

The IS-F commanded attention wherever it roamed. It would cause the average guy to break stride with his girlfriend and several junior exec types went well out of their way to chat us up. In our experience, it was evident not one person above mid-30s seemed remotely interested in the IS-F. It isf-1_optwas almost as if it didn’t exist to generations above because when we passed silver-haired businessmen driving German sedans, they didn’t even glance over.

This phenomenon might have something to do with the younger generations’ appreciation of all the technological wizardry and dynamic advancements in the IS-F. Lexus has been touting their World-first 8-speed automatic as the next best thing in terms of keeping it in the powerband and saving fuel. Well, in a way the Sport Direct Shift is an amazing piece of machinery: smooth, quiet and versatile. In another sense it was confusing because with all that versatility, one never knows what gear you need when you want to stomp on it. There is a bit of a curve to figure what gear is going to deliver power when needed but the benefit of having highway cruising well under 1500RPM was huge. Then of course the blip in the throttle negating the need to rev match helps keep momentum and 0.1-second upshifts are near perfection.

The V8 motor shoe-horned into the IS chassis was phenomenal. It was eager to please and has a total split-personality on either side of 3600RPM. Below the threshold, the car is tame, composed and purrs around the city with ease. But flip the switch above and a second chamber in the airbox opens up and the Yamaha 5.0L aluminum mill growls to life. And it just keeps on coming all the way to the 6600rpm redline. For us though, we would isf-fenderbadge_optlike a second map added to the program that just left it in ‘growl-mode’ all of the time but I’m sure the aftermarket will pounce on that. This quad-cam powerplant features titanium valves, matted to the patented VVT-iE variable valve timing for maximum response and economy. It has a special oil scavenging system that allows for seamless lubrication even under extreme cornering and drifting … yes the IS-F boasts that as well.

Any sport sedan worth squat better bring the A-game in the handing department. The IS-F was blessed with improved rigidity and strategic bracing to keep the car in check. The dampers are electronically controlled (in addition to everything else) with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM). The VDIM is a sophisticated system that coordinates the: brake system, VSC TRAC, steering assist and engine torque. The IS-F integrates a ‘SPORT’ mode that allows for sharper steering controls and snappier transmission response. The new mode allows for the dynamics to stretch the limits further than that found in the IS350 and it can also be switched to over-ride. The market wanted it and Lexus obliged to turn it off completely. The end result is the ability to pull off some huge uninterrupted smoke-filled drifts as evidenced on YouTube. Since we just weren’t insured for that sort of thing, it wasn’t attempted. But should you get into any trouble trying, the Brembo-manufactured 6-piston brakes with 14.2-inch rotors aided by 2-piston / 13.6-inch rears matched with Lexus Brake Assist will kill any drama. We yanked the chain on this fiery 3780lb sedan down to a complete stop in only 124ft.

The ride is taut and obviously not designed with the same intent of the IS350. It didn’t bottom out on any of our city streets and the squatting associated with all that torque or dive associated with all that brake force was livable. Toss it into a corner and the IS-F is fairly flat and composed as you can induce some oversteer where needed.

Lexus finally has a contender but is the purchase price going to hinder its market performance? The sport sedan buyers are going to decide the future of the IS-F and now IS owners can buy F-Sport upgrades separately.

isf-rolling_optOn to where we see Lexus really starting to excel, the interior treatment. Our IS-F was equipped with the Levinson system as well which was also installed in our IS350. The sound immerses you with such intensity that you truly get removed from where you are. The sound-proofing is so comprehensive and the volume so immense that it really is an experience. All of the controls are found on the LCD screen mounted in an ideal spot on the dash. The cluster is an appropriate hyper white with blue needles that sweep on start-up. The center pf the console features the vehicle information system outlining all of the multitudes of data the IS-F uses. The silver carbon fiber-esque treatment and ‘IS-F’ embroidery on high-bolstered power seats all equated to an experience nothing like its IS siblings.

The straight-line performance of the IS-F was impressive. We hooked up our V-Box GPS-based performance meter and did several 0-60mph runs with traction control on and off. Some of the best runs concluded in 4.7-seconds with the traction control disabled and loading up the torque converter then side-stepping the brake. The car squats and if you keep the throttle at the right pitch, the car will boogie. Pin it down and it will just spin for the first sixty feet. The passing isf-rear1_optability of the car is impressive as well when you find the right gear because the engine and driveline seem ready all the time allowing the 371lb-ft (at a lofty 5700RPM) to be on-demand.

As Lexus continues to promote the ‘F’ brand, the IS-F is only phase one. They are presently focusing on the GS-F, then the LS-F to battle the Germans: M, AMG and RS offerings. Then owners of IS350s and IS250 can enjoy the collateral benefits of having F-Sport upgrades available at the dealer to ramp up the performance of their sedans all under warranty and with the luxury of low-interest financing.


The Specs

Base price: $65,300
Price as tested: $69,400
Engine: Yamaha 5.0L V8 Dual VVT-i
Output: 416hp with 371lb-ft torque
Driveline: FR with Direct Shift 8-speed
0-60mph = 4.7seconds
60-0mph = 124 feet

Tested with: V-Box Performance Meter



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