POINT CLEAR, Alabama - High performance is nothing new for Toyota's luxury division. Not so long after Lexus first reached the American market with the strictly-luxury LS sedan, for 1990, a sportier GS companion joined the fold. As the GS sedan evolved over the years, adopting V-8 power, even the recent hybrid-powertrain variant promised scintillating performance along with improved fuel economy.
For 2002, Lexus launched the compact first-generation IS, in sedan and wagon form. Redesigned and enlarged for 2006, the IS sedan borrowed some styling touches from its larger GS siblings and moved up the performance scale. Two V-6 engines were available in the IS 250 and IS 350, respectively.
Evidently, the old IS 350 was just for starters. Now, several months after the 2008 model year began, Lexus is unleashing a new-generation IS F that aims to take a backseat to no one in its driving-excitement credentials.
Noting the location of the IS presentation along the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Nancy Fein, vice-president of customer service, observed that in 1864, the Battle of Mobile Bay "representated the apex of power and technology." And so, she proclaimed, does the 2008 IS F.
In the Lexus lexicon, "F" stands for a special vehicle program, comparable to AMG with Mercedes-Benz or "M" for BMW models. "F is everything you thought we weren't," said Charles Hubbard, senior technical administrator at Lexus College.
Based on the previous rear-wheel-drive IS 350, the 2008 IS F is a "truly authentic performance sedan in the Lexus way," Fein asserted. Authenticity in the performance-sedan league might be arguable, but few would question the IS's powertrain credentials. Rather than the V-6 engine of the prior IS, the new model gets a 5.0-liter V-8 that generates 416 horsepower at 6600 rpm, along with 371 pound-feet of torque at 5200 rpm. Lexus says that's more torque output than a BMW M3 delivers.
Manual shift is no longer available. Lexus equips every IS F with an eight-speed automatic transmission. If you're in Drive and use the paddle shifters, the transmission goes to manual mode. But it reverts to Drive if stopped, or if there's no acceleration for 15 seconds. To stay in manual mode, you must move the shift lever into that suspension.
Gear changes with the new automatic transmission take place in a claimed 0.1 second. Downshifts are "accompanied by precise throttle blips," Fein said, though during test-drives, each blip wasn't necessarily noticeable. With a 170-mph top speed - well over double the maximum speed limit anywhere in the U.S., it's the fastest Lexus ever.
Fein places the IS F in a trio with the legendary Pontiac GTO and the Chevrolet Corvette, calling them all "rule breakers." Between 100 and 300 team members are said to have participated in the project; most of them working in their spare time.
Among the many modifications made, compared to the IS 350, the front air dam was changed and functional brake vents sit behind each rear wheel. Height is down 0.8 inch, courtesy of lowered springs. Front track width is an inch greater, and overall width has gained 0.6 inch. With a different nose and tail in this incarnation, overall length has grown by 3.35 inches (to 183.5), on a wheelbase unchanced at 107.5 inches. Not exactly a featherweight, the compact sedan tips the scales at 3,780 pounds.
An IS F delivers "unlimited acceleration" according to Hubbard. Specifically, it can accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph in a claimed 4.6 seconds, and run through a quarter-mile trial in 13 seconds. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates fuel economy at 16 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway - hardly a fuel-sipper, but better than some high-performance automobiles. Premium fuel is required, but Lexus does not expect a gas-guzzler penalty to be assessed.
Dealers won't be receiving IS F models until early in 2008. Lexus intends to produce between 200 and 300 per month. Close to 90 percent of buyers are expected to be male, starting with what Fein calls "latent performance enthusiasts" but noting that "prestige and luxury buyers like to be surprised. They have a desire for power and control in everything they do."
Looks can deceive. Despite its relatively mild-mannered exterior, this sedan is so un-Lexuslike, it seems to belong in a new brand category. When pushed, the IS F emits a snarly engine sound, far removed from the gently tones that ordinarily emanate from even the most performance-oriented Lexus models.
What happens when you push the pedal to the floor is another surprise, even when you're expecting some energetic reactions. In automatic, the IS F is vigorous indeed from a standstill, bursting away in a state of near-frenzy. But when tromped at 40-50 mph, expect a long delay for the downshift and reactions - far longer than most performance vehicles.
Manual mode (using paddle shifters) shortens the reaction time considerably. From a stop, you'd better be ready to hit the right paddle for second gear in a hurry, because the engine revs to that point in what seems like a split-second.
Steering feel is very good and confident, though it seems just a hair imprecise while running down straightaways. Ride quality is surprisingly good. At last, something about the IS F is reminiscent of familiar Lexus behavior.
The 2008 IS F stickers for $56,000 (plus $765 destination charge). Standard equipment includes heated, leather-trimmed 10-way power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a moonroof, SmartAccess keyless entry and pusshbutton start. Options include 14-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound, Intuitive Park Assist, and Lexus's Pre-Collision System.
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