We test the rapid Lexus IS-F
311kW @ 6 600r/min
505Nm @ 5 250r/min
Zero To Hundred
F: 225/40 R19, R: 255/35 R19
4 year/100 000km
The Lexus IS and BMW’s 3 Series share a curious apprentice/master relationship.
After having established its premium brand billing in the American market during the 1990s with its LS range, Lexus became dead keen to siphon off some of BMW’s small executive sedan market share with a rival 3 Series offering, the IS.
When it came to market just before the turn of the millennium, the original IS was effectively an Oriental facsimile of the 3 Series. It featured all the signature 3 Series engineering details – an in-line six-cylinder engine, delightfully tactile six-speed H-gate transmission and rear-wheel drive.
In the decade which followed IS never attempted to replicate all the 3 Series derivatives. There is no IS estate - for instance - and you still can’t fill up most of them with the diesel. What there has become available
of late though, is an M3 sedan alternative - the IS-F.
Despite being launched back in 2008, we’ve had to wait two long years before being able to sample the IS-F – and the longer you have to wait, the greater the weight of expectation becomes.
An aero cut-out behind the front wheels? On a Lexus? IS-F defies the brand's conservative image.
A rather unconventional Lexus
Let me qualify from the outset that IS-F is a wholly inappropriate car for Lexus to market.
The company’s premium hybrids (which are indecently fast co-indecently) stock Lexus’s product portfolio with some of the most sensible and refined luxury vehicles around. Where the urge to build an utterly mad M3 rival germinated from is unfathomable to me.
IS-F grates against Lexus’s core brand values at all levels, yet this is the same company which recently (after a glacial development period) launched one of the world’s most outlandish (and expensive) supercars, the LF-A. So perhaps I’m just being a trifle cynical.
If you buy into the marketing fable, two Lexus engineers (Yaguchi- and Sakamoto-san) got a little carried away during the first generation IS300’s development.
Management was suitably impressed with Yaguchi- and Sakamoto-san’s fervent enthusiasm for a performance addled IS derivative and budgeted the required funding for ‘Project F’ – which eventually morphed into the IS-F.
Alloys from BBS are a design highlight - though their 19-inch size undoubtedly adds to the ride quality issue...
Tokyo street-racer styling
From the moment I came within touching distance of our (strikingly) blue IS-F test car it was clear this was a Lexus in name only. The ‘F’ affix denotes something designed in a direction diametrically opposite to any other Lexus product – bar of course the LF-A.
IS-F’s styling is about as polarizing as South Africa’s Bulls/Stormers support base.
The standard IS cues quite a fetching shape with subtle, neat design details. In IS-F guise it gets stretched, cut-up and sports the kind of inappropriate surface bulges which forced Candice Hillebrand’s exit from KT-V back in the day.
Bumper-to-bumper the IS-F is 85mm more substantial than its IS siblings, with much of the additional length around the front of the car, to accommodate the large capacity 5l V8 engine.
One of the Banzai Lexus’s most contentious surfaces is the bonnet, which has been deliberately fashioned to host the LS donated engine. Whereas BMW’s M3 features a stylish central power dome, IS-F’s entire bonnet bulges up steeply from its shutlines, rendering a rather unsubtle clue as to what lies beneath.
Bulbous bonnet spoils the IS shape's balance - attracts attention though.
Looks a bit aftermarket?
Whether the IS-F’s other design details are points of merit or debit depend on your tolerance for styling trinkets.
Those wheelarch cut-outs aft of the front axle, the side skirts, enlarged grille and three generously dimensioned front bumper aero-ducts are definitely sculptured to appeal more to Sasolburg street racers than Sandton business types looking for a (very) swift four-door sedan.
One of the IS-F’s most debatable styling features are the vertically stacked dual exhausts. As an unique styling feature they have merit, yet M3 and C63 owners will be quick to get down at tarmac level and point out the gap between the stylised ends and the actual silencer exhaust routing…
Overall though, IS-F can hardly be accused of copying either M3 or C63 with respect to styling. As a whole, it comes off as being quite a distinctive looking high performance four-door executive conveyance.
Contrasting the IS-F’s Anime acid trip exterior styling is a cabin of classic Lexus style.
IS-F’s (very) comprehensive equipment levels, neat TFT lit instrumentation and individual rear seating arrangement reaffirmed a sense of Lexus class and comfort during the test period.
Some may debit IS-F’s lack of five-person portability, yet who really wants to be squashed into the middle of a M3’s rear bench during a dynamic driving session involving a succession of corners?
IS-F's individual rear seats offer the superior accommodation solution for a driver and three passengers about to embark on a rapid journey.
Faux carbon finish and horrid shift-guide illumination detract from the cabin's ambiance.
Some out of touch finishes...
Admittedly the faux carbon-fibre centre console finish clashes badly with the cabin’s dominant textures - and of course the 1980s Toyota Cressida transmission shift guide illumination is a few decades out of fashion too.
There were other ergonomic oddities too. The IS-F’s thin-rimmed steering wheel lacked the tactile heft of a C63 AMG or M3’s helm.
Being taller than 1.8m I found it was impossible to reach the electric seat adjuster, as the path was blocked by the fold-out door pocket’s cup holder moulding. You have to contort your hand forwards and down to reach the controls. The reason for this? Wider, performance orientated seats Lexus fitted to the IF-S.
I remained undecided whether the practically unreachable seat-adjusters were a pure ergonomic oversight or a sign of the incommensurable ends (often forgiven in Alfa products) which arise when a standard cabin is tailored with dynamic trimmings.
All round PDC, keyless entry, SatNav and the outstanding Mark Levinson audio standard on IS-F. Tally those options on a M3 and it’s around R45 000 extra.
Loud. Fast. Hard.
IS-F inarguably looks like an M3 killer of sorts, yet does it live up this billing dynamically?
Although the LS-sourced V8 has a similar oversquare architecture to the M3's 4l V8 it cannot match the Munich car's near 8 000r/min crankspeed ceiling.
Lexus outsourced the key engineering task of boosting the 5l engine’s performance to Yamaha. The Nipponese motorcycle manufacturer’s technicians are hardly amateurs when it comes to cylinder head design and execution and unsurprisingly the IS-F’s 5l V8 sports outputs of 311kW and 505Nm – statistics which balance it neatly between the C63 and M3.
Although the IS-F lacks the M3’s ability to chase engine speeds close to 8 000r/min, it manages to bounce off its 7 000r/min limiter from just over idling speed with alacrity. In a straight line the M3 edges it from 0-100km/h by only three tenths of a second.
LS sourced 5l V8 does without direct-injection. Sounds glorious. You're struggle to return under 14l/100km though, we averaged 15.8l/100km on test.
Eight speed auto
IS-F gathers momentum rapidly once it’s up to speed, and thanks to the nearly infinite flexibility of its eight-speed automatic transmission you’re always a simple tug of the left-hand paddle away from secure overtaking urge.
Purists may lament the IS-F only being available with an eight-speed auto, yet you hardly notice the intermediate gears when the IS-F's left to its own devices in everyday driving.
Take control of the shift regime yourself from the helm, and you’ll find staggeringly responsive changes at 100 milliseconds intervals. Above 3 600r/min IS-F boasts a nearly faultless V8 acoustic signature thanks to both the dual air intake system's tracts being opened.
The automated throttle blipping is perfectly geared too and it’s very entertaining to get the kids to count down six-gears when you’re approaching a roundabout at speed, blipping from eight-to-second.
Yamaha’s done an outstanding job of the engine, the myriad of valve-timing and camshaft adjustments mechanics make it docile at low speeds, yet indecently quick when road conditions open up.
Acoustically IS-F’s epic above 4 000r/min, the sound akin to what a set of spliced 2.5l four-cylinder mid 1990s DTM engines running off a single sub-assembly would net in terms of resonance…
Stacked exhaust ends look awesome - yet they're not actually connected to the actual exhaust system.
Too hard, perhaps?
So the IS-F’s fast enough to nudge a BMW’s rear bumper in terms of velocity, yet can it convert speed to significant lateral-g in the corners? Well, yes – but at a cost…
Despite the steering’s inadequate feedback at speed in the dead-ahead position it does play nice when navigating the IS-F through corners at speed.
Turn-in is as sharp as you’d expect from something rear-wheel driven and as firmly sprung as the IS-F is.
For those drivers skilled enough injudicious throttle applications, with the ESP disabled, guide the rear axle into deftly completing a greater arc of motion through slower corners than the front - thanks to a very tidily integrated torque sensing limited-slip differential.
Unfortunately, like AMG’s C63, IS-F’s been lowered and had all four corners of its independent suspension firmed up and strengthened. In principle this sharpens up the chassis responses to inputs from the helm. In reality the urgency IS-F changes direction with has been accomplished at the cost of ride comfort – a similar state of affairs the C63’s afflicted by.
BMW M3’s has optional adjustable dampers, which mean you can select tolerable damper rebound for day-to-day driving and dial in less compliance for trackday requirements.With the Lexus, ride quality is just crushingly harsh – all of the time.
On immaculately surfaced roads IS-F’s ride is tolerable, yet over even the most slightly imperfect surface it comes undone.
Manhole covers and speed bumps are an experience best to be avoided as the rear axle’s damping ramps the car alarmingly before it crashes (instead of settles) down on its suspension again.
You’ll either love the Tokyo streetracer interpretation of the IS’s lines or not - cannot be faulted for being unoriginal though. BBS alloys are gorgeous.
Impressively specced (as with all Lexus products) yet tacky in the extreme thanks to the light-blue inlay on the bottom half of the steering wheel rim and the horrid carbon centre console finish. Individual rear seats shame M3 and C63’s second row accommodation.
Not quickest in class outright but runs comfortably with the M3 and C63 – and it sounds absolutely fantastic too.
So has Lexus finally built a credible M3 alternative in the IS-F?
Well, as a value offering IS-F nearly unbeatable. The equipment levels and convenience of servicing your high-performance executive sedan at a dealership chain renowned for their levels of excellence and quick turnaround times surely weighs in favour of the IS-F.
In pure performance terms the IS-F cannot match the C63’s awesome power or the M3’s delicate urgency at the limit.
If you’re after a small executive high-performance sedan without any brand baggage which promises a painless ownership experience (bar the harsh ride) the IS-F decimal performance discrepancies should hardly put you off booking a test drive.
Glorious V8 engine
Unwittingly quick eight-speed transmission
Very well equipped
Very harsh ride
Some questionable design elements
Do you think the IS-F is a credible rival to BMW’s M3 and the AMG C63?
Have your say here…