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2008 Lexus IS-F Preview

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By Carey Russ

Performance sells, especially in the compact sports-luxury class. And for that class, factory tuner cars provide a showcase for the manufacturer's most serious commitment to performance. If the formula is simple - let the in-house hot-rodders loose on what is already a first-rate sports automobile - the implementation is not, and it has a positive effect on the rest of that automaker's cars, especially the all-important compact sports-luxury sedans, coupes, and convertibles.

BMW has the M3, acknowledged king of that particular hill for many years now. Challenging it, Mercedes-Benz has the AMG C63. Audi has RS4. Even Cadillac has played in this tough league, with the CTS-V, now on hiatus. And Lexus, new kid on the block with the second-generation IS, has, um, er...

...the IS-F.

As the old saying goes, if you're going to be late to the party, you had best be prepared. And well-dressed. The IS-F should have no problem competing with the world's best serious sports sedans. Four hundred horsepower is the minimum for entry into the big league, and the IS-F bests that with 416, two more than the newest M3's 414. It comes from a 5.0-liter V8, based loosely on the 4.6 found in the Lexus GS and LS sedans but with significant modification.

For a start, the engine was developed in partnership with Yamaha. Nothing new there, as Toyota/Yamaha partnerships go back to the Toyota 2000GT of the late 1960s. The Yamaha engineers involved were last associated with the company's most recent Formula One engine effort, so they were well-versed in high-performance engine design and development. The block is die cast aluminum, with a forged steel crankshaft featuring mirror-polished journals for minimum friction. Connecting rods and pistons are designed and built for strength and durability in high-rpm operation. The Yamaha-designed cylinder heads have a lightweight four valve per cylinder valvetrain with titanium intake valves, a dual-intake induction system that opens a secondary intake above 3600 rpm for more power, the SFI D-4 direct and port fuel injection system (similar to that used in other IS models) that allows a high 11.8:1 compression ratio for increased power and efficiency, and a new twist on the VVT-i variable cam phasing system. VVT-iE still uses conventional hydraulic control to "degree" exhaust camshafts - rotate the shaft relative to its static position to advance or retard valve timing and change valve overlap. Because this uses engine oil, which needs to be warmed to operating temperature and viscosity for the system to work, it doesn't operate when the engine is cold. To get by this problem, the intake camshafts are degreed by computer-controlled electric motors. The result is improved running from cold, increased power - and increased fuel efficiency and decreased emissions. Unlike some competitors, the IS-F will not come with a "gas guzzler" surcharge. Maximum power, all 416 horses worth, is developed at 6600 rpm, with maximum torque 371 lb-ft at 5200. Redline is 6800. And EPA mileage is 16 city, 23 highway. Ymmv up near redline...

If the engine is interesting, the transmission is even more so. Manual shifting is a necessity in a high-performance automobile, and high-tech high-performance these days means an automated manual gearbox, with lightning-fast up- and down-shifts controlled, along with the clutch, by electronic and hydraulic wizardry. Such gearboxes are found in all major road-racing series, and in many of the IS-F's competitors. They are not torque-converter automatics with manual shifting. Audi's twin-clutch DSG is the benchmark. Lexus challenges it with an eight-speed gearbox with a twist - it's both a torque-converter automatic in automatic mode, and fully manual in manual mode in gears two through eight. First uses the torque converter to deal with the stresses of starting, but it's locked up otherwise in manual, to provide a direct connection between the engine and transmission. Upshifts can take as little as one tenth of a second, with downshifts taking two-tenths. Engine and transmission revs are automatically matched during downshifting.

All that power must be matched to a chassis that can handle it, and it is. Wheelbase is unchanged, but the F is about 3.5 inches longer than its V6 relatives, and looks even longer because of the styling changes. The suspension, although unchanged in basic layout, with double wishbones in front and a multi-link setup in the rear, has been made considerably stronger to cope with the increased horsepower and potential cornering forces. Suspension pieces are high-strength steel, and the F sits an inch lower than other IS models. Springs, shocks, stabilizer bars, suspension bushings, and subframe mounts are all stiffer, and there are suspension geometry changes to better deal with the 19-inch forged alloy BBS wheels, shod with 225/40 front and 255/35 rear tires, all Y-rated. Steering is electrically-assisted, and vehicle speed-sensitive.

Brakes are impressive, cross-drilled and vented discs 14.2 inches in diameter in front with six-piston calipers and 13.6 inches at the rear with twin-piston calipers. Antilock, of course, and with the full suite of Lexus electronic safety aids and then some. The VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system integrates braking, traction control, stability control, and even the engine and transmission management and throttle control systems. It has three modes: normal, with the highest amount of stability control; sport, which lets the driver drive closer to the car's limits, and is less intrusive; and off, for the ultimate in performance driving.

The IS-F has a four-seat interior, with trim that is unique in the IS lineup. The front seats are reinforced, have higher bolsters than other IS seats, and use high-density foam padding. "High contrast" is the design theme, with contrast-colored stitching in the seat leather and hand-finished composite aluminized trim on the console and door panels.

Outside, the IS-F stands out in the manner of the German tuner cars. Which is to say, it's more athletic than the lesser models in the IS line, but leaves oversized wings and fender flares seen in lower-priced sport-compacts for the aftermarket. The grille and front fascia are unique, and a bit more assertive. The larger air intakes are functional, feeding more cooling air to the radiator. The brake scoops are also functional. And those huge, sticky tires do require some noticeable fender flares, with sill extensions between the front and rear. Quad stacked exhausts give the IS-F a distinctive appearance from the rear.

Who is the potential IS-F customer? Lexus enthusiasts, obviously - and yes, "Lexus" and "high performance" go together just as well as "Lexus" and "luxury". GS sedans did well in road racing a few years back, and Lexus-powered sports prototypes have done well in the Grand Am series, including winning the recent Daytona 24-hour endurance race. But during the marketing presentation, another, less obvious group was mentioned - current sport-compact drivers, the people in WRX STis and Lancer Evos. Why not? They're already fans of Japanese performance machinery, they may make more money some day and want a more prestigious car, and the makers of their current rides are not likely to offer that. Enter Lexus.

Of course, potential customers will have to come up with the required $56,000 to buy an IS-F, and supply will be limited.

So how is it on the road? A short ride and drive session after the presentation, on the roads east of Las Vegas, Nevada, didn't give the opportunity to test the IS-F's reputed 170-mph top speed - speed limits and enforcement of such - but did give a good taste of the car's refinement and ride quality.

As designed, at low throttle openings, the IS-F is as smooth and quiet as any Lexus. More pressure on the right foot opens the secondary intake, and creates music to the enthusiast's ears from both intake and exhaust. It also creates force on the seatbacks. My driving partner wanted to take his own 0-60 times, to check with the factory's figure of 4.6 seconds. Three tries, with a stopwatch so not precise, but 4.4, 4.6, and 4.6, with D - yep, in automatic - providing the quickest result.

Brakes match the acceleration, and, most importantly for any long-distance driving, the ride quality is Lexus, not Conestoga wagon. It's firm, with minimal body roll in the corners, but it's not punishingly stiff. A long day in the driver's, or passenger's, seat should be a pleasure. It should also include fewer stops for fuel than in some other ultra-performance sedans, as the trip computer in the car showed a 23 mpg average for the 60 or so miles through desert secondary roads.

The new kid is a very capable player at the top level of the performance sedan class. I've already notified my regional Lexus office that I'd like to get an IS-F for a week's test as soon as possible, and eagerly await the opportunity.