The Lexus IS-F is the marque's first attempt at a genuine performance car - and it's a competent M3 rival

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Forget what you already know about traditional Lexus values – comfort, refinement and so on – because this new IS-F has its priorities in an entirely different place.

With petrol V8s and hybrids that deliver mountain-moving torque from idle, Lexus’s existing range isn’t exactly slovenly, but this, the IS-F, is the firm’s first stab at a fully paid-up sports saloon.

The Lexus is pitched against the BMW M3 saloon and the Mercedes C63 AMG

The ‘F’ stands for Fuji Motor Speedway, the Japanese track owned by Toyota and the venue for the car’s development. If any doubt remains, one look at the IS-F’s mechanical specification gives a clear indication of its market positioning.

A naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 producing over 400bhp and driven solely through the rear wheels is a strikingly familiar layout; both BMW and Mercedes have products that, give or take the odd cubic centimetre or brake horsepower, match the Lexus blow for blow.

And the Lexus is pitched right up against the BMW M3 saloon and the Mercedes C63 AMG.

That’s tough competition by any measure, but especially so when it’s your first effort. 



Lexus IS-F bi-xenon headlights

Although the IS-F shares its basic suspension with more mainstream IS models – double wishbone suspension at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear – Lexus has undertaken some serious tinkering to give the IS-F greater control.

The front suspension arms and steering knuckles are now constructed from lighter materials to reduce unsprung mass, the spring rates are increased, the anti-roll bars are thicker and the bump stops activate earlier, while the hub bearings are unique to the IS-F.

The IS-F looks better in the metal than in pictures

As expected for a sports model, the IS-F wears thicker and broader brakes (360mm at the front and 345mm at the rear), but unusually for a car with such driver-focused intentions, the IS-F employs electric power steering, and not a hydraulic system. 

On first inspection the driveline package seems familiar, the 5.0-litre V8 providing the conventional power in Lexus’s range-topping Lexus LS600h hybrid. The eight-speed automatic transmission has also been seen before in the LS460 and GS460. Make no mistake, though, there has been some major tweakery. The result is a maximum output of 417bhp, 28bhp more than the LS600h, although torque slips slightly to 372lb ft.

The automatic gearbox in the IS-F benefits from bespoke ratios and a manual mode, operated either by the gear selector or paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. From second gear upwards the ’box operates a lock-up mechanism to give faster shifts and a more direct throttle response. It will also hold on to gears right to the rev limiter and only change down if the engine threatens to stall.

The IS-F has also undergone an extensive visual makeover. In addition to the beefed-up bumpers and bigger wheels (in this case 19-inch), the IS-F has a bonnet bulge that makes even the M3’s power dome look inadequate, broader sills and pumped-out front wheel arches complete with cooling gills.

The cooking IS has a particularly sleek shape, and these testosterone-fuelled changes aren’t entirely successful; in particular, the vertically stacked exhausts smack of Lexus trying too hard. Overall, though, the IS-F looks better in the metal than in pictures.


Lexus IS-F dashboard

Much like in the M3 and C63, the hottest Lexus’s interior pretty much follows the themes set by the standard car. Dashboard architecture and materials are largely unchanged from the regular IS, save for some faux-metal finish on the centre console. 

Unlike in the BMW and Mercedes, though, changes to the Lexus don’t amount to serious alterations to the driving furniture. Granted, the IS-F’s front chairs are subtly different from a standard IS’s, but not by enough; they don’t drop low enough and have insufficient lateral support.

The steering wheel's range of adjustment is limited

The steering wheel is little different from that of the regular version. Its range of adjustment is limited; serious drivers will find they can’t bring it close enough to their body and that, when it’s at the uppermost reach of its height adjustment, it’s too angled (the bottom of the wheel is too close to the driver while the top is too far away).

Otherwise, the cabin is fine. Materials are acceptable, while fit and finish are beyond reproach. The touch-screen infotainment system is largely simple to use and, at the Lexus base price, comprises all the kit you would expect to be standard and a bit more besides.

Interior room? It’s at a premium in the rear of the cabin, but the boot is average for a car in this class. 


Lexus IS-F V8 engine

If there’s one area of this car where Lexus has absolutely nailed what a super-saloon should be, it’s under the IS-F’s borderline-ludicrous bonnet bulge. The 5.0-litre V8 at the heart of this car is peachy and, tweaked for performance and freed from the refinement and economy shackles of its hybrid applications, is far and away the most engaging motor Lexus produces.

The good signs start as early as idle. The IS-F emits a powerful woofle on start-up, although it’s muted enough to suggest Lexus has not entirely neglected its reputation as a maker of exceptionally refined cars. 

The 5.0-litre V8 at the heart of this car is peachy

So it proves during everyday driving. Around town or at a cruise, the IS-F’s V8 is never intrusive. The eight-speed automatic gearbox makes its shifts smoothly, too, although it is inclined to make rather too many as it seeks to engage the highest gear it can – which means it can return over 20mpg on a cruise.

There is, however, a darker and more enjoyable side to this engine. Extend your right leg fully and you’ll get an idea of how busy Lexus’s sound engineers have been.

Above 3500rpm there’s a real hardening of the engine’s note (a secondary intake opens at 3600rpm) and it swaps its refined woofle for a proper, throaty V8 noise; it’s less aggressive than AMG’s 6.2-litre unit and more contrived than the M3’s engine note, but is a fine noise nonetheless. 

The delivery itself is relatively peaky. Maximum power arrives at 6600rpm, passing the torque peak at 5200rpm, and with a 7000rpm red line this is a high-revving engine.

At MIRA’s test track the IS-F couldn’t quite match Lexus’s acceleration claims, although 5.2sec to 60mph and 12.3sec to 100mph are very respectable figures, given the ambient conditions.

But for all its revving, the IS-F’s powerband is not narrow enough to justify eight forward ratios. Six would be sufficient, seven would be ample. Eight means that, left to its own devices, you’re aware that the ’box is making too many shifts. Mostly these are clean, with a blip on downshifts when you’re pressing on, but there’s sometimes a little snatchiness.


Lexus IS-F rear cornering

For all the changes made by Lexus to the IS in turning it into an F, it still has rather a lot in common with the standard range. The F rides just like a regular IS, for a start. It feels quite softly sprung but not softly damped; there’s a certain harshness and patter that, much like the standard car, means its ride at any speed never settles except on the smoothest of asphalt.

So on a demanding road the IS-F is slightly compromised. It is refined through its compliance but does not quite control its body movements well enough over crests and bumps. A Jaguar XF has a superior blend of comfort and poise. And if it’s just the poise you’re after, the M3 and C63 deliver more here.

On smooth asphalt or a race track it is enjoyable and extremely exploitable

The IS-F’s overall chassis balance is very good, however. This is a V8-engined, rear-wheel-drive saloon car with a sound front-to-rear balance, and on smooth asphalt or a race track it is enjoyable and extremely exploitable. It turns in crisply, and while the steering is not overly engaging, it is accurate and direct. 

On MIRA’s wet and dry handling circuits the IS-F is extremely controllable. With its stability control switched out completely, it’s happy to oversteer in just about any corner, sending its tail loose on the throttle and trailing in on the brakes, or if you’re just quick with the steering.

The torque converter’s lock-up means it’s quite adjustable on the throttle too, although there’s still some slack between when you ask for throttle and when you get it. A conventional limited-slip differential, rather than the F’s electronically controlled open diff, would make for smoother transitions back into line and improve traction.

Better suspension control and an LSD would be enough to revolutionise what’s already a very entertaining car.

The IS-F’s brakes are excellent. Their feel and progression are good and, for a car weighing 1720kg, they have no problem routinely stopping the IS-F on a circuit.


Lexus IS-F 2008-2012

Lexus hasn’t been shy in its pricing; the IS-F is pitched right between its rivals from Mercedes-AMG and BMW.

What does set the Lexus apart is that, typically, it wants for nothing in terms of standard equipment.

If the IS-F maintains Lexus’s traditional ownership traits – and there’s no reason to think that it shouldn’t – then running an IS-F should be a remarkably easy, fault-free and fuss-free experience.

All those pragmatic benefits come at a cost though. After just two years, the IS-F will have lost almost half of its value, despite having relative rarity on its side.


3.5 star Lexus IS-F

The IS-F is a credible effort for a company whose stock in trade is luxury and refinement, and there is much that Lexus has absolutely nailed.

The V8 powerplant stands comparison with any of its rivals and the overall balance of the IS-F’s entertaining and adjustable chassis is wonderful. Those are the basics and they’re spot on. 

Lexus has done well, but could do better

In the end, then, it’s details that set the Mercedes C63 and BMW M3 apart from the IS-F. But they’re the details that separate excellence from mere competence.

If Lexus is serious about its ‘Fuji’ moniker, it should fit a limited-slip differential and a gearbox better suited to fast driving. It has tuned the suspension to retain comfort while improving control, but in the end it excels at neither. And inside you’ll find seats that are too flat.

Lexus has done well, but could do better

Lexus IS-F 2008-2012 First drives