The Hottest Lexus Ever

Editor's Rating: star rating

The IS F is Lexus' equivalent of a Mercedes AMG. Too bad the demand for super-performance cars isn't what it used to be

Up Front

The new Lexus IS F is one of my all-time favorite Toyota (TM) products. It's a super-quick, four-seater sport sedan that couples a luxurious interior with the track-oriented handling and speed of BMW's M3 (, 5/16/08) or a Mercedes C63 AMG (, 4/29/08). The IS F represents a complete departure from the refined, focus-grouped feel of previous Lexus offerings. This car was developed by a skunkworks team within Lexus, and it has real attitude.

But, boy, is Lexus' timing bad. The "F" in the IS F's name means it's the first model in a new sub-brand within Lexus. The IS F is a super-powerful and greatly upgraded version of the Lexus IS 350, the equivalent of the "M" versions of BMWs, the "AMG" versions of Mercedes, and the "V" versions of Cadillacs. Lexus considers the IS F a niche model and has only sold an average of 240 of them per month since the IS F first came out in January. August sales, at 277, held up well. However, you have to wonder about the model's future, given the prospect of gasoline prices soaring even higher and the hit being taken by the obvious buyers—wealthy Wall Streeters and businesspeople—during the current financial meltdown.

Nonetheless, the IS F is an appealing vehicle if you can still afford one (and if you don't mind that it comes only with an automatic transmission). The target buyer, according to Lexus, is "mostly male, married, and mid-40s." If you fit that profile, one argument for buying the IS F is its relatively low price.

The IS F starts at $56,825, but comes with a long list of standard equipment, including keyless ignition, a moon roof, leather upholstery, 10-way power front seats with driver and passenger memory settings, Brembo brakes, 19-inch alloy wheels, and a 13-speaker audio system with a CD player and an auxiliary jack. There are relatively few options to jack up the price: A navigation system with an upgraded Mark Levinson sound system adds $3,990. The navigation system alone will set you back $2,550. A pre-collision safety system with radar-based dynamic cruise control costs $2,850, parking assist another $500 and headlamp washers $100.

The standard engine in the Lexus is an enormously powerful 5.0-liter, 416-horsepower V8. The only available transmission may be an automatic, but it's a highly sophisticated eight-speed automatic with a manual shifting function and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The transmission is also lightning fast, up-shifting in a mere 10th of a second.

The IS F hasn't been crash-tested, but the IS 350 earned the top "Good" rating in front and side crashes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IS F comes standard with head-protecting side-curtain airbags, as well as front, knee, and side airbags in the front seat area, traction and stability control, and antilock brakes with braking assist.

Fuel economy isn't great—but easily beats the competition. The IS F is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway, and in 248 miles of fast mainly highway driving, I got 19.3 mpg. However, the Audi RS4 is only rated to get 13 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, the BMW M3 Coupe 14/20 and the Mercedes C63 AMG 12/19. All of these models, including the Lexus, use premium gasoline.

Behind the Wheel

The IS-F is fast. I clocked it at in as little as 4.6 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, but Car and Driver magazine (which always seems to get the fastest times out of test cars) pegged it at a mere 4.2 seconds. You can use the paddle shifters if you want. But you don't have to do much other than put the thing in drive and punch the pedal to the floor to achieve times under five seconds.

That makes the IS F a pretty good match for the M3, which BMW rates at 4.7 seconds in zero-to-60 runs. However, if sheer speed is your priority, consider the Mercedes C63 AMG, which is rated at 4.3 seconds, or the new '09 Caddie CTS-V, powered by a monster or a 556-horsepower V8, which General Motors (GM) says will do zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds.

As far as I'm concerned, the IS F is plenty fast. It also handles very well and sticks to the road like a Post-It note. Braking is excellent. The engine has a hard, throaty exhaust note that I found very appealing. The electronic steering is tight and precise, and the suspension system stiff and sporty. In fact, if anything, the IS F's ride may be too stiff and harsh in daily driving for many people.

However, I suspect that whether you will like the car or not will depend heavily on how you react to its automatic transmission. People who drive cars like this traditionally have preferred stick shifts, but manual transmissions are no longer de rigueur. The Audi RS 4 Quattro only comes with a stick shift, but the BMW M3 comes with either, while the Mercedes C63 AMG only comes with a seven-speed automatic. The good thing about the Lexus IS F's automatic: Its eight speeds contribute to the car's high fuel efficiency. And, for do-it-your-selfers, there's always the manual-shifting mode.

However, having eight gears is weird when you put the IS F in manual mode. First gear in my test car topped out at about 35 mph, second gear at about 60, and third at about 90—which means if you're driving hard in manual mode you may never get out of third gear. That makes the IS F a fabulous car for running through winding country roads, where you can just put the transmission in manual mode and toggle between second and third gear. But the top four or five gears seem superfluous. You never use them.

As a result, your incentive is to leave the transmission in automatic mode most of the time because it saves on gas and is less trouble. If you are, say, cruising along at highway speed and want to put the system in manual mode to kick down and get some oomph out the engine, you have to paddle from eighth gear all the way down to third. In automatic mode, the transmission does this on its own almost instantly. So, unless you're a person who genuinely prefers letting the automatic transmission do the shifting for you, this probably isn't the car for you.

The Lexus' interior is gorgeous. The cabin has a cockpit-like feel similar to the BMW M3's, but is fancier. There's leather everywhere, and both the front and rear seats are bolstered like nobody's business. Sitting in the driver's seat is like having a burly uncle give you a bear hug from behind.

The downside of the interior is that the Lexus, like the BMW M3 Coupe, only seats four people. The Audi RS 4, Cadillac CTS-V, BMW M3 sedan, and Mercedes C63 AMG have the advantage of seating up to five, which makes them more practical for family use. Also, as with other performance sedans, the IS F's trunk is small. The rear seats don't fold down, but there's a pass-through from the trunk to the cabin. Then again, you don't really buy a car like this to be practical, do you?

Buy It or Bag It?

The IS F's average selling price is $60,018, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), which makes it considerably less expensive than its main rivals. By comparison, the '08 Audi RS 4 Quattro (which, granted, has the advantage of having all-wheel drive) averages $72,531, the '08 BMW M3 $68,920, and the '09 Mercedes C63 AMG $65,901. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Personally, I would prefer a performance car to have a stick shift. Otherwise, the Lexus IS F has a lot to offer. The price is right, fuel economy is good, and the standard interior is arguably the classiest in the segment. And it's the hottest Lexus you've ever driven.

Click here to see more of the Lexus IS F.

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