Hammering the IS-F through the sleepy desert two-lanes of Rosamond, California, I tried to remind myself: “I’m driving a Lexus.” But the 416-horsepower sedan leaves little time for inner monologues. Caned hard, the IS-F reels in straight-aways like King Triton's spey rod. Corners arrive before your consciousness can catch up. Quick! Turn in, dip the throttle, unwind the hefty steering and feel the skittering rear wheels rotate you through the apex. Then look down at the silver “L” pointing at your chest. Cognitive dissonance much?
Yes, well, that’s exactly what Lexus has in mind. No longer content to be characterized as a purveyor of exceedingly well-built Buicks, Lexus is now vying for the youth vote. The IS-F’s ambitious charge: lure well-heeled hormonal enthusiasts away from Euro thoroughbreds like the M3, revitalize the brand’s image and pour young blood into its late middle-age demographic pool.
It’s a sensible strategy. But “sensible” is a four-letter word in this particular marketing exercise. Lexus wants buyers to think of this and future F variants as something a lot more Xtreme than its ice cool luxobarges. Thus, the IS-F’s press materials couch it as a controversial anomaly, the rogue brainchild of “a covert team of engineers” working deep within the Japanese giant. Suffice it to say, it makes for some eye-rolling reading.
Never mind. The IS-F’s vitals speak for themselves: a 5.0-liter V8 churning out the aforementioned 416 ponies (and 371 ft.-lbs. of torque), rear-wheel-drive, 14.2-inch drilled and vented front discs, 19” BBS rims wrapped in staggered-width rubber and defeatable traction and stability control. Yes, in a Lexus.
Unfortunately, to partake of this hard-ass hardware you have to look at the thing. The IS-F looks like a basking shark losing a fight with a steamroller. In fairness, the IS-F’s blobby, bulbous nose and filter-feeder fenders are largely a necessity of function; its monster motor wouldn’t have cleared anything sleeker. But otherwise, the IS-F ain’t got no alibi. Surveying its overwrought skirts, flares, and stacked quad tailpipes (which don’t actually connect to the exhausts), one wonders just how “youthful” an audience Lexus’ stylists had in mind.
Still interested? Step inside, rub your aching eyes, and be thankful that the cabin’s only juvenile touches are de rigeur plasti-alloy trim plates and aluminum pedals. Elsewhere, the scenery is standard IS, which means a high cowl, modest window slits, and snug proximics at the helm. It’s a fairly dark and buried place to work, and the acres of dark-gray dash polymers do little to lift the mood.
Clearly, the F’s not going to eat an M’s lunch on aesthetics alone. So let’s drive…
Punch the starter button to get the V8 humming, release the foot-operated parking brake, and slide the stubby shifter into “D.” Oh, did I mention that the IS-F is automatic only? The eight-speed slushbox tries hard to involve the driver– blipping its downshifts and allowing manual control through snappy aluminum finger paddles– but when your right arm and left foot are barred from the action, a forlorn sense of distance is inevitable. It’s a fatal flaw, considering F’s “hardcore” design brief.
Nosing onto a crowded road raises more questions about this Lexus’ M-beating mission. First impressions are of the cabin’s eerie hush, the soft-feel pedals and the weighty yet plush steering, which veils your fingertips from imperfections in the asphalt. Crusty low-speed ride aside, the IS-F feels every bit the cool, coddling Lexus.
Given a long, empty ribbon of road, the IS-F again reveals a sharply split personality. Flexing your right foot rips away the layers of Lexus fluff. At WOT, acceleration is torrential and torque-soaked. Lexus claims 0-60 in “under 4.9 seconds.” Any attempt to prove them right/wrong and the V8’s murmur turns to a frenzied howl, courtesy of a secondary air intake that opens at 3,600 rpm. You might as well be pulling its head out from underwater, so dramatic is the shift in its voice.
There’s a predictable downside to the F’s binary nature: Mr. Hyde only comes out to play above safe, legal velocities. The chassis boasts tasty balance at the limit, and the steering enlivens somewhat under load. But given the tires’ immense grip, you’d be nuts to sample either trait on your morning commute. So you back off, the engine fades to Muzak and Toyota’s patented anesthetic drips back into the primary controls. Yawn. Why does this cost $56k again?
And that’s the problem with the IS-F. To sprinkle the magic dust of desirability onto Lexus’ fledgling performance sub-brand, this car needed to match its Euro rivals for driver appeal, beat them on price and let enthusiasts fill in the “cachet” gap. The IS-F misses the marque; it’s a sort of designer-label STI, or an Evo’s dandy city cousin. Get kaizening on this one, Lexus. Otherwise that “F” may come to stand for… nothing much.