2008 Lexus IS-F Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs
2008 lexus is f review

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.

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2 of 68 comments
  • VQ37VHR VQ37VHR on Jan 30, 2008

    The current gen IS is much more aesthetically pleasing to me, albeit a bit 'safe'in the styling department.

  • Huy Huy on Feb 04, 2008

    its sad, toyota has the means to make great sports cars, they just stopped for so long and now they don't have the means to do so... let me play in their parts bin and i can make sports cars worthy of much praise. lets start with a Toyota MR2 Spyder powered by the 2zz engine and 6-speed w/ LSD. Can we say Lotus Elise fighter for $24k? and where's the damn Supra??? Nissan 350Z is raking up all the sales, where Toyota is worried about perfecting their LF-A Supercar that looks completely bland by now. For this you need a little more work, as the base would be the isolated and numb driving experience of the IS... but get rid of the useless weight and electronic nannies, then add a manual option to the V6, and send it to the nurburgring for some testing and tweaking. What returns should be a world class sports car.

  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.