Track Test/Take Four: 2011 Lexus IS-F
If there’s one thing you get here at TTAC, it’s diversity. Well, it’s actually sarcasm, but you also get diversity. Here’s an example: This week, we tested two different cars. Out on the West Coast, Alex and his partner were rolling around in a completely electric Nissan Leaf. Imagine them, gliding silently down the road, perhaps having a polite conversation about the proper color of glass for one’s table service. No, that isn’t a stereotype, I happen to know that he’s actually worrying about that. Think of the peace! The quiet! The sustainability!
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, your humble author was thumping a Lexus IS-F down the back straight at Summit Point’s Shenandoah Raceway. I had a stunning-looking young woman from metro DC trapped in the passenger seat and digging her nails into the door handle. We were swinging the needle past 110mph, deep into the braking zone, gulping fuel at a rate of just four miles per gallon.
It’s hard to believe that one site can bring you both kinds of coverage, the same way it’s hard to believe that the Leaf and the IS-F can both be produced by the same enormous Japanese conglomerate.
That’s because they aren’t produced by the same enormous Japanese conglomerate, of course. I just wanted to see how many of you ran off to comment about my stupidity before reading the rest of the article.
The IS-F is authentically Japanese, however. Its distended nose is a direct tribute to the original long-nose Celica Supra, and like the Supra, the change is necessary to make the engine fit. In white, the IS-F often looks as if it is about to challenge Captain Ahab for supremacy of the sea. Your opinion may vary.
Car and Driver’s opinion of the changes made to the IS-F for 2011 — limited-slip differential, completely revised suspension — is that they put it on par with the BMW M3. Having recently driven the M3 during our Mustang BOSS 302 test, I’m not so sure. Although the collective M3 owner group is the most loathsome bunch of subhumans since the Manson Family, the car itself deserves no such criticism and on track it’s almost self-directing despite its weight and complication. I can see the IS-F being able to stay close to the M3 at tracks like VIR and Road America where it could stretch its legs. Our test track, Summit Point’s “Shenandoah” course, has no such opportunity. One of my journalist pals takes the IS-F out for a spin and I have no trouble keeping up, using a V6 “Mayhem” Mustang. True, the IS-F drops the ‘Stang on the back straight and out of certain corners, and it has a genuine advantage in “Big Bend” where it just seems slightly more comfortable doing the high-speed, constant-load thing than the aforementioned ponycar, but in the tight sections the IS-F flounders, requiring its driver to turn it on the throttle.
Which, by the way, is easy to do. When it’s my turn to take a seat in the IS-F’s two-tone interior, which is a seeming attempt to combine a whorehouse, Superfly’s Eldorado, and the video game “GORF”, I set the eight-speed transmission to manual mode and end up going sideways on the pitlane exit. This is a big-hearted engine, and it’s amazingly close to Ford’s “Coyote” five-liter in character. The way it catapults the IS-F down Shenandoah’s short straights is positively Supermarine, old boy.
If only the transmission would play ball. With a six-speed manual, the IS-F would be fun. With a dual-clutch auto, it would be quick. The transmission is fundamentally a conventional torque-converter, planetary-gear automatic. “Manual” shifts take place pretty much whenever the transmission feels like it, which is almost never immediately after one clicks the paddles. Once you’re rolling, the torque converter locks and all shifts are absorbed by the planetary clutches. Honestly, if the transmission came from anyone else but Toyota I would describe it as “a grenade waiting to happen,” but I haven’t heard any reports of it being anything other than reliable. Every shift, however, feels like bloody mechanical murder and it makes driving the car in wet conditions a bit of a challenge. The clutches engage with a “bump” and if you’re already at the limit of traction you are going to have a chance to become acquainted with the I’m-off-no-wait-I’m-really-on-but-waiting-for-you-to-screw-up stability control. The electronic leash on this call pulls tight and it can kill forward progress around a racetrack like an arrester hook.
With a little more grip from the front end, the IS-F would be even quicker. Blame the 225-width front tires, which are thirty millimeters narrower than the rears and simply give up too quickly when asked to shove the nose around in a hurry. I’d balance mine out to 265s all the way ’round.
The brakes, on the other hand, could be left alone. Pedal feel is good, which is important since for most trackday drivers this car will be a point-shoot-brake-turn device. I didn’t experience any fade during my two sessions, although to be fair one session was in the wet and the other was limited to about eight laps. Another nice surprise: the ABS isn’t in a massive hurry to engage.
My overall experience with the IS-F was pleasant. It’s more than fast enough on the track, and if the transmission doesn’t work very well at least the rest of the running gear is up to snuff. The competition is all of either questionable reliability (M3, C63, RS4 when it arrives) or dubious prestige (CTS-V). I would be happy to own one. In fact, it’s probably the only Toyota I would be willing to own. The ridiculous exuberance of the sperm-whale snout, dopey stacked faux-tailpipes, and “Unique Whips” interior just about rescue the IS-F from the shameful, completely manufactured prestige associated with Lexus. I’d probably end up being one of those morons who puts “Toyota Crown Altezza Century Super Bongo” badges on his IS simply to avoid parking-lot chats with soccer moms who just love their RX350.
Naturally, any misconception of “Toyota” ownership would be shattered when the monthly lease statement arrived. Lexus made their name in this country with bargain-basement pricing, and the LS460 still sells at a five-figure discount compared to the Germans. The IS-F, on the other hand, is priced heads-up with the C63 and slightly above the M3. On the positive side, you’re buying a car that is far more likely to knock out 200,000 miles than either of the above. On the other hand: AMG money for a Toyota with a deformed hood, a make-do automanual, and white leather seats? At $50K this car makes a solid case for itself as a 335i alternative. At $65K, its appeal will be limited to only the most hardcore of Lexus fanatics, assuming any exist.
Perhaps Alex and I were really reviewing the wrong cars. He could have traveled serenely to work and play in an IS-F, knowing it would never break and that it would be recognized everywhere as a wise choice. Any deficiencies versus the big Germans wouldn’t matter much on the open road. Meanwhile, I could take some gorgeous broad out of the town and we could clutch each other in shared terror at the prospect of being stranded somewhere. Range anxiety? Maybe that’s more exciting than anything Lexus has to offer.
This is at least the fourth review of the Lexus IS-F, although it is the only one of the 2011 model. P.J. Mc Combs did the original review here. Robert Farago called it “the Bimmer’s bitch” in his Take Two. Michael Karesh performed a comprehensive styling and handling review of the 2010 model here. Disclaimer: Lexus provided this vehicle to Speed:Sport:Life, for which your humble author is also a contributor. Photography by the delightful Nicole Gagnon and the less delightful Jack Baruth.
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