By Grant Davis
So Toyota does make a sports sedan. Or to be more specific, Toyota’s luxury Lexus division makes it in the form of the $64,031, 5.0-liter, 418-hp, V8 IS-F, a rear-wheel drive terror with four doors and warp drive available with a flick of a paddle shift and a stomp on the gas pedal.
First, a little background: the IS-F was reportedly the mad scientist brainstorm of the head of Toyota, who, damn it, wanted his own company to make something that invoked the thrills of G-force-induced nausea. He greenlit a skunk works team to build the ideal car for Germany’s Nürburgring, a fast and brutal 13-mile racecourse that winds over hills and through the woods — and is open to the public on Sundays. It’s the benchmark where all the world’s greatest sports cars are measured. And yet, his engineers had to make this car a Lexus, something that could handle the daily commute and swaddle the driver in a premium, not stripped down, experience.
They succeeded. No more should anyone view the Lexus brand as the car for middle-aged, SUV-driving housewives or practical company controllers who opt for value over in-your-face style.
Three cars in one
After the first couple of trips around town in heavy traffic, the Lexus’s transmission kept things on the mild side, shifting before the V-8 had any chance to rev up. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. That’s not to say the car handled like a luxo-cruiser. The suede leather steering wheel has a solid heft that feels connected directly to the 19-inch low-profile tires up front. The F-spec’d suspension is stiffer than a rollercoaster on rails. (Women hated it.) And you don’t just sit down in the front seat; you slide your way into a tight cockpit and secure your butt and back into a 10-way adjustable envelope (the seat). This taut racing get-up felt like overkill until I stopped at an on-ramp traffic light.
When the light turned green, I stomped the gas, the tach revved up to 3,500 rpm, and … I went nowhere. That’s because the 371 lb-ft of torque was smoking the rear tires. The IS-F shuttered as the traction control fought to find grip and when it did, the Lexus shot forward. But surprise! The engine wasn’t done. Stage three ignited as the tachometer hit 5,000 rpm, and the IS-F found another level of “holy shit!” to catapult me to 80 mph. I wasn’t holding a stopwatch, but the car’s reported 0-60 in 4.6 seconds seemed dead right.
Now I understood why this was a luxury sports sedan and not a sports car. The gremlins had given the IS-F three personalities: luxury cruiser, spirited flier and racecar. Most cars with this kind of power make do with two identities. For Lexus to give its spawn three speaks to the technical sophistication under the hood.
A driver’s car
Now that I understood that the fun only started above 3,500 rpm, I switched the transmission to manual and paddle-shifted my way through its eight gears — yes, that’s right, eight gears — up into the twisties in the mountains while keeping the rev’s high. At speed with the 5.0-Liter engine unbridled, the heavy steering makes perfect sense — it’s tuned for 100-mph cornering maneuvers while the driver’s standing on the 14.2-inch diameter Brembo brakes, not sharp right turns at an intersection. The space capsule of a driver’s seat and the cabin’s ergonomics mitigate any wasted motion or effort from keeping your ass in place. Just focus on the road and holding onto the wheel. That’s all you gotta worry about.
And here’s the crazy part. I had the car in “Normal” not “Sport” mode the whole time. The IS-F’s idea of normal is what the majority of cars call the “breaking point.”
More F with my vanilla, please
After a couple hours of gleefully beating the crap out the IS-F, I had to wonder why Lexus turned its compact IS sports sedan into this beast. The rear leg and headroom is pretty much useless, and only a fellow sports car nut would enjoy spending more than an hour in the passenger’s seat. The trunk is nothing to brag about either.
I suspect 90 percent of the people who buy this Lexus will hardly ever carry passengers. Perhaps that’s the point, though. Lexus, maker of dull-looking cars, wanted to give its demographic, which apparently loves average-looking cars, something relatively sporty-looking. The fat tires and aggressively-spoked wheels are difficult to hide and are powered by a never-ending supply of dynamite. If that’s how you roll, your car has arrived.