Review: 2011 Lexus IS F
By Chris Haak
Forget the “Naughty Volvo.” The 2011 IS F is unquestionably the Naughty Lexus. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, having a car like the IS F to drive every day could easily be a recipe for losing one’s driving privileges. The temptation afforded by a small car, an eight-speed, paddle-shifted transmission, and a big, honking, 5.0 liter 416 horsepower, 371 lb-ft V8 is just too great.
When I reviewed a Lexus IS 350 a few years ago, I was awestruck by what a fast car it was. There was power available in any spot of the rev range, the transmission shifted quickly, and the 306 horsepower direct-injected V6 had a refined, yet boisterous, soundtrack. So how do you make a car like the IS 350 better? Just add more: more power (a 5.0 liter V8 that would be at home in a Mustang GT 5.0), more gears (eight forward speeds instead of six, and more sound. It was damn near impossible for me to keep my right foot away from the IS F’s gas pedal, because the deep bass sound that emanates from the exhaust outlets is far more addicting than any sound ought to be.
In case you couldn’t tell, I really, really loved driving the IS F. And that’s a shame, because 1) it costs too much for the editor of a car website to purchase, 2) it’s too small to hold a family of tall people, 3) I’d probably get arrested or killed if I had that much power and fun at my immediate disposal 365 days a year, and 4) the fun discussed in reason #3 makes the car gulp way too much premium unleaded than a responsible person should consume.
The other shame was that I happened to receive this car for evaluation during a period in late January/early February when there was some sort of winter storm every week for four weeks. Snow and ice melt eventually, but a rear wheel drive, 416 horsepower car shod with summer tires that has a $63,000 pricetag and belongs to somebody else is nearly the exact opposite of the ideal vehicle for that weather.
On the evening the IS F arrived, which was on the eve of a winter storm, I took the car for a spin around town, assuming that I wouldn’t be able to drive it for a few days. I was immediately struck by the car’s exhaust note (which I’d experienced when I had the opportunity to drive a first-year IS F on a track years earlier) and by how easy it was to break the rear tires loose. Summer tires are optimized for dry roads at temperatures above 45 degrees F; below that temperature, they are to hard and don’t get as much traction. Nevertheless, the sampling made me hungry to drive the little hot rod again as soon as possible.
Overnight, we got about six inches of snow, and sleet was forecast for the following afternoon. I had to run a critical errand, so my wife insisted that I take her all wheel drive Sienna. Reluctantly, I agreed and looked longingly at the still-snow-covered Lexus in the driveway as I left. I hit the road, which was well-salted and only wet at that point, and became increasingly annoyed at the good condition of the roads during the first mile of my 25-mile trip, because a car I really wanted to drive was sitting immobile on my driveway, while I was driving a vehicle that I didn’t care to drive. I turned the van around, headed to the driveway, dusted off the IS F and took off again. I was careful not to open the garage door, lest my wife discover that I had swapped cars before I had a chance to make a clean getaway. I had no problems getting to my destination, and very much enjoyed using the IS F’s ample power reserves whenever conditions were safe enough to do so.
On the return trip, I made it just over halfway home when it began to sleet. I hate it when my wife is right! Remarkably, the IS F’s gas pedal is so precise that I was able to travel about 10 miles on ice – in spite of the horsepower, tires, and rear wheel drive all working against me – and only saw the traction control light engage three times. Yet, in more ideal conditions, there is enough pedal travel to nearly blast off. After its initial bark upon startup, the exhaust settles into a steady burble, and driven sedately, you’d have no idea that the car is capable of performance that Corvettes could have only dreamed about a few years earlier.
Inside, the IS F’s cabin is nice, with soft, well-bolstered alpine (white) seats that have contrasting stitching. There is metallic trim throughout instead of wood. Lexus doesn’t want you to forget that this is the brand’s sportiest model (until the LFA hits the market). The stylized “F” logo appears throughout the cabin, such as in the middle of a blue patch of leather at the base of the small, thick steering wheel. Most of what you touch inside the IS F is soft, including the fabric-trimmed A-pillars (it IS a Lexus, after all), but there are a few hard plastic points toward the bottom where you’re unlikely to touch very often.
The steering wheel feels great in your hand, and looking through its rim, you’re greeted with an extremely large tachometer front and center, and an extremely small speedometer offset to the right. To help you tell how fast you’re going (since the speedometer is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter), there’s a small digital speed display embedded within the tach’s borders. Though impractical in daily use (particularly with an automatic transmission), the big tach and its LED tracer lights above a certain point in the needle’s sweep certainly communicate that this car can be a serious track tool.
Even though I’m 6’4″, I had no problem finding a comfortable driving position, though my slightly-shorter wife found that her head frequently made with the passenger-side grab handle. Blame the combination of a long torso and a fairly-steep tumblehome for that experience. Rear seat room is paltry, particularly when I’m in a comfortable position in the front seat. I didn’t bother to ask about taking the kids on a trip in the IS F because I figured the only time we sardined our sons into an IS 350, everybody was miserable after 15 minutes. The rear seat only has two seating positions, with an F-branded tray in between the bottom cushions instead. You’d be foolish to cram five people into an IS anyway.
When pressing the accelerator, there’s almost two distinct degrees of resistance. It seems to have a softer spring in its initial travel, then gets a bit harder to press as it gets closer to the floor. The sensation is not unlike that of flooring a muscle car equipped with a four-barrel carburetor atop its big V8 as the secondaries open up. The soundtrack of the yummy Lexus V8, already discussed, continues the muscle car theme. Literally, hitting the gas in this car makes you giggle, between the aural sensations and the thrust throwing you back in your seat, the visual experience of seeing the tach needle sweep quickly through the gears. With eight ratios, the transmission doesn’t spend much time in any one gear during acceleration.
If you forget to press the Sport button, and don’t move the gear lever into the +/- manual gate, you’ll find that paddle-actuated gearchanges are frustratingly slow and leisurely. For the first day or two, before I actually combined the button with manual gear changes, I figured that the fastest way to accelerate in the IS F must be just leaving it in D. But then I put the shifter in the manual mode, activated Sport mode, and the thrill started all over again.
In Sport mode, manual shifts done with the paddles (the right paddle for upshifts, the left oen for downhifts, as God intended) occur so quickly, they remind one of the dual clutch gearbox in the BMW Z4 sDrive35i. There are few things more frustrating during spirited driving than calling for an upshift, and the transmission responding lackadaisically while the engine then hits the rev limiter. There’s none of that in the IS F in Sport mode. Now, forget to hit the paddle, and the car won’t shift at the redline – it just bounces off the limiter. Going the other direction, downshifts are met with a rev matching throttle blip, which in the IS F means a brief bark of loud exhaust.
Large Brembo brakes (14.2 inch front rotors with six-piston calipers and 13.6 inch rears with two-piston calipers) bring the fun to a halt instantly. Poor weather and limited dry-road mileage didn’t afford me the chance to do any dry-road panic stop simulations, but away from a racetrack, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which the IS F’s brakes would fade or otherwise not be up to snuff.
So let’s see: the IS F is fast, sounds great, has a nice (albeit small) interior, stops well, and shifts quickly. What’s not to like? Lexus’ Bluetooth connectivity needs help if you’re doing like most people and pairing a phone that is also a music player (though Bluetooth hands-free calling was exceptionally clear for both parties), the standard six-speaker audio system sounds just a little better than okay (a fancy Mark Levinson system is available for more money), climate control buttons are small and hard to decipher, and the body kit is more than a little over the top. However, the Ultrasonic Blue Mica of my tester (not pictured) is a dazzling color that looks great, and the Audi-copying line of LED daytime running lights enhances the visual interest in newer IS models.
Also, the thing just gulps down premium unleaded if you use its 416 horsepower. Rapid transit in the IS F gets fuel economy figures of 13-14 miles per gallon, below the EPA city rating of 16 miles per gallon. In more normal driving, if one can avoid the temptations of the V8, gets you pretty close to the 23 miles per gallon highway figure that the EPA claims. Let’s face it; the EPA test doesn’t get anywhere close to the acceleration this car is capable of, so it makes sense that taking advantage of those capabilities would reduce economy.
My tester came equipped with few options, but the car naturally has a lot of standard equipment. The base price is $59,010, and the test vehicle had the $2,485 navigation system (including rear backup camera), $50o intuitive parking assist, $65 cargo net, and $75 trunk mat. No sunroof, no Mark Levinson, no $5,000 wheel upgrade. Add $875 for destination, and the car is two Happy Meals more expensive than $63,000, at $63,007.
Though the IS F is some $25,000 more expensive than an IS 250, it seems worth it if you have any interest in performance. Compared to an M3 sedan, it’s $6,762 less expensive according to TrueDelta when normalizing equipment. It’s $4,920 less than the similarly-sized Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. The IS F doesn’t have the finesse of an M3 or the brutal power of the C63, but it’s a heck of a car, and truly a blast to drive. It’s hard to imagine that Lexus will continue to build a car like this a few years into the future, so snap one up now while you still have a chance.