A Muscle Car By Any Other Name

Luxury performance models live in an interesting world. Trite comparisons to the ego and the id aside, they have to be the best of both Team Edward and Team Jacob, and people pay a lot of money to make sure they can have zero compromises.

Which means, of course, that everything on the car is intrinsically a compromise.

Yes, it immediately got caught in a dirty rainstorm

The IS-F is no different. Lexus has made a concerted effort in order to show people that yes, they don’t just make cars for people who are too old to figure out which pedal is which. See, look, they cry. This thing isn’t boring! It’s not just an appliance! Did you see our LF-A prototype on the Nurburgring? We’re trying. But its still a Lexus so don’t be scared.

The IS-F was Yukihiko Yaguchi’s baby - he took a small team of engineers and borrowed some of their spare time (no small feat considering the long hours that the Japanese tend to work) and produced something that Lexus green-lit. However, it’s pretty obvious when you look at the stats that it was designed to dance toe to toe with the E90 M3.

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M3: 414 hp 4.0L V8, 3,715 lb, 6 speed manual or 7 speed DCT transmission, 0-60 4.5-4.7 seconds

IS-F: 416 5.0L V8, 3,780 lb, 8 speed automatic, 0-60 in 4.5-4.7 seconds

So, really, does it do what it aims to do? Can it dance with the greats? Is it great? Is it fun?

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Full disclosure: While I have ridden in a E90 M3 I’ve never had the privilege of driving one. It seems quick in the hands of a spirited driver, and the interior seems nice, if a little sparse.

Interiors and Shit

Let’s get some of the mundane stuff out of the way. 2010 brought several improvements on the previous years - there’s a standard Torsen differential to replace the electronically controlled diff from previous yeras, it received native USB/Bluetooth integration and XM radio, and Lexus put a nice blue tone section at the flat bottom of the steering wheel which is a nice contrast to the leather wrapped black on the rest of it.

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The interior is nice, although I’m not in love with the light tone carbon fiber trim. It’s not horrible and it lightens up the otherwise black on black action, but it seems a little out of place, like wearing a grey tie with a all-black suit. It draws attention, and not always in a good way.

Note: To the left is someone else’s Lexus. I’m shite at taking pictures.

The window controls are a little bit squished into the armrest and the center area takes up a lot of space.

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The touchscreen governs most of the features in the car. While you have knobs for volume and tuning and adjusting some of the A/C controls, manual fan strength, switching out discs in the player, connecting Bluetooth and managing navigation all happen through the touchscreen interface. There is about a half second lag navigating a lot of menus and the touches require a little bit of force which gets exasperating pretty quickly. The seat heaters heat up fast, though there are no seat chillers. The flappy paddles are made of metal and they feel pretty solid to the touch, and the seats fit me pretty much like a bespoke suit, which is nice, as I am getting on the old and chubby side even for my 5'6" frame. Remember your lumbar support, kids.

I’ve also never had push button start before, and I fucking love it. Although even a Fiesta ST has it now, so it’s not exactly a luxury property any longer.  

The backseats are nice and comfortable and in a +2 configuration instead of a bench. However, even with my short legs the seat behind me doesn’t have a large amount of legroom. Dwarves and children will have ample space and everyone else looks like they’re sitting in airline coach.

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On the outside, the not-really-functional wheelwell ducts look kind of cool, and just in case nobody knew, there are F badges stuck pretty much everywhere and swollen wheelwells and that fun looking non-attached quad pipe setup in the back. It does look a little like showing off but honestly at a glance, I don’t think anyone is even going to know you’re driving a F unless you tell them. And you don’t want to be that guy, you really don’t. It looks like someone who’s been working out for too long without buying new clothes that fit better. I personally enjoy that swole look on my car, but I can see how it wouldn’t be for everyone. The phrase “Jersey Shore tank top” keeps popping into my head when I think about it.

And Then The Horses Come Out

I’ve never had a car with more than 400 horsepower before. You realize that when driving a car with that kind of power that metaphysically you’re not really controlling the car any longer. You get the idea that it responds to your will because it already had a mind to, not because of any enforced directive of engineering. I’ve driven fast cars before but this one is the first one that I’ve owned that really seems like it could release its horses in a manner that you really didn’t intend, like the 5.0 V8 secretly thinks it belongs in a Mustang and wants to show off all the time. You know, like if only you’d turn off the damn traction control and live a little.

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I haven’t yet tried to turn it off. What the car inspires when I put my right foot down is fear. The first time I really gave it the beans on a freeway on ramp it became a teleportation device whose only job was to make sure that by the time I was on the highway proper I would A: be in criminal speed territory and B: be terrified at how I got there.

Even with the TCS on, the rear wheels dance around a bit if you push it, and the amber light flickers with continuous and intense desperation as if to say “What the hell are you doing!” like a dog trainer who is barely keeping back the angry barking beast on the other side of the gate.

On the highway in cruise mode, all you have to do is put your foot down, and the speedometer needle just climbs steadily until you decide you don’t want to go to jail. Once the tach climbs to higher than 3200 rpm or so the secondary valves open up and a luscious V8 roar permeates the cabin. It sounds distinctly Japanese to me - the Yamaha influence means it sounds sweeter than either the GM LS blocks or the Coyote 5.0s I’ve heard, like it’s been tuned like a musical instrument. Of course, if you’re not hammering it, you barely hear anything, like a good little Lexus.

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On the downside, the ride and the transmission clearly have bipolar tendencies. In normal driving, in an effort to maintain any semblance of fuel economy, the automatic transmission hesitates on any manual up or downshift to make the transition smoother for you and your passengers. That means that you can pull the paddle all day long and there is about a 60% chance that it’ll passive aggressively challenge your decision for a while, like a backseat driver that just snorts every time you do something questionable instead of asking about it directly. But then you push it into M, and all of a sudden the shifts are jarring and quick, which is the way I prefer it, since it eliminates any of the pretentions of having its own shifting opinions. My wife does not prefer that at all as they are always a surprise to anyone not actively focusing on my paddling.

The ride is stiff, too. When I test drove it before purchase it seemed fine, but the more I got settled into the ride I found that it would transmit the noise of every single uneven grain on the surface of the road. For some reason, in true Lexus fashion, the impacts don’t jar you as much as they just push you around. When you go up from a bump it’s not anything so rough as a thunk, instead the entire car balloons you up almost gradually. So you hear the sound, and then you’re bounced up like a toddler on a parental lap, and you come down again softly in your chair but very quickly. It’s somehow sporty and intrusive at the same time while at the same time attempting to be soft and gentle and it feels damn odd. The owner before me put on some Hankook Ventus Evo2 tires, and while I understand they are pretty soft for high performance, I’m looking forward to swapping them out with other extreme summer meats to see how the ride changes.

Ah, yes, the steering. It’s electric, and while the steering response is sharp the feedback is a little vague. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time driving an unassisted steering rack on a NSX recently, but I don’t particularly feel that much behind it. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m already scared to turn the wheel significantly while pushing it, but passing people on a highway turn always leaves me feeling like I’m getting only part of the complete surface message at the wheel which reduces my already diminished confidence. And for being a little distant, it’s pretty heavy. They’ve taken a cue from Subaru here - heavy and numb doesn’t mean responsive but that’s what it seems to be. Perhaps Toyota has more say in how Subaru does their day to day design than I thought. However, the turning radius even on the big 19"s that it rolls around on is genuinely excellent. After years of large turning circles it’s a really refreshing change not to have to 3 point for every U-Turn, ever.

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For 2011, they revised the suspension and the steering significantly, and I’ve read online that it is a lot smoother, which probably explains why they still command prices as much as 15k higher than the higher mileage 2010s.

Foibles aside, this car will make you drunk with power. Coming from cars with 200-300 hp to a 400 hp V8 beast is a completely different school of thought. Despite the fact that it’s not nearly as adept at telegraphing the road into your palms and feet as other cars when you put your right foot down you’re mentally and physically no longer where you were just a few moments before. Your speed and mood are both lifted and it’s impossible not to squee just a little no matter where you happen to be at the end of it.

The engine noises, the blur of the scenery and the shenanigans in the dashboard all conspire to turn you into the 6 year old kid you used to be, pretending you are in a rocket ship. At that point, you’re an astronaut and you’re going to the moon, no exceptions. To the Moon or bust!

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The thing is, if you’re not doing any of this, and you’re on a paved road because you’ve managed to find a town that actually pays its taxes and the roads work, you get none of this. You turn on your favorite radio station, the sound wells up from the many speakers, the engine thrums just a little to let you know it’s there, and you literally just Lexus your way to wherever you need to go. Smoothly, quietly, comfortably. It’s the remarkable way it maintains both emotional states that really speaks to the quality of the car.

Mods?

I’ve heard that the 2UR-GSE engine apparently has a little extra potential tucked away. With a new intake, exhaust and headers and a sensible tune, there is another 100 or so crank horsepower that can be coaxed out of the stock block. On the suspension side, retrofitting the 2011 revised suspension is apparently too complex and expensive for the average wrench, so at some point I’ll be looking for a decent of high quality coilovers to improve the ride. But these are all optional - the car stands on its own quite well.

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The Long Way To a Short Conclusion: It’s Very Likable

The IS-F is a roid strengthened UFC fighter that has also learned how to maitre d’ for old money in his spare time. He can break large blocks of ice with his forehead but also knows his wines like a fussy sommelier. He can do your taxes and chaperone your friends and also have a clean center mass grouping with a pistol from 50 yards. It’s an amazing machine that never feels cheap. Sure, it’s got rough edges compared to the M3 but despite it not winning any of its comparisons between it and its Bavarian counterpart it still stands on its own, warts and all.

I don’t know if anything will stand up to the NSX I used to own. One thing the IS-F isn’t is a supercar and I think even the car knows that. However, it still stands tall on the fun scale, and it both terrifies and encourages you in spades. Lexus swung for the fences and got on base with a solid triple, and you can’t really deny such an earnest effort.

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If you’re all the way down here, thanks for reading, Oppo. Let me know if you have any questions about it.