Review and road test of the Lexus IS F (2008 - 2013)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Think Lexus and you'll probably end up with the mental image of something that's quieter than a snooker commentator after a hard night's karaoke, that's supremely comfortable, and probably rather anonymous. These are words you'd never use to describe the snarling IS F sports saloon, a car that seemed to blow many of Lexus' previous brand touchstones clean out of the water. As a drivers' car, it stood comparison with the best that BMW's M, Audi's RS and Mercedes-Benz's AMG divisions could produce but it never built a big following. All of which means that if you want a used bargain that's not going to let you down and might just be the most exciting steer of the lot, the IS F could be just the ticket.
(4dr saloon 5.0-litre petrol)
Lexus has never really had a history of sporting saloons. In fact, if you take a wider view on things, Lexus has never really had much of a history of anything, the brand only being founded in 1989. The car that made the company was the LS400, which did a very particular thing. It took the best of what was already being sold by the German manufacturers and improved on it. And that is the template the company set out to repeat with the IS F. By the time of its introduction in 2008, BMW had long enjoyed market success with its M3 and both Mercedes and Audi had also done well with hot versions of their C-Class and A4 models respectively. Lexus wanted in and its response was unveiled at the 2007 Detroit Show. The IS F was a genuine show stopper, powered by a monster normally-aspirated 5.0-litre V8 engine and with the styling to back that up.
While Lexus may have lacked sporting pedigree, it was clear that some of the best brains in the Toyota organisation had been looking for an outlet for their dynamic talents since the company had binned the MR2, the Celica and the Supra. The IS F proved that if you wanted a truly exciting executive supersports saloon, you didn't need to buy German. The car didn't sell in big numbers though, despite positive reviews from the motoring press. Revisions came in 2010 with the overdue fitment of a limited slip differential, HDD satellite navigation, DAB audio and also some niceties such as the option of a white leather interior and some alternate alloy wheel designs. Emissions were also dragged into line with Euro5 standards. The last of the IS F models rolled out of dealerships in early 2013 as the IS range was replaced by an all-new model.
What You Get
While IS-F customers aren't going to be bewildered by choice, they'll certainly appreciate what they get as standard. Equipment levels are strong, as you'd expect from Lexus. Massive 360mm diameter front brake discs with six-pot calipers, 19-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport boots and the additional cost of that massively sophisticated gearbox all help to explain the hefty asking price. IS-F customers also get eight airbags, twin-mode stability control, traction control, brake assist and brakeforce distribution. Security too is out of the top drawer with locking systems to confound the cleverest crooks.
The IS remains a very smart piece of design and the dynamic makeover of gently bulging wheel arches, four tail pipes, anthracite alloy wheels and air vents in the trailing edge of the front wings gives it just the muscle it needed without lapsing into cliche or caricature. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the interior which falls a little flat in the visual drama stakes. Yes, there is a smattering of carbon fibre, paddle shifters peek out from behind the steering wheel, there's a drilled pedal set and the instrument needles are finished in blue, but some beefier seats wouldn't have gone amiss, nor would a classy alcantara-trimmed steering wheel.
What to Look For
Of all of the serious performance saloons, the Lexus IS F is the one you should turn to first if you're at all worried about reliability. It just doesn't go wrong. Yes, you'll need to make sure that the tyres are in good nick and that later cars don't have moaning diffs but aside from that, you'll just have to look for a fully stamped-up service record and make sure that the vulnerable alloy wheels aren't too badly kerbed. Road noise? You'll have to get used to that. Just about the only real grumble amongst IS F owners concerns the quality of the paintwork, or more to the point durability. The front end of the car is very susceptible to stone chipping, so many owners invest in clear coat paint protection.
(approx. based on 2009 IS-F) Pads for the Brembo brakes are expensive at around £300 per set for the fronts. Tyres can also take a beating and you should expect to pay around £175 per corner. An alternator is £400, and a replacement starter motor £200.
On the Road
The specification sheet for the Lexus IS-F looks promising enough. With 417bhp from its 5.0-litre V8, it pips the BMW M3 and the MK2 Audi RS4 by 3bhp but has to give best in the power stakes to the mighty Mercedes C63 AMG. No great surprises there. The engine is a development of the unit found under the bonnet of the LS460 limousine, but has been sent to fit club. Titanium intake valves, lightweight hollow camshafts and an extra oil pump to keep the moving parts slippery during extreme cornering manoeuvres improve what was already a very impressive motor. The headline figures are par for the class, the IS-F stomping to 60mph in 4.3 seconds and on to an electronically limited top speed of 170mph.
Of perhaps more interest is the way that it does so and a key element of this is the gearbox. While many enthusiasts will stop reading now, the Lexus' automatic gearbox is something quite intriguing. With eight forward speeds and a manual mode that offers quicker upshifts than the Ferrari F1 automated manual 'box, the 'Sport Direct Shift' is no lazy lugger. Yes, there is a fully automatic mode for when you're noodling through traffic but otherwise it's that rarest of things - a genuinely purposeful sporting auto. Suspension spring rates have been stiffened by 100% compared to cooking IS models and the ride can feel almost comically firm, one of the main causes for complaint among some ex-owners. The mildly facelifted cars benefit from revised front and rear coil springs and shock absorbers which have been revised to improve ride comfort. The IS-F features a two stage stability control system with a Sport mode that allows adventurous drivers a little more leeway before the electronic cavalry comes over the hill.
As a first stab at creating a state of the art sports saloon, the Lexus IS F is a solid effort. You probably wouldn't expect a Japanese car to emerge as the most charismatic choice in its sector but put it back to back with its German rivals and the Lexus emerges as the slightly unhinged one. It's maybe not quite so polished at the very outer limits of dynamics but it's got the bigger personality and serves up a huge helping of fun.
As a used buy it's an excellent choice. As long as you're comfortable with its fuel thirst and other associated running costs, it's hard not to love it. Prices have softened to a degree where it now looks very good value against a BMW M3 saloon and reliability is second to none. It might not have been a standout seller as a new car, but as a used proposition, we reckon the IS F's day has just about come.
Lexus IS F (2008 - 2013) review by ANDY ENRIGHT