Eighth gear clicks into place and the acceleration is unrelenting. The noise from the 5.0-litre V8 is penetrating the cabin through the floor, shaking my kidneys as the speedo climbs past the 100mph mark. And I can’t quite believe I’m in a Lexus. This IS-F is good. Very good.
The revs are still rising as the IS-F slips into the fifth lane of the concrete-surfaced high speed ring and the speedo’s touching a mph mark that could have me thrown out of this Vauxhall-owned test facility faster than a spy photographer. With the suspension compacted into the ground by the banked surface, the Lexus is controlled and planted – going fast has never been quite so easy, or addictive.
The IS-F represents a milestone in Lexus history and has been designed to be an out-and-out driver’s car. This is a real rival to the V8-engined BMW M3 and is quite evenly matched in the performance stakes. With 417bhp and 505Nm from the 32-valve V8 block, the Lexus is just 3bhp shy of its German rival. But that output is enough to propel the IS-F to 60mph in 4.6 seconds, trumping the Munich monster by a slim margin of two tenths of a second.
We can’t, for fear of repercussions, reveal quite how close we got to the car’s 168mph top speed, but you’ll be pleased to know it again beats the M3’s 155mph (albeit limited) top speed. Ok, so it might be close to the Beemer on paper, but can it beat its driving experience?
Well, one thing’s for sure, it’s certainly a close run competition. The IS-F is an extremely competent machine and capable of exciting even the most ardent Lexus haters. This test took place at the SMMT’s annual driving day for hacks. Pretty much all manufacturers roll up to the impressive Millbrook test facility with a selection of cars for the press to enjoy on the variety of circuits the huge Bedfordshire proving ground has to offer.
One of the most challenging is the hill route. Fashioned on an Alpine pass, it is littered with hairpins, twisting off-camber corners and dips that can have you revisiting breakfast. The route was even featured in the famous scene from the James Bond blockbuster Casino Royale when 007 flips his DBS to avoid his conquest in the road – if you’ve seen it you’ll know the scene. Needless to say it’s an exciting and challenging course and one that the IS-F excelled on.
With so much power in reserve the Lexus punches out of corners like a nuclear explosion, and with a separate set of baffles that open in the stacked exhausts as the revs rise, it’s all accompanied by a deep bellowing soundtrack. It’s a heady mix that really makes driving the car feel like an occasion; it feels truly special.
The driving position is spot on and multi adjustable; sat low in the cabin with a chunky sports steering wheel it’s like driving a touring car. And the paddle shift eight-speed gearbox is seriously good. Often these semi-automatic boxes can be restrictive (like in the new Evo X) and others can be a true revelation (like the Golf GTI DSG), and thankfully the IS-F unit sits in the second camp. Changes are rapid and punchy and don’t hamper acceleration in any way. Down changes are matched with a blip of the throttle too and it works superbly on the challenging hill route. Lexus says the Sport Direct Shift auto transmission – to give it its long name – can swap cogs in 0.1 seconds on upshifts, with downchanges taking just three tenths. And there’s no reason to disbelieve it.
Safety gear – as you’d imagine in a car that’ll crack 160mph – is liberally applied. A vehicle dynamics management package combines ABS, electronically-controlled brake slip differential and traction control. After two hard laps, there’s no fade in the massive 360mm Brembo brakes – power is consistent despite the demands of hard braking on steep descents. The ride is firm, but perfectly set up for spirited driving, and with love-handle hugging seats it’s a comfortable place to up the pace.
As with most Lexus (Lexi?), the IS-F is slightly on the complicated side of things when it comes to the interior – it’s like the dash has been shot with an AK47 and the holes filled with buttons. Ok, so it might be a bit more organised than that, but you get the point – there are lots of controls. Style wise, the Lexus has a daunting road stance. Steroid-pumped flanks, twin double-stacked exhausts and deep bumpers mark the IS-F out as a performance machine and the lightweight, 19-inch bespoke BBS alloy wheels are a great finishing touch.
The fact the IS-F copes so well with our track test is of little surprise – the F stands for Fuji Speedway which is where most of the car’s honing took place. Track time is in the car’s DNA and is apparent as soon as you slot behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to try the Lexus out on the road. How well it’ll cope with our potholed streets, and the temptation to floor the throttle at every stretch of open road, is unclear. And with a tank of petrol currently costing more than a house, buyers will have to have deep pockets to satisfy its thirst. We’d suggest dealers gloss over the economy (16.8mpg!) and instead point them towards the performance figures, chances are that’s why they want it after all.
by James Baggott