I was driving the other day, talking to myself (I can’t be the only one who does this). During this monologue, I wondered what happened to the Lexus IS 500. It’s still for sale, but I hadn’t seen a single one since the 2022 New York Auto Show. Not five minutes later did I spot a nice grey one right in front of me on the Garden State Parkway. Sometimes the Car Gods smile. But did they smile upon the IS’s distant predecessor, the Lexus IS-F?
Absolutely. And not really.
The Lexus IS-F overview
Being weird, or just different, isn’t always a bad thing in the car world. The original IS300 gave us Altezza lights, a trend soon copied by everything. But it was also Lexus’s first real attempt to make a sports sedan. The ES, that thing based on a Camry, was never going to cut it if Lexus wanted to get in on some 3 Series sales.They needed a rear-wheel drive platform with some lithe handling ability. So Toyota took the Japanese market Altezza and waved its magic wand. That first gen had a Supra engine – a genuine inline-six, which was an oddity for any Japanese car back then. Too bad it lacked the Supra’s power.
But Toyota noticed M, AMG, RS, and V and damn it, they deserved a letter too. F was born. And to usher in this era of high-performance, they released the car on this very page.
The Lexus IS-F was based on the second generation sedan, and it had something unique in a small Lexus at the time – a V-8. A crazy V-8. The kind of V-8 that keeps you up at night. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find a sports sedan that’s not as hardcore as an M3 or RS4.
Is that a bad thing?
Performance Score: 6. F you
I was excited to test this car. My fondness for Japanese muscle is no secret, and I was eager to try this engine. It didn’t disappoint.
But a car is more than that. Aim the IS-F for a corner, and you’ll find it eager to roll, with steering that goes tone deaf (remember, this is still 2008, the “good ol’ days”).
When this car was built, the average age of a Lexus buyer was 61 years old. Hold onto that fact…
Would you call Toyota a legendary engine builder? I think the 2JZ was an accident – over-engineered, and no one knew how much is could handle when the Supra came out. Otherwise, I don’t see a single S54-like example in its history.
But for this V-8, Toyota asked for help from Yamaha (they make pianos). At 5 liters, it’s a full liter bigger than the S65, and only revs to 6,800. No doubt, Toyota was concerned about warranties and longevity.
This engine is boring. Plain. Vanilla around town. Feels like you’re in a Lexus, for better or worse. But aim it on a highway, push the tach beyond 3,400 RPM , and an induction flap on the intake will open up. Holy hell!
It sounds like nothing else when you rev it – distinctly Japanese, but with a muscle car roar. It felt louder than an M3, that’s for sure. But you only get about 3,000 RPMs of heaven before it’s time to shift. 416 horsepower is nothing to sneeze at, and the IS-F felt fast if you’re on it, but like the rest of the car, you want more here. It’s a beautiful engine that really needed to be unleashed.
No, I won’t mention the fake stacked exhaust tips.
By the time Lexus was on this IS generation, the manual transmission was gone from the entire lineup. Instead, you get an eight-speed automatic.
Eight speeds were still rare in 2008, so Lexus took the transmission from the big LS and re-engineered it to offer less slop and more snap. The result is pretty good, to the point that you almost forget that the car is 15 years old. Almost.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to a modern ZF, which is much more responsive (this trans is hesitant to kick down a gear sometimes), but here again is an example of Lexus temperance. A DCT with this engine would have been magic.
Steering and Chassis
It’s rare you’ll read “I just don’t like it” on these pages, but if the Lexus IS-F has a fatal flaw, it’s in the handling department.
Turn in response is slow, and the car just leans over in corners. Perhaps some blame goes to the nearly 3,900-pound curb weight, which was very heavy for the time. Steering feedback is as bad as a modern BMW, providing no clue as to what the front tires are up to and a vagueness just off-center.
And that vaunted luxury ride? Even on the highway, behavior is somewhat un-Lexus like with a bit of a clompy bounce down the road. The car always feels unsettled.
I didn’t push the car hard enough to notice, but early IS-Fs had open differential in the rear, which isn’t ideal on a car with this much power. If you track it, there’s a good chance you’ll roast an inside tire at some point. In 2011, Lexus would add a limited-slip differential.
Speaking of, don’t take my word for all this, take Lexus’s. They didn’t just add a diff in 2011, they completely revised the IS-F’s suspension. I’m talking new bushings, roll bars, springs – you name it. Makes me wonder what an original IS-F felt like.
Broken record I suppose, but again, the brakes are an almost. Made by Brembo, with cross-drilled discs, they stop the car well enough, but pedal response is spongy. They don’t instill as much confidence as they should.
Don’t get the wrong impression, this car has a soul, and a fun one. Let’s give the IS-F a bit of a break – the engineers practically had to build this in a basement without any help from Lexus themselves. I can see the effort and love put into the car, it’s just not a;ways evident with its performance envelope.
Utility: 5. The real four-door coupe
Hop into a regular IS300, turn around, and see a full bench seat in the back. Hop into an IS-F, and the middle seat is essentially a table. In a small sedan, how often will you use the middle bench seat? Right. Probably never. I wouldn’t call the rear heavily bolstered like in an M5 CS though. Would be nice to have the room I suppose, if they had no indention of pumping up the cushioning.
Overall, the IS-F is a bit tight inside, not quite as efficiently packaged as the Audi or BMW. You must kindly ask the front row residents to move up their seat backs to an upright position. It’s fine if you’re 25, but maybe not at 35.
Think more Grand Coupe with a sedan profile, and you get it.
Fuel Economy: 4. Music to my fears
Toyota recently came out and told everyone that producing 100 hybrid Priuses (Prii?) would be just as efficient as making 50 all-electric vehicles. They are concerned about the battery supply chain. No one seemed to care, but I like the logic.
I bring this up because believe it or not, Lexus still produces this V-8 (the future isn’t here yet). It’s in the current IS 500, among other cars. In a nearly 15-year-old IS-F, expect 18 (probably closer to 16 MPG). The IS500 produced now get 20 MPG combined, for whatever that’s worth.
Features and Comfort: 6. Price problem
I think now would be a good time to talk about price. When new, a Lexus IS-F cost more than an E90 M3 by the time 2011 came around. I find that incredible.
It does have all the features you’d expect of a car in this realm, but if you’ve sat in a German sedan, you’ll be disappointed.
You know what’s frustrating? Japanese interior quality. This Lexus is certainly a step above any Toyota, but for a car that’s pushing $65,000, it feels too plastic-fantastic inside. The RS 4 is a much nicer place to do business.
That said, there are some cool elements here. Sit down into chairs that have a mix of leather and Alcantara – they look weird but cool, making them fit the IS-F’s personality perfectly. The steering wheel has a nice shape to it, and everything is where you’d expect. It’s comfortable.
The navigation is starting to enter that nostalgic phase. It’s surrounded by many, many buttons, and this is before Lexus came out with their ridiculous mouse-pointer pad, so there’s no central way to control everything.
While we’re here, let’s mention the dashboard layout. The original IS300 had dials like watch faces – looked great, but hard to read. Here, Lexus gives you a gigantic tachometer so it can really yell at you to pull the paddles, along with the world’s smallest speedometer. There’s also what feels like an entire fleet of small pixel screens and backlit icons. It’s a lot of info stuffed in a small space, yet feels oddly haphazard in layout.
It’s worth mentioning that the throttle pedal isn’t floor mounted, making it so much harder to manipulate. Many cars do this, and I consider it a driving sin.
Pumped up puffer
Lexus never intended for the LS’s V-8 to be crammed into the IS’s engine bay, so things had to be pulled, stretched and engorged (what a great word to use in a car review).
The result looks great, to my eye at least. Those fake, stretched-over vents are eye-catching, and would become an F hallmark. The raised hood and enlarged intakes make it clear that this is not grandpa’s car, and just three “F” badges are fixed to the bodywork. The effect is subtle but menacing, and I think they did a better job differentiating this super sedan from the plebs than anyone else.
The Lexus IS-F is full of Almosts
Remember I had mentioned the median age of a Lexus buyer being 61? Lexus is obsessed with them, and they felt that a real buyer would be off-put by this car.
They are absolutely correct.
But they already have the typical Lexus buyer. What the IS-F needed to be was unleashed. The engine is glorious, but attached to a chassis that was only half-baked. Sure, Toyota didn’t have a DCT lying around on a shelf – but you’re telling me the biggest automaker in the world couldn’t design one? Performance cars built on compromise are almost always failures.
The IS-F has its charms. If you like Japanese cars, I can’t imagine a more fun one from the time frame aside from the just-waking-up GT-R. Actually, the GT-R is a great example of a car that uses things from nowhere else in the Nissan lineup, like a DCT.
Damn, Lexus almost had it…
At the end of the day, the IS-F is a quirky little Japanese sedan with a big heart, and it absolutely has a soul inside. I can feel it, if only for 3,500 glorious revolutions per minute.
Consider us blessed by the Car Gods.
Thank you Ray and Ronnie for bringing along this beautiful IS-F!
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