Behind the Wheel – 2011 Lexus ISF

We take the V8 Lexus ISF out for an exhilarating ride.

CraveOnlineby CraveOnline

Lexus ISF

The IS F changes what it means to drive a Lexus, and that could make it the most important model for Lexus since the original models of 1989 when the luxury automaker went live.

The high-performance sport sedan arrived in Japan in 2007 and in the U.S. in 2008. Intended as a challenger to the BMW M3 or the Mercedes Benz SLK, the IS F is the top shelf of the Lexus IS line and the closest the Toyota partner comes to producing an elite consumer sports car. (Lexus builds the 552 HP LFA, but at $375,000 that super car shoots for the high end buyer exclusively.)

The 2011 version boasts a V8 power plant that produces 416 horsepower and 371 lb. ft. of torque. The speedometer tempts you with 200 mph at the top of its dial, but Lexus tells me U.S. models come limited to just under 170 mph. You can work up to that speed with a sequential automatic transmission, or the world’s first eight speed transmission with optional Sport Mode paddle shifting. The Sport option automatically corrects the driver’s downshifting to the correct gear to protect the high-tech gearbox.

The acceleration is nothing short of exhilarating. The IS F gives you that dominant, undeniable kick and passing power that very few mass market production cars can hope to match. It jerks your head back and blasts your ears with its urgent, sharp, quad-exhaust pipe roar.

Most published tests set the IS F’s 0-60 time at 4.6 seconds, which leaves it behind the Ferraris and Porsches of this world – but keeps it neck and neck with its price point cousin, the M3. The IS F offers a base sticker of about $60,000. The  kitted out version Lexus graced me with would sell for about $80,000.

Lexus ISF

Minor upgrades to its suspension and steering system improved handing and stability, producing excellent grip, even at speed. I took the IS F out for a night ride on historic Mulholland Drive and over the liberating Angeles Crest Highway and ate up the curves with laughable ease. In fact, that’s what I was doing while putting my foot down – laughing with boyish glee.

And you can accelerate through traffic with confidence as Lexus provides the same sophistication in its slowing as it does in its acceleration. Its heavy duty, Formula One-influenced brakes from Brembo provide confident stopping power even in the middle of a 0-60 roar.

That’s what makes the IS F such a prime addition to the Lexus bloodline. For less than $100,000, it’s the first car Lexus built that excites the little boy in you. It’s the first set of wheels off the Lexus assembly line that makes the noise you used to make when you were playing with your Hot Wheels. Vrroom! And it’s a Lexus that makes drivers look over to see what’s passing them.

Perhaps the most telling moment for how folks respond to the sights and sounds of the IS F came along by chance one night on the streets of Los Angeles. I had some after hours banking to conduct and used it as yet another excuse to take the IS F on an angry spin while traffic was subdued. I parked it in the bank parking lot and headed for the night depository.

But, I heard another car enter the lot behind me – a silver BMW M3. It parked just a couple spaces away from my adopted IS F in the tiny lot. There they were – natural enemies and rivals for the same market niche and title of best mass market sports sedans.

As I conducted my business. I kept a furtive eye glancing back at the guy driving the M3. He got out and started heading for the bank, but he stopped to size up the IS F. His head turned from the Lexus to his own car and back again. The comparison froze him for a moment. I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know if it was just passing curiosity, or if the sight of the IS F stuck him with a twinge of buyer’s remorse.

But I know it slowed him down – after speeding me up.