Lexus's Fast and Furious IS-F

Lexus has delivered a growling, 416-horsepower muscle car that would likely shock the brand's traditional owners into apoplexy

Stereotypes, they say, have their basis in fact. Well, at least in the automobile world, there's some truth to that. Take Lexus, the luxury arm of Toyota , which has a reputation for building beautifully appointed, bulletproof products that seem predestined for the sort of aging, affluent buyers who don't really enjoy driving all that much.

So what to make of the new Lexus IS-F? Yep, it's well executed, from nose-to-tail, with near-flawless attention to detail and the absolutely precise fit-and-finish you'd expect from the Japanese marque. But boring and bland? Not on your life.

The original IS, launched in 2000, was intended to serve as a hip, sporty and affordable alternative to more mainstream models, like the Lexus LS. But in a segment where everyone benchmarks the BMW 3-Series, the IS fell short, even with the second-generation update, introduced two years ago.

Rather than trying to gain ground, and credibility, by slowly honing in on the base BMW 328, the new Lexus IS-F takes aim at the toughest challenge of them all, the German maker's vaunted M3. What Lexus has delivered is a growling, 416-horsepower muscle car that would likely shock the brand's traditional owners into apoplexy.

"The IS-F is likely to represent everything you didn't think we were—thank goodness," declared Jim Farley, who until recently headed the Lexus division, (and who put in his last public appearance at the IS-F launch before unexpectedly taking the top marketing job at Ford Motor Co.).

In today's alphanumeric soup, every automaker seems to glom onto some letter to represent the high point of their engineering prowess: M for BMW, V Cadillac, R for Jaguar. Considering our less than stellar school days, the letter, F, still carries some painful overtones, but for Lexus, it seems, F stands for "fast," "furious," and "fun."

The letter has been used on internal projects designed to inject some of those factors into the brand DNA, and it's surfaced not only in the IS-F concept and production car, but also the exotic LF-A supercar concept.

While Lexus has yet to create a full brand-within-a-brand, like BMW's M, or Mercedes' AMG, the IS-F is more than just a high-powered makeover of the mainstream IS250. In a company that normally adheres to rather strict development protocols, the new sedan burst forth from what Farley described as "a skunkworks team of car fiends."

Chief among them was Yukihiko Yaguchi. He originally proposed the idea of a muscle car when the Lexus brand was getting set to go global, earlier in the decade. And he was promptly told, "no." But Yaguchi decided to keep the project going—in secret—assigning it "to myself, and working on it in my spare time." By the spring of 2004, he was far enough along, and confident enough of the results, to bring the idea up again. This time, he got the okay, and went from being the IS-F's "secret advocate to its chief engineer."

Even then, where a typical Toyota and Lexus project might have 1000 or more engineers and support staff assigned, the IS-F had to make due with anywhere from 100 to 300, over the course of its development, supplementing the effort with the help of the company's racing arm, TRD, and its Toyota Technocraft division.

So what did they come up with?

Let's start off with some of the vital statistics: under the hood, you'll find a 5.0-liter V-8 making an impressive 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque. That's a full 76 ponies more than the old M3 and two more than the '09 model. Purists might growl, but all that muscle is piped through the industry's first eight-speed direct-shift auto/manual transmission, with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The fastest car ever delivered by Lexus, it's capable of hitting 60 in 4.6 seconds and topping out at an electronically regulated 168 mph.

The other part

Of course, those numbers tell only part of the story.

At first glance, you'll recognize the basic IS shape, sleek and reasonably attractive, it's one of the first models to feature the so-called L-finesse styling cues that are fast becoming the brand's visual identity.

With the IS-F, a number of changes have been made, some, such as the big V-8 badge on the hood, to cosmetically distinguish the car from the standard IS 250 and 350, but most for functional purpose, such as the sportier and more aggressive grille, with lower vents to enhance engine breathing, and matching vents for brake cooling. Flared wheel arches house the oversized tires needed to pump all that extra power to the pavement.

The IS-F has been lowered 0.8 inches. The front track was widened an inch, while the rear track is actually 0.4 inches narrower. The body is, overall, 0.6 inches wider. The total length of the car has been stretched 3.3 inches, to 183.5 inches.

The IS-F gets the clean underbody treatment to reduce drag and a variety of steps have been taken to completely eliminate high-speed lift.

The IS-F is attractive enough, though to our eyes, there was a certain lack of refinement to the overall appearance. Some of the performance design features look bolted on, rather than seamlessly integrated, as they typically are in BMW M or Mercedes AMG products.

Inside, the look is more flawlessly pulled together. To start with, the IS-F has adopted a four-bucket-seat layout, rather than the IS's standard 2+3 seating. Those seats are extremely grippy, with added reinforcements and bolstering designed to hold you in place during even the hardest track driving.

The instrument cluster is distinctive and reflective of the sportier nature of the F-car, with additional temperature and voltage gauges. The center console is a hand-finished aluminized composite, with matching switch plates on the doors.

Much like BMW, Lexus has a lot of ground to cover with the IS lineup. The 250 is the entry point for the Japanese marque, but the IS-F carries a buyer into much more rarified territory. You are, of course, paying mostly for the powertrain, but this isn't a boy-racer. The car delivers a lot more refinement than the base model.

Everywhere you look—or listen—you can detect the fingerprints of Yaguchi's skunkworks team. They even spent time tuning the exhaust note of that big V-8, which issues a resonant burble, at idle, and a menacing blat when you're running it balls-to-the-wall.

While displacement matters, this isn't just another big block engine. Equipped with Yamaha cylinder heads and a smart variable valve train, the IS-F engine features ultra-light titanium intake valves, a water-cooled oil cooler and a dual fuel intake system that, depending on engine speed, can switch between port and direct injection.

Lament, if you will, the lack of a manual gearbox, but there's a good chance you'll change your mind after spending a few minutes behind the wheel. The eight-speed transmission requires just a tenth of a second to change gears, beating the times of the Ferrari F430, Lexus claims, and matching the numbers for the new F599 GTB.

There are two operating modes. In Direct Shift, you can manually change gears, using the paddleshifters, or function as a conventional automatic. Manual mode uses the torque converter in first gear only, then locks up from second through eighth.

The front suspension is a double wishbone design, the rear a multilink. And as we discovered during a day's driving on-road and on-track, this is definitely not your typical Lexus ride.

Another big surprise: Lexus has gone with an electric, rather than hydraulic steering system, but you'd likely not notice unless you're prone to reading the detailed specs. The system provides two ranges of adjustable assist, with a noticeably heavier feel in Sport.

The car rides on directional, 19-inch forged BBS alloy wheels with two tire packages available: Bridgestone Potenzas or Michelin PS2s.

To make sure the IS-F stops as fast as it launches, Lexus has turned to Brembo Monoblock Caliper brakes, six-pistons up front and two in the rear.

As you'd likely expect of a Lexus, those brakes are part of a sophisticated electronic chassis and ride control system that includes ABS, traction control, electronic stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution, and more, all integrated into a specially-calibrated VDIM, or Vehicle Dynamics Interface Module. And, yes, you can turn just about everything but ABS and the limited slip rear differential off in track mode.

Grueling track

We had plenty of time behind the wheel, a good part of a day spent at the grueling Laguna Seca track, near Monterey , California . It's an unforgiving course, with fast straights, demanding corners, and a corkscrew that defies the faint-of-heart. Blasting out of the pits, the IS-F took off like a racehorse, blasting into and back out of the first turn.

The wheels always seemed well-planted, the steering well-tuned to the demanding course. With all the electronic control systems on, we ran a series of laps, steadily picking up our pace. Turning to track mode required a little more work. It's easy to forget how much the electronics will do for you. But this allowed us to hang the wheels out a little more, pushing ourselves even more aggressively around corners.

Later in the day, we turned off onto the back 30-mile stretch of Carmel Valley Road , one of the most challenging stretches of public asphalt in the country, with blind turns, rough pavement, off-camber turns and fast elevation changes.

The electric steering, as earlier noted, was clearly up to the task. It's easily the most connected system in the Lexus line-up, and while it's not quite as precise as BMW's M3, it stands up to the other contenders to that throne.

The IS-F's suspension doesn't yield easily. It remains glued to the road until you realize make a mistake, and then the electronics kick in to reel you back in.

The sedan debuts in Japan by year's end, but won't reach showrooms until next March, though a special edition is being offered in the annual Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue for $68,000. That limited-edition version comes with a ticket to the Lexus driving school which is worth about $5000. So, while final numbers have yet to be released, we're looking at IS-F coming in around $63,000.

Will the car accomplish what Lexus intended, which according to Farley, is to attract the sort of European intender "who absolutely previously never had Lexus on their shopping list"?

Dedicated BMW fans will likely still turn up their noses, especially those single-mindedly focused on the new M3. But for the rest of us, the IS-F is going to draw some attention, and more than a few buyers. It's got a ways to go before it has everything down to the level of science the Europeans have achieved, but it's a lot more than just brute force jammed under the hood of a Lexus. This is a serious contender that should only get better with each succeeding generation.

2008 Lexus IS-F

Base price: $63,000 (est.)

Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 416 hp/371 lb-ft

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift, rear-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 183.5 x 71.5 x 55.7 in

Wheelbase: 107.5 in

Curb weight: 3,780 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/23 mpg

Major standard features: Power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD audio; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; digital climate control; power seats; remote keyless entry; alloy wheels

Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; dual front, side and curtain airbags; active head restraints; tire pressure monitors

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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