A small Lexus with big power

June 1, 2011 - 10:12 AM
Behind The Wheel 2011 Lexus IS F

This undated picture made available by Toyota shows the 2011 Lexus IS F. (AP Photo/Toyota)

The 2011 IS F is a Lexus, but it feels more like a sports car than a luxury car.

Sure, there are leather-trimmed seats and a host of luxury amenities like rain-sensing wipers and automatic climate control with pollen filter and smog sensor in the IS F.

But the IS F is the only small-sized Lexus sedan stuffed with a 416-horsepower, 5-liter V-8, and it can rocket from standstill to 60 miles an hour in 4.6 seconds.

It has a limited slip differential to help manage all the power going to the rear wheels and racing-style Brembo brakes to scrub off the speed and slow the car quickly.

The 19-inch wheels on the IS F are dark, smoke-colored, which are definitely more of a sport statement than a luxury look. So, too, are the four chrome exhaust tips at the back of the car.

This BMW M3 wannabe also is the highest priced of all the IS cars. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail prices, including destination charge, for the 2011 IS F is $61,535. This is some $27,000 more than a base 2011 IS250 with 204-horsepower V-6.

The IS F competes primarily with the category leader, the M3 sedan, which has a starting retail price of $58,075 with 414-horsepower V-8 for a 2011 model. The 2011 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG sedan with 451-horsepower V-8 has a starting retail price of $61,175.

The Japan-built IS F is in its third year on the U.S. market and as a 2011 model received its biggest overhaul thus far.

The stiff suspension was ameliorated with changes to just about every major suspension component, including spring rates, shock absorbers and rear bushings. But based on the test car, it remains a taut, firm ride with a minimum of body roll even when a driver is really pushing through corners. Though not punishing, it's still not the kind of ride a consumer would associate with a regular Lexus.

The IS F interior is loud, with a lot of road noise coming through to passengers, especially on concrete roadways. Again, this is decidedly not a Lexus trait.

Deep, sinister power sounds from the V-8 came through, too. Other Lexus sedan drivers don't announce their arrival this way.

And interestingly, the IS F was the first Lexus I've driven that regularly attracted the attention of teen-agers and college-age youth. They seemed to relate to the aerodynamic body kit-like styling of the IS F. But many older people — the ones who can afford a $61,000 car — were unimpressed and said it seemed over the top.

At just over 15 feet long, the test car was a blast to drive fast and OK to drive in traffic, save for the road noise. Over time, I began to try to dodge manhole covers in the pavement because they added to the noise that would come inside.

The 5-liter, double overhead cam V-8 in the IS F produces 371 foot-pounds of torque at 5,200 rpm. This is more than the 295 foot-pounds of peak torque in the M3. But the M3's 295 foot-pounds all comes by 3,900 rpm for strong scoot at low speeds.

And while the M3 can be had with a manual transmission, the IS F can't. Its only tranny is an eight-speed automatic that, to its credit, comes with paddle shifters on the steering wheel so a driver can shift gears on his or her own accord without having to depress a clutch pedal.

The eight gears help give the IS F a highway fuel economy rating of 23 miles per gallon, with 16 mpg projected by the federal government for the IS F in city traffic. During the test drive, I managed 18.5 mpg in combined city/highway travel, and the only time I saw above 20 mpg was when I was on the highway and the car was in the eighth gear for extended periods.

Unfortunately, premium gasoline is the required fuel for the IS F, so a fillup of the 16.9-gallon tank cost more than $70 and could only carry me about 310 miles. Of course, no one buys the IS F to be fuel-thrifty.

Nor, evidently, do they buy the IS F to carry adults in the back seat. The legroom, just 30.6 inches, can be cramped back there, and front-seat riders in the test car felt compelled to adjust their own comfort to help accommodate people behind them. BMW's M3 has more rear legroom, plus more rear-seat headroom.

Note that the IS F back seat is for two people, not three.

The test IS F had the new-for-2011, orange-and-black leather-trimmed seats. People noticed them, because the color really was a startling orange, not a dark, burnt copper. But only the young aspiring drivers said they liked the orange.

With 13.3 cubic feet in the trunk, the IS F has more trunk space than the BMW M3. But the trunk lid on the test IS F would only unlatch when I pressed the key fob's trunk release button. I had to manually pull the lid up all the way to get to the trunk.

And while the leather on the seats of the IS F is perforated, the seats do not come with a cooling, ventilating feature. The front sport seats only have seat heaters.

Drivers also need to get accustomed to the IS F gauges. The largest circle is the tachometer, with the speedometer relegated to a nearby circle that's one-third the size of the tach. There's no circular gas gauge; rather, drivers much watch a digital line bar that shrinks as fuel is consumed.