IS F is Lexus 'outside the normal'

BMW has its M division, Audi has its RS line, and Mercedes-Benz has its AMG wizards.

Now Lexus, Toyota's luxury car arm, has its F troop. And the first result is the 2009 Lexus IS F, a sports sedan in the time-honored tradition of a BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG and Audi RS4 -- take an agile compact sedan, install a honking V-8 in place of its perky six-cylinder, and massage the rest.

In the case of Lexus, its smallest model is the IS, either with a 204- or 306-horsepower six-cylinder engine. Seeing a niche it could exploit, Lexus engineers grabbed a 5-liter V-8 from the rack and massaged it to 416 hp, midway between the M3's 414 hp and C63's 451. Then they went from there.

The Lexus IS F is the first production model to wear the brand's new "F" insignia, which could stand for "fast" or "fun," but is actually derived from a "Circle-F" internal code for special Lexus vehicle programs outside the normal.

"Outside the normal" certainly applies to the IS F. The doors and roof of the original IS remain. But the V-8 required a bulging hood that tapers down to a V-shape grille with a gunmetal plastic mesh.

The bumper gets an aggressive lower air dam with inset fog lights next to working brake inlets. Standard bi-xenon HID headlights curve into turns at night. The nose flows into wider front fenders that frame meaty 19-inch low-profile Bridgestone Potenza rubber on gunmetal gray 10-spoke BBS alloys.

"F" emblems are on the fender, aft of a working vent whose lower edges transition into larger rocker panels and a lower character line to the rear bumper.

The car rides an inch lower, the rising beltline and small tail spoiler giving it a wedgy profile. In back, stacked dual exhaust pipes exit each side of the rear bumper under LED taillights.

More than one person thought it looked like a BMW from the side. An IS 350 owner circled it while parked, asking about it. Another person called it "a beautiful car," loving the "stacked pipes."

And it sure looks aggressive and hunkered down, especially in gloss black with tight panel shut lines. But I found it looked a bit bottom-heavy with the ground effects, although I liked the look in motion when another black one drove by me one day.

Inside, embroidered "F" emblems are visible on the outboard seat bolsters' side front and rear.

Then you settle into dark blue leather sports seats with light-blue stitching. They envelop you, securely bolstering driver and front passenger with 10-power adjustments, power lumbar and three memory presets each as well. They are some of the best sport buckets I've settled into, not confining but supportive where needed.

The rest of the interior is black plastic and vinyl, similar to the standard IS.

The padded dash looked a bit plasticky, its squared-off hood binnacle covering an alloy-rimmed 9,000-rpm tach and temperature gauge, plus 180-mph speedometer and gas gauge.

The trip computer display above the oil-temperature/voltmeter/shift display briefly shows a stylized "F" before offering usual gas and engine info.

The 14-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system sounded great, offering AM, FM and six-disc CD sound plus DVD video visible on the navigation system's seven-inch touch screen when the parking brake is on.

The navigation system and some climate, telephone and audio functions can be voice-controlled, although some new sports sedans out there do more. We Bluetoothed my cellphone in seconds, and appreciated the standard keyless entry and push-button start.

Other goodies include a one-touch open/close moonroof with a selector dial like an Audi; power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and heated auto-dim outside mirrors with puddle lamps.

The glove box is big, the center armrest sliding back to reveal another cupholder, MP3 input and 12-volt outlet. Back seat room was OK, although knee room was at a premium for adults.

The high, short tail means a narrow trunk opening.

So how does this wanna-be M3 feel?

Pretty darn good, with that 416-hp V-8 under the bulging hood and seamless eight-speed automatic. Our 5,300-mile-old car's engine had a musical growl when pushed above 3,800-rpm as it lunged to 60 mph in a fast 4.7 seconds.

Passing power was effortless, unless it came to passing gas stations; we netted an average 15 mpg on premium.

Reach Dan at dan.scanlan@morris.com.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Lexus IS F, a four-door,rear-wheel-drive, compact sports sedan

BASE PRICE: $56,000

PRICE AS TESTED: $61,465

ENGINE: 5-liter, DOHC, 32-valve VVT-iE alloy V-8, producing 416 horsepower

TRANSMISSION: Eight-speed sport direct shift automatic with paddles

MILEAGE RATING: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

FUEL CAPACITY: 16.9 gallons

WHEELBASE: 107.5 inch

LENGTH: 183.5 inch

WIDTH: 71.5 inch

HEIGHT: 55.7 inch

FRONT HEADROOM: 37.2 inches

FRONT LEGROOM: 43.9 inches

Cargo capacity: 13.3 cubic feet

CURB WEIGHT: 3,780 pounds

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