Yeah, but what’s it like to live with? The Lexus ISF



What resides in the garage this month is a Lexus ISF.  This particular car is a 2009 model with a bit over 30K miles.  Nice examples are commonly available in the mid  to upper $30s.  A little pricier than I usually review but I couldn’t resist. This car is Lexus’ shot at the M3, AMG, RS4 crowd.  That’s a tough crowd.  Let’s see how it does:

Expectations are pretty high for a car of this type.  Pressing the start button produces a delicious, pitch perfect, but subdued V8 burble out of the quad pipes.  This is a sweet motor.  There is no lack of power with the 400+ under the hood.  The car is not available with a manual transmission.  That is somewhat disappointing.  I am not an automatic fan.  Having said that, this is a pretty darn good automatic.  It’s an 8-speed so there’s a whole lot of shifting going on but it never feels like it’s hunting for a gear like the lousy Chrysler 8-speeds.  In fact, it seems pretty intuitive.  Brake hard and bank onto a freeway entrance and it is ready and in the proper gear for blasting up the ramp.

However, once on to that freeway, things are not so rosy.  The ride is spine crushing hard.  An unexpected sharp dip could mean a chiropractic visit.  A long trip in this car would be torture.  I don’t mind a firm ride but give me a break!  I was actually afraid to switch to “Sport” mode.  It reminds me of  60’s and 70’s Detroit cars when the only way they could figure out to make them handle was rock hard springs.  The car’s ultra low profile tires don’t help either.

The car has very good grip to show for the hard ride but gives up at the front when pushed.  The big brakes are confidence inspiring and easy to modulate.  The steering is accurate and quick but the electric power steering is completely devoid of feel.  Once I did press the sport mode, the biggest change was  sharpening up the transmission with quicker shifts and holding gears longer.  The transmission can be manually shifted with the paddles, and in sport mode, it snaps off the changes quick enough that it isn’t annoying.  With 8 speeds you will be busy shifting.  In normal driving there is a gear indicator near the top of the cluster that changes as the car shifts.  Oddly, when you put it in manual mode that changes to a big “F” and gear indicator moves down lower and smaller on the dash next to a big “M” for manual mode.  It’s like Lexus is trying but doesn’t really “get it” on how to do a performance vehicle.

The whole car is a dichotomy of isolated luxury car and hard core performance.  Take the ride for example.  It is hard enough that I think even performance minded enthusiasts would object to it.  However it is very quiet with road noise (and feel) subdued to luxury standards.  Strange.  Aside from the ride, the cabin is a nice place to be.  High quality fit and finish is evident throughout.  The well bolstered seats were not the most comfortable that I have encountered with the lumbar support too high up the seat back.  I was left wishing for the standard IS350.

Until I mashed the gas.  The V8 is an outstanding engine that mates well with the transmission.  The noise that it makes is wonderful.  Not loud, but perfect.  There is more than enough acceleration any time you want it.  It does comes with a price.  The ISF swills fuel like a business jet.  Without any cylinder deactivation or other trickery, it returned an average of 14.3 mpg which just isn’t PC anymore.  The Tech that I spoke with suggested a right foot calibration.  Fair enough.  However, I drive all these cars in a similar manner so the comparisons are valid.  The German competitors are more economical.

One of the advantages of purchasing a car like this is to take advantage of the value afforded by depreciation.  Lexus’ hold their value better than most so used prices tend to be higher than comparable vehicles.  There is a reason for it.  They have a good reputation for reliability and repair costs are likely to be less than it’s German rivals.  That’s a good thing to keep in mind.  While car prices drop for this type of car, repair prices don’t ever go down.

So I applaud Lexus for their first effort.  Some of the things on this car are very good but it is unbalanced.  So far, only the German’s have found that elusive balance between ride, handling, comfort, and performance.  I’m looking forward to newer versions of this car as they get it refined and worked out.  In the mean time, the regular IS series has a lot of the benefits, no bone crushing ride, and lower prices.