SALINAS, CA – A well-sorted chassis, snorting V-8 and athletic character make the all-new ’08 Lexus IS-F a true driver’s car. But the auto maker’s first performance sedan embodies something more: passion.

Specifically, Yukihiko Yaguchi’s passion.

As the IS-F’s chief engineer and a self-described car enthusiast, Yaguchi strived, during his 30 years at Toyota Motor Corp., to develop a car that he would enjoy driving.

He hinged the concept on the auto maker creating a new lineup of performance vehicles for its Lexus brand, a la BMW M and Mercedes-Benz AMG, and secretly started work on the IS-F’s development in 2002 before gaining formal approval.

He enlisted the help of Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. for engine development and Toyota Technocraft, owners of Toyota Racing Development, for chassis design. He then tested his toy on the world’s most daunting racetracks, including Germany’s Nurburgring Nordschleife, Toyota Motor Corp.’s own Fuji Speedway in Japan and here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

“We wanted this car to be as authentic on the track as it is on the street,” Yaguchi says.

In fact, the “F” logo on the new car – and all Lexus performance vehicles to come – is inspired by the outline of several corners at the Fuji Speedway.

The result is a car unlike any Lexus before it and one that aims to position the marque in territory historically reserved for German auto makers with established reputations for performance.

Abiding by hot-rod fundamentals, Lexus squeezed a big 5.0L V-8 into the engine bay of one of its smallest cars, the IS. A Sport Direct Shift 8-speed automatic is the lone transmission choice and allows the engine’s 416-hp to propel the IS-F to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 168 mph (270 km/h).

Blasts up Laguna Seca’s main straight unleash the engine’s heady wave of torque and reveal the IS-F to be a well-endowed sprinter; its guttural exhaust note quelling any concerns that Lexus would be overly conservative with the car’s tuning.

The clever automatic gearbox, though not the enthusiasts’ first choice for a performance car, proved surprisingly adept at harnessing the V-8’s power. Lightning-quick gear changes (about 100 milliseconds) are handled by steering wheel-mounted paddles and are accompanied by perfectly rev-matched downshifts. An audible beep calls out shift points in manual mode for drivers intently focused on the road.

Halting the motion in dramatic fashion are 4-wheel Brembo disc brakes with Lexus-embossed calipers, which absolutely refuse to fade despite an entire afternoon of abuse.

'08 Lexus IS-F
Vehicle type front-engine, rear-drive,
4-passenger sedan
Engine 5.0L 90¡ DOHC V-8
Power (SAE net) 416 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque 371 lb.-ft (503 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Compression ratio 11.8:1
Transmission 8-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic with manual mode
Wheelbase 107.5 ins. (273 cm)
Overall length 183.5 ins. (466 cm)
Overall width 71.5 (182 cm)
Overall height 55.7 (142 cm)
Curb Weight 3,780 lbs./ 1,715 kg
Base price range $55,000-$60,000 (est.)
Fuel economy 16/23 mpg (15/10 L/100 km) (est.)
Competition Audi RS4, BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, Cadillac CTS-V
Pros Cons
Great chassis, brakes No performance heritage
V-8, gearbox combo No manual option
Seats, interior design Small back seats

The IS-F’s spirited performance on the track is unlike any other Lexus and is difficult to fault. The suspension, now lower, stiffer and slightly wider than the standard IS, offers loads of grip without a punishing ride and is hard to unsettle. Sticky 19-in. Michelin Pilot PS2 summer tires are standard, with similar-sized Bridgestone Potenzas available for all-season drivers.

A slight tendency to understeer in tight corners keeps things safe, as does the sport-tuned and adjustable Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system. However, the system can be deactivated – a Lexus-first – meaning the IS-F’s composure can be exploited with lurid power slides and long, smoky burnouts.

Inside are a half-dozen prominent “F” badges, as well as some of the most comfortable and supportive seats in production. A pair of rear-seat passengers also have individual buckets, but must make due with considerably less legroom. The optional white/black 2-tone leather trim, called Alpine, is particularly attractive.

Aluminized carbon-fiber trim on the center console and doors, along with a revised steering wheel and gauges, add to the pleasant atmosphere of the standard IS interior.

When leaving the sport modes and track day antics for the daily commute, the IS-F shows its refinement as a Lexus. The chassis and drivetrain relax in a well-controlled manner; the 8-speed gearbox shifts smoothly for maximum efficiency; and the aero-tuned bodywork and aggressive wheels please the eyes.

Fuel economy suffers with the powerful V-8, but the IS-F feels as fast and capable as BMW’s new M3. However, the M car remains slightly more rewarding to pilot for the experienced driver.

Lexus will be busy convincing notoriously fickle enthusiasts its new “F” car has the same credibility as its German rivals. But considering its under-the-table beginnings, the IS-F is a great first effort for the brand.