Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By C Douglas Weir

While it's often said you can't be all things to all people, someone forgot to tell Toy Yoda. While GM, Ford and The Dodge Boys are still trying to gentrify their rough-and-ready SUV's into cultured outdoorsmen (before urbanites abandon their automotive Wellingtons), the Japanese automaker took a light saber to traditional SUV demographics, sliced them into pieces and built a vehicle appealing to every single [up]market segment at the same time. No question: the force is with this one. Powerful it is too.

Ironically, the RX 400h is not Lexus' most cohesive design. From head-on it resembles a baby elephant: all legs and a tiny, short body. From the side, the strangely kinked C-pillars and double quarter-windows are a self-conscious attempt to give the standard SUV box some sedan-like horizontality. The blacked-out rear roof spoiler proclaims sport, while the nanodetailed LED taillights say insect. The RX 400h's aesthetic appeal resides in the details, like the gorgeously crafted adaptive headlights and backlit company emblems in all four doorsills. And, lest we forget, there's the ultimate badge of honor: the little 'h' on the boot badge proclaiming your intention to use less fossil fuel, keep the globe cool and avoid red meat (providing there's a suitable salad option).

Inside, the SUV's interior has been Feng Shui'd to Infiniti– and beyond! Call it contemporary classic: a sophisticated blend of supple leather, soft touch plastics and precise touch switchgear. Give the RX' double-door piano wood console lid button a tiny push; watch it glide open with all the silky importance of a US Treasury vault. Have a fiddle with the precisely dampened switchgear. Notice the heated seat controls are infinitely adjustable– with dials. It's easy to obsess about Lexus' attention to detail; they have. From the RX 400h's eerie electroluminescent gauges, to the way the rear seats gently whir into repose, everything that could be done to comfort its occupants has. And, blissfully, nothing more.

The first thing you notice when you turn the RX 400h's key is— silence. All the electrics are at attention, awaiting orders. The gasoline engine lays dormant. You select Drive, put your foot down and golf cart away– without the slightest judder to rattle the clubs. At some point (approximately 25mph), internal combustion occurs and… you continue. Now I could explain that the RX 400h combines a 3.3-liter V6 with two high-torque electric drive motor-generators (mounted near the front and rear wheels) and a battery pack, using a planetary gear set and generator to route power from/back to the motors to discharge power/recharge the batteries. But all you really need to know is that Lexus' clean burning SUV has a powerplant (or three) that's as smooth and seamless as a Hollywood evening gown.

Just be careful where you aim the thing. The RX 400h's electric power steering is lighter than diet popcorn– to the point where the big L embossed on the helm is as good a guide to your intended direction as any tactile information filtering though the speed-sensitive steering system. By the same token, the RX 400h's suspension set-up is aimed squarely at Hovercraft commuters; as a lateral G-force generator, the RX 400h makes a terrific highway cruiser. Saying that, thanks to its low-ish ride height, the RX 400h has less of the traditional SUV's deep-sea fishing feel around corners and over undulations. Sports-oriented environmentally conscious drivers (did I just say that?) can console themselves with plenty of tri-powered oomph. The RX 400h sprints from 0 to 60mph in 6.9 seconds– not bad for a 4365-pound soft roader.

Which is what, exactly? As the official Lexus website admits, RX 400h drivers are best advised to avoid any unseemly mud plugging ("Batteries are no match for boulders"). Which still leaves the RX 400h with enough personalities to challenge Sybil's therapist. Gas guilt? Ease up and enjoy double the mileage of virtually all your SUV driving peers. Feeling frisky? Whip all the assorted motors into one cohesive accelerative effort. Dinner at eight? Wash off the dirt and sashay in style. Boss dropping in for a meeting? Stack the rear cargo bay with business fireboxes. Surprise snowstorm? Keep on keeping on with all-wheel-drive and stability control (with snow tires 'natch). Perfect day? Simply relax in the comfort and silence of your luxury whip. The RX 400h does it all, and does it well.

In short, the RX 400h is a too-good-to-be-true-mobile that is. The domestic manufacturers who once dismissed hybrid technology as unsafe, unproven and unnecessary are busy trying to catch up with their own range of hybrid-powered SUV's. If only they'd listened to Toy Yoda five years ago: "Do or do not! No try!" Meanwhile, the RX 400h is done.


Fifth Gear - Lexus GS450h

By Sajeev Mehta

Remember the dorky kid who aced college, landed a great job, maybe even got married, but still never got a firm grasp on how to enjoy life’s rich tapestry? That’s the Lexus GS450h. For all its hybrid gee-whiz engineering, swanky trimmings and performance credentials, the Lexus GS450h is only really a great idea on paper. Sure, it’s got lower emissions, less fuel consumption than its petrol-powered equivalent and significantly more performance. But the Lexus Hybrid is a genius in dire need of a spiritual advisor.

The styling tells the story with its bold lines, broad shoulders and stunning lack of attention to detail. Up front, the GS’ trapezoidal grille– flanked by ovoid lenses and rhombus-like headlights– inflict geometric overkill on an otherwise cetacean canvas. Sadly, the GS' tall frame kills an otherwise sporting profile; everything south of the beltline looks obese and clumsy. Fortunately, multi-spoke 18" hoops with chrome accents help avert your eyes from the plump yet stunted posterior with its B-movie bug-eyed taillights. Clearly, the "L-Finesse" GS needs Giorgio Giugiaro’s loving hands.

In contrast, the GS’ interior is a symphony of chrome, leather, ebony wood and white LED accents. The cockpit’s squidgy polymers and tastefully arranged switchgear offer the automotive equivalent of a relaxing swim in an edgeless pool. In Audi and Lexus' sybaritic showdown, the Japanese automaker is gradually pulling ahead. For example, while the A8 serves-up an exquisite dash and console combo, Lexus' cohesive design motif delivers a perfectly layered, multi-dimensional gestalt. Audi’s dash may seem like it was carved from a single piece of granite, but Lexus’ seems lovingly sculpted from the same stone.

The GS’ sensuous wood and leather tiller alludes to the brand’s trademark perfectionism. Smoked disco ball gauge faces add a bit of visual excitement to the borderline OCD. The Mark Levinson beatbox adds brilliant highs, life-like middles and full-bodied lows– setting the new standard for factory tunes. The GS’ ventilated hides keep the backside cool, but finding the right fan speed involves one too many menus via the (otherwise excellent) touch-screen Navigation system. And that’s where the GS450h picture starts to lose focus.

Check out the mileage on the Lexus hybrid’s information screen. In urban stop/start duty, the GS’ gas engine kicks in frequently and abruptly, taking over from the batteries. With the Levinson blasting and the A/C cranked, the GS450h's mileage never once threatened to get out of the lower twenties. Lower the A/C, hit the open road, set the cruise control to 65mph and you’re looking at… 25mpg. This is not what a Prius driver would call a hybrid halo car. OK, so the Lexus is a “performance hybrid.” All is forgiven, right?

If you’re a straight line junkie, yes. Acceleration is muscle car brisk. Hit the GS’ gas from a standstill and the torque-rich electric motor satisfies with a shove in the seat and a hum under the bonnet. After a brief powerband intermission, the CVT transmission throws the rev-happy 3.5-liter V6 in the mix, facilitating 0-60 runs that last a scant 5.2 seconds. Keep your foot in the juice and the CVT pushes the engine closer to redline, catapulting the GS down the highway.

Now, throw a corner at the GS and you’ll understand why Lexus won’t let you give the electronic Nanny the afternoon off. Everything's peachy at 70% effort. The sedan’s delightfully firm steering, solid chassis and buttoned-down suspension let you run the hybrid through the twisties like an equivalent Bimmer. Push harder and the various subsystems start to fight for control. The traction control incorrectly modulates the finicky powerband, inducing all-you-can-eat buffet levels of understeer, triggering stability control. Diehard pistonheads are done before they begin.

The large disc brakes feel a bit touchy– charged as they are with regenerating power as well as curbing momentum– but they stop the “fun” with genuine conviction. Unfortunately, dropping anchor at speed induces massive nosedive, which dramatically increases the chances of an understeer slide. Worst of all, the flawed underpinnings throw the famous Lexus ride in the trash, shaking the rearview mirror at every pothole. The 40-series tires take most of the blame, transmitting every surface imperfection directly to one's posterior. Top it off with a Porsche-sized cargo hole and the GS Hybrid's synergies seem less than entirely appealing.

Forget about the GS450h’s poor ride/handling balance (if possible) and consider the model’s real competition: the superb V8-powered GS430. Lexus’ gas-only model offers a perfectly linear powerband, a world-class autobox, 400lbs less in tow, better handling and a bigger trunk. The penalty: three to five miles less travel per gallon of gas and no planet saving feel-good factor. Like the childhood genius who struck it rich, the GS450h proves that appearances can be deceiving. Whether you’re a hybrid sedan or a Geek, developing genuine character is a bitch.


By Sajeev Mehta

As part of the evaluative process, I cracked open the ES350's owner’s manual. Check it: there’s a "Lemon Law Guide" to help customers find legal recourse should their Lexus fail to, well, anything. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be a particularly useful part of the program. After all, under its swanky skin, the Lexus ES350 is little more than a reliable, durable and, let’s face it, forgettable Toyota Camry. Does that make the ES350 an example of the kind of badge-engineering that this site regularly condemns as lazy, cynical and brand corrosive? No, no and yes.

The ES certainly passes the visual differentiation test. Proof positive: dozens of Accord, Camry, and (older) Lexus ES drivers rubbernecking our tester’s amber-bronze curves. The ES leads with a soft, organic front with chiseled grille and chrome ringed fog lights, flowing into an elegant but racy profile, with one of the fastest C-pillars this side of the General Lee. Every crease is well proportioned– until one’s eyes gaze below the door handles. From there, the ES' soaring beltline drops the proverbial ball. The sheetmetal looks worse than a tradeshow drop cloth over a folding table. The back end is endlessly inoffensive, aside from the unintentionally humorous Salvador Dali chrome moustache over the license plate.

Inside, Lexus' "L-Finesse" design lingo ushers forth a suitable blend of gentle creases, folds and curves. From the multi-textured steering wheel to the dual sunroofs, the ES’ aesthetics harmonize like a barbershop quartet– save the crooked fold above the center stack and the disconcertingly asymmetrical console. The center binnacle also rankles. The release button sits front and center on the armrest; any vigorous arm movement triggers the oil-dampened cover to slide backwards.

Ergo-mistakes aside, the ES boasts many of the finest details in its class. The hyper-white LED reading lights, padded grab handles and Optitron gauges are a Caddy's worst nightmare. Add the lustrous woodgrain on the so-good-its-sinful doors (complete with padded vinyl and carpeted door pulls) and a Maybach-grade steering wheel skin, and the ES350 appear to over-deliver at this price point. Yet for each deluxe give comes an equal and opposite economy-minded take.

Press the start button and the ES350’s accent turns distinctly Camry. The baby Lexus’ 3.5-liter V6 delivers the goods, but it sure doesn’t sound good. Pickup truck levels of road growl and wind howl not only hammer at one’s soul at highway speeds, but quickly drown out the eight-speaker audio system. Crank up the tunes in retaliation and the beat box’s tinny highs and flaccid lows don't stand a chance against a textured stretch of tarmac. What’s more (or less), after a three-hour interstate jaunt, the ES’ short seat bottoms on less-than-impressive leather stress one's posterior in a most un-luxurious manner.

Lovers of luxobarge cruising (with a suitable credit history) can up-spec into perforated cowhide chairs and a Mark Levinson Premium surround sound system. But there’s no getting over the ES350’s inherent drawbacks. Stiff crosswinds exact a terrific toll on the Lexus' sky high profile, while the C-pillar’s colossal blind spots make lane changing a difficult task even by Chrysler 300 standards. Compounded by the narrow rear window, parking lot maneuvers turn into a series of educated guesses. If luxury equals ease, it’s easy to see the ES350 isn’t that luxurious.

At least the ES rides right. A tight chassis with 55-series tires and an appropriately dampened suspension gives potholes and pavement joints the strong, silent treatment. The ES’ close ratio six-speed gearbox keeps the motor singing in its power band– albeit facilitated by gear changes slower than a thorazine-injected Giant African Snail. While we’re at it, someone should tell Lexus that torque steer and luxury don’t mix. Cane the ES350’s 272-horse six pot past 4000rpm (even at highway speeds) and the front wheels dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

That said, the ES350 is a straight line Q-ship that steers through the twisties with a curiously satisfying blend of BMW-esque panache and Buick-like isolation. Safety-oriented understeer is only right for a 3600 pound grand tourer. Still, pop the leather and wood shifter into manual mode and give it some and the ES retains the majority of its lateral composure, rarely embarrassing itself enough to trigger the electronic Nanny.

With its good looks, comfy cabin, smooth ride and miserly mileage (21/30 on premium go-juice), the Lexus ES350 is an inoffensive vehicle that appeases all but purist pistonheads. It proves that Lexus knows how to spizzarkle-up a Camry enough to justify a premium price and issue a rolling “call out” to barely badge engineered botch jobs like the Lincoln Zephyr. But the ES isn't a great luxury car by any stretch. It doesn’t dishonor to the Lexus badge, but it doesn't build the marque’s rep either. In this class, for this brand, good enough just isn’t.


By Jay Shoemaker

Driving a Mercedes E63 AMG just prior to testing the Lexus LS 460 was a big mistake. The German and Japanese machines define the opposite poles of the luxury sedan spectrum. The E63 is for driving enthusiasts. The LS 460 is for people who hate cars.

At first glance, the LS 460 has finally stopped cribbing its design cues from Mercedes– and started cribbing from the BMW 7 Series. In the flesh, it’s clear that Lexus has turned inwards for inspiration. As I patrolled my dealer’s lot to scan color variations, I couldn’t distinguish an ES from an LS. In fact, the Japanese brand’s “L-finesse” design philosophy Lacks-finesse across the entire model range. There are no exterior character lines worth mentioning. I like the way the LS’ exhaust pipes integrate into the rear valence. And, um that’s it.

This deeply conservative (not to say bland) approach carries over into the interior, which seems carefully designed to avoid offense. While you can’t fault the LS 460's ergonomics or the luster of its wood accents, the $61k-and-up car's cabin comes off just a little bit, well, cheap. The buttons are made from plastic that Audi wouldn't use for the A8's trunk release. And Lexus can buff that leather as much as it wants; it still feels like it came out of a Camry. Of course, the LS 460 boats— I mean boasts every luxury car toy on earth, including intuitive parking assist (Danger Will Robinson!) and power everything you can imagine (and much you can’t or wouldn’t).

The LS’ optional beat box is the cabin's highlight. Mark Levinson's ICE includes 19 speakers and 15 bridged amplifier channels running 450 watts of power (continuous average power, all channels driven, at 0.1% THD; 20 - 20,000 Hz, in case you thought that was a bit woosy). The system can play Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD audio, MP3 and WMA files. An eight gigabyte hard drive automatically records up to 2k songs as you play them. The only features missing are internet access and a built-in Play Station 3, which are no doubt available in Japan. And the sound– you could blow $100k on a home system that doesn’t sound half as good.

Firing-up the LS’ 4.6-liter V8 is about as aurally exciting as switching on a pool heater– which is fair enough. The driving experience is a bit like swimming in warm water. Helming the LS, I thought I'd become an automotive quadriplegic; my mind was operating the vehicle rather than my extremities. I had no sensation whatsoever from the steering wheel, throttle or brakes. Every control involved with the vehicle’s operation lay just within the range of human perception.

The LS 460’s electronic brakes were designed for women wearing high heels; the slightest touch of a stiletto brings the car to a complete stop. Steering feel isn’t. There's only one way to know the slushbox is changing gears: watch the tacho needle bouncing gently up and down. Unless you depress the throttle at 45mph. Then there's an unacceptable hesitation as the transmission rows through a few gear changes before finding the meaty part of the engine’s torque range. Remind me again why Lexus needs an eight speed transmission? Oh yes; Mercedes has a seven speed.

The LS 460’s handling reminded me of a 10-month old Golden Retriever puppy: affectionate but clumsy. Turn-in is irrelevant. You can’t feel the car settling into a corner and you only realize that you are exceeding the vehicle’s limits when the door’s angle of attack relative to the road exceeds 15 degrees, and the traction control wrests control (you mean I was driving?) away from the driver.

Lexus claims the LS 460 wafts from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds. Given 380 horsepower and 367 lb. ft. of torque in a 4244 pound luxobarge, that sounds about right. But it felt a lot slower. It could be the complete lack of sensual feedback or the effects of that pesky E63 again. Anyway, the LS 460 desperately needs a sport package. Alas, none is available. I suspect Lexus knows its target audience will be more impressed with (though not concerned about) the sedan's extraordinary 21 city and 27 highway miles per gallon.

I last drove an LS in 1990. Compared to the competition over at Mercedes and BMW, the LS was a breath of fresh air: bargain-priced and elegantly engineered. I almost bought one. OK, I’m trying to impress you with my open-mindedness. And it's true: I can see the virtue of a machine that functions without any apparent effort from man or machine. But I struggled not to giggle at the LS 460’s “Luxury Car for Dummies” perfection. If Lexus added an in-dash popcorn maker, I’d find more reason to buy this mobile entertainment lounge. But nowhere near enough.


Top Gear Lexus SC430 and Hyundai Tiburon Coupe

By Justin Berkowitz

Coupes should be firm flagships and style vanguards: the best of a brand. Where does that leave Lexus, a marque best known for… reliability? With the Lexus SC430. The folding-roofed Lexus coupe is the second oldest model in Lexus' portfolio of pomp. For a company [relentlessly] pursuing perfection, that would make the SC430 the most imperfect car Lexus sells.

The Japanese luxury 2+0 self-consciously straddles the line between boring and weird. In fact, the super Toyota coupe's proportions are positively playtpussian; the front overhang is ridiculously long, the hood absurdly short, and the rear deck excessively deep. Everywhere you look, something's not quite right. The BMW Z8 is weeping in its shallow grave.

The SC430's disproportionately humongous head lamps complete overpower the car's front end (a la Escalade). The squat greenhouse is as peculiar as the Chrysler 300's is powerful. The 18” wheels look dopey; lacking shape, or delicacy, or style. Strange then, that Lexus' kooky coupe soldiers on, even though its competitors have sharpened their creases, Bangled their butts and added Billy the Big Mouth Bass grills.

Stepping inside the SC430's cabin is like lowering yourself into a bathtub. The seating position is a throwback to bygone era, when rakish drivers knew low meant go; a time before owners of $100k SUV's looked down on diminutive coupes. Shame the roof is too low for you to look back up at them.

Once you've descended into the belly of the bulbous beast, you're immersed in a tragically unmemorable interior. All the traditional luxury elements are there: lustrous wood, buttery cow-hide and toe-friendly wool carpets. But it's luxurious interruptus.

The SC430's textured aluminum panels would be better suited to tabletops in the Getty museum café. The buttons' action seems carefully designed to fool blind people into thinking they're in a Toyota (even if they are). And the cowled gauges are garish and out of place.

As you'd expect from a car launched at the turn of the century, the gadget count is low. Sat nav and Bluetoothery are about as gee-whiz as it gets. Still, in the world of Lexus, less is motorized. Push a button and a wooden door covers or uncovers the SC430's unsightly stereo head unit. The navigation screen also resides behind some electro-hydraulic furniture. It's just as well; the GPS device is as easy to understand as a vintage Porsche shop manual. In Javanese.

Fire up the SC430's V8 and… Hello? Testing. Is this thing on? The coupe tips-in like an ocean liner swinging away from a pier; the six-speed automatic swaps cogs early, often and gracefully, maintaining both seamless progress and the powerplant's vow of silence. Give the SC430's sides a swift kick– 'cause, well, soft leather can only entertain for so long– and you'll instantly understand why Lexus' 290-horsepower two-door is so 110 horsepower ago.

Yes, the 3840-pound two-door accelerates from standstill to sixty miles per hour in an entirely respectable 5.9 seconds. But it could be the least exciting 5.9 seconds of your life (at least since you learned how to eat soup). For one thing, the SC430's go-pedal travel is both excessive and inconsistent; an inadvertent recreation of Mercedes early-70's luxobarges. For another, the car’s dynamics aren’t.

The SC430's speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering somehow manages to get it exactly wrong. The system's too heavy when you'd expect it to be low-effort, and numb and vague when you expect it to sharpen-up. The double wishbone suspension also inverts expectations. It crashes at low speeds and floats when hustled. What's more, visibility is atrocious from inside the pillbox.

All of this lamentable engineering is merely an evil accoutrement to uncertain footing and piss-poor grip. Switch off the traction control and cane the SC430 through a corner– as completely improbable and totally inadvisable as that sounds– and the coupe's nose plows towards the scenery like a pig scenting a truffle.

Even by the traditional Lexus metric (i.e. Vicodin-on-wheels), the SC430 doesn't cut the Grey Poupon. Its engine may be quieter than a Quaker meeting in a sound-proof booth, but there's plenty of wind and tire noise, top up or down. Taken as a whole, it's no more luxurious than a gussied-up Camry, and less luxurious than the fresher IS350.

The SC430 does nothing to dispel the idea that Lexus caters to the wives of stock brokers and dentists, and they no doubt will continue to fawn over it until it is euthanized. No one is asking the SC430 to be a sports car, though the coupe is a poster child for purists who claim that Lexi are fun Hoovers. The real tragedy here, perhaps the only tragedy, is that the SC430 isn’t even a killer killjoy. Buyers in search of a drop-top automotive QE2 are advised to shop elsewhere.


Lexus LS 460L Self Parking Car

2007 Lexus LS 460 L

By Jay Shoemaker

My wife struggles with two automotive tasks: finding her destination and maneuvering the car into a parking space. (Locating a parking space is another issue, but why make her sound any more spatially challenged than she is?) The only voice my wife follows without question emanates from her car’s navigation system. So, issue number one sorted. Until now, she has endured her parking problem by opting for garages or HUGE spots. When she heard about the Lexus LS’ new automated parking system, she sent me to the dealer to check it out.

I tried to wiggle out of the assignment by explaining that my review of the short wheelbase Lexus LS incurred the wrath of Lexus fans across the web. But this time it was personal. To further differentiate this review from the last, I located an LS quipped with the touring edition option, which adds nineteen inch wheels, variable ratio steering and an air suspension.

Lexus has been criticized for many things by car enthusiasts, but never for their marketing savvy. In the case of their large sedan, the handling package is only available on the long wheelbase LS. Europeans typically add the handling and engine mods to their short wheelbase cars; this contrast had me puzzled. Does Lexus reserve the choice option packages only for the more expensive models?

Fortunately for my wife, the parking gimmicks are available across the line. Unfortunately, the “advanced parking guidance system” and the “intuitive parking assist” were anything but. I’d rather endure the experience of watching my wife back in and out of a spot twenty times than be guided by the Lexus’ ghost parker.

Aside from being slow and complex, there were occasions where I felt obligated to intercede, sensing imminent danger. OK, here we go:

First you must fiddle with the parking target area in the guidance system screen to make sure that the computer sees that there is a legitimate space to occupy, and you both agree on its location. Then you slowly let off the brake, keeping a watchful eye out the windows (not just at the monitor). Did the computer notice the light pole? It should be outlined on the screen.

There is entertainment value in watching the wheel whipsaw to and fro, but in the time it takes for the Lexus to park itself, all the good parking spots will be stolen from under you (at least in my town). There is no doubt in my mind that Lexus and their suppliers will perfect this concept. For now, it appears they’ve rushed it to market to have something [other than their eight speed transmission] to talk trash about.

Now, my turn…

Having thoroughly dissed the LS’ driving experience in my last LS review, I have a shocking revelation: the touring edition is fun to drive. It’s almost as engaging as the latest Mercedes S Class.

Starting out with the suspension in comfort mode reminded me why I don’t like Japanese luxury sedans: they tend to wallow only slightly less than late ‘70’s American luxobarges. A quick switch to the sport mode neatly transformed the LS into a European-like sedan. The ride quality became firm yet absorbent. The dynamic capabilities ascended from one-handed yachtsmanship to two-handed Teutonic corner carver.

The tweaked LS’ steering now has something approximating heft; you can [even] sense what the front tires are doing during cornering. I don’t get what Lexus are talking about with their “high friction brakes,” but the anchors are plenty powerful and easy to modulate.

Now that I could get past and yes enjoy the LS’ driving experience, I could better appreciate the sybaritic touches.

The luxury package includes the finest, softest leather ever made by hand of man (presumably). The leather on the steering wheel has been buffed to such a creamy, buttery consistency it feels like it’s been slathered with foie gras. The “ecsaine” headliner made me feel like I was encapsulated within a lamb’s belly. The executive class seating package had me clamoring for warmed nuts and champagne.

The Mark Levinson reference audio system– with enough memory for 2k songs– is astounding. If I owned this car, I’d probably spend more time parked, sitting in the backseat listening to the sound system, than driving it.

I’m not sure how I feel about the infrared sensors that monitor rear-seat passenger’s body temperature, and then adjust the AC to suit. Are brainwave sensors far behind? Scary stuff.

More to the point, what will my fellow pistonheads think of me now? First Porsche’s navigation system makes me pine for BMW’s iDrive. Now, a Lexus LS 460L touring edition tickles my fancy. Oh God, have I become my parents? Listen up Lexus; you need to make these touring packages optional across your line. Even German car lovers will be seduced.


By P.J. McCombs

Hammering the IS-F through the sleepy desert two-lanes of Rosamond, California, I tried to remind myself: “I’m driving a Lexus.” But the 416-horsepower sedan leaves little time for inner monologues. Caned hard, the IS-F reels in straight-aways like King Triton's spey rod. Corners arrive before your consciousness can catch up. Quick! Turn in, dip the throttle, unwind the hefty steering and feel the skittering rear wheels rotate you through the apex. Then look down at the silver “L” pointing at your chest. Cognitive dissonance much?

Yes, well, that’s exactly what Lexus has in mind. No longer content to be characterized as a purveyor of exceedingly well-built Buicks, Lexus is now vying for the youth vote. The IS-F’s ambitious charge: lure well-heeled hormonal enthusiasts away from Euro thoroughbreds like the M3, revitalize the brand’s image and pour young blood into its late middle-age demographic pool.

It’s a sensible strategy. But “sensible” is a four-letter word in this particular marketing exercise. Lexus wants buyers to think of this and future F variants as something a lot more Xtreme than its ice cool luxobarges. Thus, the IS-F’s press materials couch it as a controversial anomaly, the rogue brainchild of “a covert team of engineers” working deep within the Japanese giant. Suffice it to say, it makes for some eye-rolling reading.

Never mind. The IS-F’s vitals speak for themselves: a 5.0-liter V8 churning out the aforementioned 416 ponies (and 371 ft.-lbs. of torque), rear-wheel-drive, 14.2-inch drilled and vented front discs, 19” BBS rims wrapped in staggered-width rubber and defeatable traction and stability control. Yes, in a Lexus.

Unfortunately, to partake of this hard-ass hardware you have to look at the thing. The IS-F looks like a basking shark losing a fight with a steamroller. In fairness, the IS-F’s blobby, bulbous nose and filter-feeder fenders are largely a necessity of function; its monster motor wouldn’t have cleared anything sleeker. But otherwise, the IS-F ain’t got no alibi. Surveying its overwrought skirts, flares, and stacked quad tailpipes (which don’t actually connect to the exhausts), one wonders just how “youthful” an audience Lexus’ stylists had in mind.

Still interested? Step inside, rub your aching eyes, and be thankful that the cabin’s only juvenile touches are de rigeur plasti-alloy trim plates and aluminum pedals. Elsewhere, the scenery is standard IS, which means a high cowl, modest window slits, and snug proximics at the helm. It’s a fairly dark and buried place to work, and the acres of dark-gray dash polymers do little to lift the mood.

Clearly, the F’s not going to eat an M’s lunch on aesthetics alone. So let’s drive…

Punch the starter button to get the V8 humming, release the foot-operated parking brake, and slide the stubby shifter into “D.” Oh, did I mention that the IS-F is automatic only? The eight-speed slushbox tries hard to involve the driver– blipping its downshifts and allowing manual control through snappy aluminum finger paddles– but when your right arm and left foot are barred from the action, a forlorn sense of distance is inevitable. It’s a fatal flaw, considering F’s “hardcore” design brief.

Nosing onto a crowded road raises more questions about this Lexus’ M-beating mission. First impressions are of the cabin’s eerie hush, the soft-feel pedals and the weighty yet plush steering, which veils your fingertips from imperfections in the asphalt. Crusty low-speed ride aside, the IS-F feels every bit the cool, coddling Lexus.

Given a long, empty ribbon of road, the IS-F again reveals a sharply split personality. Flexing your right foot rips away the layers of Lexus fluff. At WOT, acceleration is torrential and torque-soaked. Lexus claims 0-60 in “under 4.9 seconds.” Any attempt to prove them right/wrong and the V8’s murmur turns to a frenzied howl, courtesy of a secondary air intake that opens at 3,600 rpm. You might as well be pulling its head out from underwater, so dramatic is the shift in its voice.

There’s a predictable downside to the F’s binary nature: Mr. Hyde only comes out to play above safe, legal velocities. The chassis boasts tasty balance at the limit, and the steering enlivens somewhat under load. But given the tires’ immense grip, you’d be nuts to sample either trait on your morning commute. So you back off, the engine fades to Muzak and Toyota’s patented anesthetic drips back into the primary controls. Yawn. Why does this cost $56k again?

And that’s the problem with the IS-F. To sprinkle the magic dust of desirability onto Lexus’ fledgling performance sub-brand, this car needed to match its Euro rivals for driver appeal, beat them on price and let enthusiasts fill in the “cachet” gap. The IS-F misses the marque; it’s a sort of designer-label STI, or an Evo’s dandy city cousin. Get kaizening on this one, Lexus. Otherwise that “F” may come to stand for… nothing much.