ClubLexus Reviews: The 2014 Lexus IS F


A Happy Ending to a Great Beginning

Let's take a look back at Lexus for the past decade. Back in 2004, the LS430 was known for its plush and comfortable ride.  The SC430, the only coupe convertible, was nowhere sporty.  GS line was on its last leg and wasn't that sporty anymore compared to its prime debut in 1998.  IS300 was the sportiest car in the lineup already.  Everyone was begging Lexus for sportier vehicles but no one could remotely imagine just how much the brand could change in the next decade.

"The IS F was Lexus' first statement that they were serious about performance."

Under Akio Toyoda's leadership, now we have LS, GS, IS, CT, and RX F Sport. GS and IS are arguably the best handling and most engaging vehicles in their classes.  Everyone knows what the LFA brought to the table.  They have the IS F going against BMW M and Mercedes AMG.  Later this year the RC coupe will hit dealerships together with RC F, their third vehicle in the F lineup.

The Lexus IS F was their first punch; their first statement that they are serious about sportiness.  Since its debut in 2008, the car has gone through quite a lot of changes.  2014 marks the final year of the seven year run of the Lexus IS F. It's a good time to look at this car again, understand its significance, and look forward to what to come next.

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When picking up the Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2014 IS F, I couldn't help but wonder on the body style.  The third generation IS has been out for more than a year, so why is the IS F still based on the old second generation body (together with the IS C convertible)? It's anyone's guess as to why Lexus is doing this, but it definitely puts them in a bit of disadvantage. The car's styling and features are dated in comparison to the regular third generation IS, and since it's supposed to be the highest level trim vehicle in the lineup, people expect to get the latest and greatest. The car is also likely more expensive to produce. The IS F doesn't sell in high volume. In fact, Lexus has only built about 11500 IS Fs since 2008. Right now, Lexus is averaging about 1000 cars a year. To maintain a production of such a small production can be costly.

It's possible that Lexus simply has to do this. Lexus is committed to the F program so they have to maintain an F lineup (F Sport doesn't count).  LFA production ended beginning of last year and RC F won't come until the end of this year, so that's more than a year's gap to fill.  Assuming they have difficulties in having a new IS F based on the third generation IS chassis, that leaves Lexus no choice but to keep the current IS F.

Nonetheless, it doesn't stop the continuous improvement on this car. The 2008 IS F suspension was very stiff and the ride was quite harsh.  The car felt raw and handling was not very refined.  It just did not stack up very well against the E90 BMW M3 from an overall performance perspective.

But in the following years, Lexus kept rolling out changes to improve the IS F. In 2010 TORSEN LSD was added to improve traction and handling.  Then in 2011, Lexus made significant changes to the whole suspension system including springs, shocks, bushings, and camber.  Electronic Power Steering system was also updated together with a new dash cluster design and moving the SPORT button to steering wheel for easier access.  And again in 2013, Lexus revised the suspension for better turn-in.

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All these changes have turned the IS F into quite a different car.  The 2014 IS F is a lot more forgiving in ride comfort than the 2008 yet without compromise on performance.  In fact, the car handles better and more responsively, the steering feels faster and more precise, and the car stays flatter through corners. Overall it is more fun and engaging to drive than before.  In fact, the Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires are now the limiting factor, often times started to lose grip and slide out under hard cornering.

On the other hand, the power and throttle response of the IS F can get a little tricky. In D auto mode the car feels toned down. There is still plenty of power, but the throttle response is neither crisp nor quick. Instead, the transmission focuses more on fuel efficiency by selecting the highest gear possible and hesitating to downshift.

Put the car into Sport mode and move the shifter into M position, and the car wakes up. The throttle gets very responsive and aggressive, which allows the driver to feel more connected. It accelerates hard and instantly. I wish the throttle would be more responsive even in D mode.

My main gripe regarding the drivetrain is downshifting.  Upshifting is perfectly fine. The shifts are fast. But as much as the spec shows how fast the downshifting is, there are more lag than I would like from the time I flip the pedal to the time the transmission downshifts.

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Engine sound is another plus for the IS F, you just have to love that deep and throaty V8 howl. I have mixed feelings about the second intake that opens up above 3600rpm, though. In regular daily driving it keeps the ride relatively quiet and Lexus-like. On the other hand, when driving a high performance car, I want that v8 rumble even at low RPMs like the Mercedes C63.

No one can deny the stopping power of the IS F.  The Brembo brakes are just about as powerful as one can ask for. It's not overly sensitive during regular driving, but they provide the confidence that the car will stop on a dime every single time.  The brakes are also incredibly linear so it makes braking very predictable.

"The car handles better and more responsively, the steering feels faster and more precise, the car stays flatter in corners, and overall it is more fun and engaging to drive than before"

My overall impression of the 2014 IS F is that it's a huge improvement over the 2008 (and other track numbers reflect the same too), but I still feel that it's a sport sedan made fast.  This is compared to the BMW E90 M3 where it feels more balanced overall, more like a track car toned down for the street. This is not to dis-credit Lexus at all.  Keep in mind, the IS F started out as a garage project after the second generation IS was all developed, so there's a reason everything seems to be a patched on to the chassis.  Especially after driving the third generation IS--which has a far more rigid chassis--it further solidified my belief that the chassis is the limiting factor on IS F. Still, that doesn't stop the IS F from performing better than the Mercedes C63.

So here we have the 2014 Lexus IS F.  Yes it is still on the old second generation chassis but it's a very different car from 2008.  It is still tons of fun to drive and you still get the pure naturally aspirated V8.  It has done a great job the past 7 years lifting the Lexus F program.  Moving forward though, with Lexus retiring the IS F, they will have even more to prove with RC F.  The car will have to show how much the F program has matured and most importantly, how it competes against the BMW M, Mercedes AMG, and Audi RS not just on performance level but also sales and brand recognition level.

Lexus Chief Engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi talked about the upcoming RC F in a recent video, stating that their goal is driving enjoyment for drivers of different levels.  We witnessed the start with the IS F and how it evolved throughout the years, and Lexus proved it with the LFA too.  They have to show it again with the RC F.  I very much look forward to experiencing the driving enjoyment - I know Lexus can do it.

Kirk McFaul (Thu, 17 Jul 2014 12:06:59 -0700): This review car is exactly like my new 2014 Lexus IS F... in the same colors as well... and mine came with Michelin Pilot Sport tires as a bonus. We are loving it so far - lots of office joy rides this week :)
Mike Häusermann (Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:17:20 -0700): Ok i read this article but i do not understand that some (i emphasize some) of journalists always try to say that this car is not like a BMW M3. This car is not a M3 and i'm absolutely OK with it. Before i buy my ISF 2011, i've tried the C63 AMG(absolutely disliked), tried the Audi RS48 (very good but something was not OK for me), BMW M3 (great car, almost what i wanted) and then the 2011 Lexus ISF(never owned before). In the Lexus ISF i've found a special feeling that non of other cars has. I'm truly happy with this car and happy that it's not like an M3. Actually the car has 60'000 KM and it's still like a new car, drives greatly and very pleasant to live with. Specially in Autobahn where there is no speed limit.