Pros: Strong and sonorous V8, surprisingly satisfying automatic transmission, sharp handling, great seats.
Cons: Dated interior, cramped back seat, only available as a sedan, some awkward styling elements.
The 2012 Lexus IS F proves that two countries can play the compact super-sedan game. Since the dawn of time, it seems, BMW has ruled this roost with the iconic M3, and its challengers have generally been fellow Germans, notably the Audi RS4 and the Mercedes C63 AMG. The best America has to offer is the midsize CTS-V, and prior to the IS F, the Japanese had never even tried. Color us impressed, then, that Lexus managed to get so much right the first time around.
Well, make that the second time around. When the IS F debuted back in 2008, it had one of the stiffest rides we've ever experienced in a factory-built car. In all other respects, the IS F drove brilliantly: the Yamaha-tuned 5.0-liter V8 was awesome, the eight-speed automatic was remarkably responsive and the handling was sports-car precise. But the harsh ride made it feel like a crude aftermarket tuner job, and that just wasn't going to cut it in a class renowned for its sophistication.
Happily, Lexus saw the error of its ways and revamped the IS F's suspension for 2011. It was just what Herr Doktor had ordered. All the high-performance brilliance of the original IS F remained, but the ride was now reasonably civilized. Practically overnight, our primary criticism of the car had been rendered obsolete, even if an electronically adjustable suspension would be better still.
As the rejuvenated IS F enters its second year, some of our lesser criticisms remain valid, particularly regarding the stoplight-warrior styling and the aging, cramped interior. But there's no doubt that the 2012 Lexus IS F is now a worthy rival to the German incumbents, and that's something very few of the world's sedans can claim.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Lexus IS F sedan's standard equipment includes xenon headlights with LED accents, 19-inch BBS alloy wheels, Brembo brakes (stamped with the Lexus nameplate), a limited-slip differential, a sunroof, auto-dimming exterior mirrors with puddle lamps, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, 10-way power front sport seats with heaters, two rear sport bucket seats with a center console, leather upholstery, driver memory functions, electroluminescent gauges, dual-zone automatic climate control with a smog sensor, Bluetooth and a 13-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer and iPod/USB connectivity.
Among the more notable options are dynamic cruise control, a 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and a hard-drive-based navigation system with a seven-inch touchscreen interface, a rearview camera and voice-command functionality.
The IS F's dashboard is largely borrowed from the regular IS, which means the materials are high-quality, but the design is so five years ago. A notable exception is the F-specific electroluminescent gauge cluster, highlighted by an exclusive centered tachometer that looks great. The other frills on the dashboard are cosmetic, including a rather tacky colored F insert at the bottom of the steering wheel. But that compact three-spoke wheel is quite possibly the most satisfying specimen in all of autodom, so we're not really complaining.
The IS F's special front sport seats provide robust lateral support, though we'd like to see adjustable side bolsters at this price point. Although the back seat is as cramped as in any other IS sedan, the unique two-passenger layout comprises individual bucket seats that are shaped and bolstered almost like the buckets in front. It's a cool effect.
Trunk space is an adequate 13.3 cubic feet.
Although the IS lineup is getting up there in years, it has managed to stay current on the technology front, including standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The available hard-drive-based navigation system is a bit disappointing, however, as it uses a touchscreen interface instead of the mouse-like Remote Touch controller found in the latest Lexus models. Moreover, the seven-inch display lacks the color and clarity of newer screens.
The navigation system includes the Enform telematics suite, which lets you either plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the downloadable Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the IS's navigation system.
Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, isn't available in any Lexus for the 2012 model year.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Lexus IS F employs a rear-drive layout with a Torsen limited-slip differential. Power is provided by a 5.0-liter V8 rated at 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque, while the transmission is a sport-tuned eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. For purity's sake, we'd love to see a manual transmission offered, but, hey, Mercedes' AMG tuning house seems to be doing just fine selling only automatics. Indeed, Lexus's Yamaha-tuned V8 is closer to a broad-shouldered AMG V8 in character than to the M3's high-revving V8. Redline is a relatively low 6,800 rpm (even the Ford Mustang GT's 5.0-liter V8 revs higher than that), but the IS F's motor makes big-time power across a wide swath of the rev range, and it sounds fantastic at full throttle. The eight-speed automatic deserves special praise for over-delivering: we expected the typical sluggishness of a conventional automatic, but the way this gearbox upshifts instantaneously and eagerly matches revs on downshifts is really something.
Fuel economy for the IS F is an EPA-rated 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway.
The 2012 Lexus IS F comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and eight airbags (front, front side, front knee and full-length side-curtain). All models include Safety Connect, which uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get you the help you need if the unexpected occurs.
The IS F has not been crash-tested, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested the regular IS sedan, awarding the Lexus a rating of "Good" (the highest possible) in frontal-offset and side impacts but just "Acceptable" (the second-highest) in roof-strength and rear-impact testing.
The 2012 Lexus IS F is a tiger on the racetrack, maintaining a flat posture through the corners and swallowing straightaways with that distinctive V8 bellow. Lexus expects a significant percentage of IS F owners to be track-day regulars, and we can understand why. On the street, last year's suspension changes are a godsend, transforming the previously concussive ride quality into something you could live with on a daily basis. Despite the IS F's dedicated performance tires, the cabin remains commendably quiet at speed.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi S4 - The S4 really isn't a member of the super-sedan club, but it's close enough to contemplate. It's not nearly as strong as the IS F with just 333 horsepower, but it handles almost as well, and we prefer its interior.
BMW M3 - The M3 isn't offered as a sedan for 2012, but the coupe is still available, and it's still our choice in this class. We'd certainly miss the IS F's formidable midrange thrust, but otherwise the M3 reigns supreme.
Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG - If you think the IS F sounds good, wait till you fire up the C63's 6.2-liter V8 for the first time. Actually, every time. This is one of the few cars that can clinch a deal based on engine noises alone. It doesn't hurt that the C63 has gotten steadily better in the handling department over the years.
We'd try to find an IS F with zero options. Not even navigation. This car is all about raw performance; we'd just use our smartphone when we needed a gadget.