Friday, October 10, 2008

Gasoline prices notwithstanding, luxury car manufacturers are unable to restrain themselves. They are driven to develop ever more capable performance cars, which of course are anything but frugal when consuming fossil fuels.

A large share of the attitude is the imperative to be competitive and profitable. But it depends on a select group of well-heeled buyers for whom gasoline at even $10 a gallon—the price in some European areas in the summer of 2008—is not a disincentive.

There are many high-performance machines, ranging from wildly expensive two-seat exotics to more affordable muscle, sports and grand touring cars. Most are toys, bought for pure driving pleasure. On the other hand, there are the relatively affordable, as well as marginally practical, subcompact and compact sports sedans.

These cars can do double duty on everyday commutes and weekend pleasure jaunts—and even track racing if the owner is so inclined and doesn’t mind messing up an expensive piece of machinery.

They have mostly been Germanic in origin, and include cars like the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, the BMW M3 and the Audi RS 4. America’s Cadillac also has entered the competition with the larger Cadillac CTS-V.

Japanese manufacturers mostly have steered clear of the territory-at least until Lexus introduced the IS F. Leaders at Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota, say that the “F” designation will continue to indicate performance models, much as AMG does for Mercedes-Benz cars.

The 2008 IS F is based on Lexus’s entry-level model, the IS, which is a rear-drive subcompact four-door sedan that is anything but base. No slouch, the IS 250 has a 204-horsepower V6 engine and can be ordered with all-wheel drive.

To morph it into an all-out performer, the Lexus engineers stuffed a 416-horsepower, 5-liter V8 into the engine bay. They hooked it to the new Lexus eight-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

Unlike one of its competitors, the BMW M3, the IS F is not available with a manual transmission. But the eight-speed automatic is one of the slickest transmissions anywhere, snapping off shifts up and down near instantaneously either in manual or automatic mode.

A numerical readout at the top of the instrument cluster indicates the gear selected either by the driver or the computer in the IS F’s innards. It’s a welcome piece of information because shifts happen so quickly and unobtrusively—and the computer sometimes overrules the driver’s manual choice—that anyone would be hard-pressed otherwise to determine the gear.

The automatic shifts faster than anybody could manually. With that, and the force of the V8 engine, zero to 60 mile per hour acceleration happens in about 4.5 seconds, with top speed rated at more than 170 miles an hour.

Surprisingly, the IS F manages to avoid a gas-guzzler tax. The government rates its city/highway premium fuel consumption at 16/23 miles per gallon. It will run on regular, but with less performance and fuel economy.

As might be expected, the IS F has a suspension system, steering and brakes to match the power, augmented by stability and traction control. The giant ventilated disc brakes come from Brembo, a famed manufacturer of high-performance braking systems.

The steering and suspension are taut and responsive, giving the IS F nearly the capability of a car set up for a road-racing course.

Yet with all that, there’s a sophistication and softness that belies the daunting performance. The suspension system, for example, is supple enough to provide a decent ride for everyday commuting, where some competitors don’t mind punishing the occupants to maintain optimum handling.

The softer feel lessens driver involvement. Where the M3 BMW, for example, requires skill, concentration and practice to exact the finer aspects of its performance, the IS F is friendlier to the uninitiated.

Although it’s a four-passenger car, the IS F’s interior can be almost claustrophobic to drivers and passengers accustomed to compact or mid-sized cars. The driver is tightly cosseted in supportive seats that hold the torso in place even in violent cornering maneuvers. The surrounding console, steering wheel, dashboard and doors are just short of intrusive.

Out back, there’s barely enough head and knee room for two near-average-sized passengers. This is not a car for chubby enthusiasts.

Like all of the cars from Lexus, the IS F does not stint on luxury accouterments. The interior ambiance, in fit, finish and materials, has a luxury look with touches that hint at the overall sporting orientation.

With a base price of $56,765, the Lexus IS F comes with a bunch of standard performance and safety equipment, including side-curtain air bags, front-seat side air bags, knee air bags for the driver and front passenger, steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, 19-inch BBS smoked alloy wheels, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power sunroof, a 13-speaker audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, auto-dimming inside mirror and push-button starting.

The test car had options that included parking-assist sensors, XM satellite radio, and a Mark Levinson premium navigation and audio system. With all that, the suggested sticker price came to $62,160.

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