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Lexus IS-F | The Brave Pill

The car that lived life in the shadow of the M3 and RS4 now looks like a considerably better bet...

By Mike Duff / Sunday, February 16, 2020

While Oscar Wilde's famous line about stalky adulation is often dropped into point-proving conversations about unimaginative rivals, few bother with the full quotation: "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness." Which, like most of Oscar's better-remembered bon mots, is actually a pretty snide insult. But what if the imitator turns out to be as good as the thing that inspired it?

That's the existential question thrown up by the Lexus IS-F, a student that came close to becoming the master of its segment. But before that, the tougher challenge of attempting to justify featuring a Lexus in what is meant to be PH's celebration of the automotively daring.

Assemble a list of car brands and order them according to braveness and Lexus would come close to the bottom of the pile. Toyota's upmarket spin-off made its reputation through solid engineering and cars with the reliability of nightfall. Now make a second list of every model the brand has made and sort them according to the daring necessary to own one; the IS-F comes fairly close to the top. So while objectively it might be no braver than buying an approved used Fiat from your father-in-law's dealership, subjectively the IS-F is about as plucky as a Lexus gets.

The mid-noughties were a fine era for sports saloons - indeed, probably the finest. Buoyed by a ballooning global economy that was expanding towards a still-invisible needle, the premium German carmakers were fighting hard to one-up each other with ever wilder offerings. In the taller branches of the tree this was the Age of the V10s, but even in what was then known as the compact executive segment there was rampant inflation of both power outputs and cylinder counts.

Mercedes went first, trying to counteract the general ugh-ness of the W203 C-Class by creating a V8 powered C55 AMG in 2004. Audi followed with the first V8 powered RS4 in 2006, and BMW launched the 4.0-litre V8 E90/ E92 M3 the following year.

Lexus wasn't even on the field at this point - not even at the back of the grandstand. Like a tubby schoolkid clutching an excuse note, the brand seemed entirely uninterested in sport. Lexus made wafty, conservative and slightly dull models - there had been some TRD tuned variants in Japan, but none had ever reached Europe or the U.S. Indeed, news that the company was founding a performance-orientated F-Division in 2006 came as a near-total surprise; like learning BMW was planning to launch a front-driven hatchback powered by a transverse-mounted engine would have been. Here all week, try the veal.

Expectations for a sporty Lexus weren't high, but when the IS-F reached the UK in 2008 it comfortably exceeded them. It looked good, muscular and buff without any of the sort of cartoonish details that Japanese performance cars often seemed to end up with. It also had a cabin that - even 12 years on - is a model of well-designed clarity. Then there was the engine, definitely the starring feature, the 4.0-litre V8 making 416hp without forced induction and backing it up with a solid 371lb-ft of torque.

So while the IS-F didn't have the screaming top end of the M3 or RS4 - the rev counter calling time at 7,300rpm, nearly a grand below the RS4 - it had serious low-down urge and felt much punchier at everyday speeds. It sounded good, too - deep-chested and muscular rather than zingy, more American than German.

Although contemporary road-testers tended to grumble about the lack of a manual option, the standard autobox was actually pretty bloody impressive. Not only was this the first eight-speeder fitted to any road car, it also featured a lock-up function in second to eighth to sharpen responses. In manual mode it couldn't offer the whizz-bang of the M3's twin-clutch DCT - which was pretty much indistinguishable from magic back then - but it was still probably the snappiest-shifting full auto on the market at the time.

The rest of the dynamic experience was similarly impressive; the Lexus might not have been able to quite match the finesse of the M3, but it was a more charismatic alternative than either the Audi or the Mercedes and - thanks to the under-stressed engine - a hugely accomplished high speed cruiser.

But it was also expensive - five grand more than that pesky BMW - and a fair way from what traditional Lexus buyers were expecting. Being launched just in time for a savage global recession didn't help much either, and UK sales were limited to only around 230 cars over a six year lifespan. That means there aren't many out there to choose from, but also that values have stayed pretty firm when compared to ze Germans. With 106,000 miles showing, our Pill is hardly a Moroccan minicab, but that tally still seems to be the main reason it is one of the cheapest currently on offer, the vendor wanting £12,500.

On the plus side we have an image of a Lexus-stamped service book indicating the IS-F was inside a franchised workshop as recently as last year and 3,000 miles ago. (It also shows a single trip to a Land Rover dealershiphave been like an alien visitation from Planet Quality.) The fact the most recent service took place in Belfast also helps explain why our Pill's MOT ran out in May last year - NI not using the DVLA database - but also suggests that anyone buying it from elsewhere in the UK is going to start ownership with a bracing ferry journey.

And the brave stuff? Well the IS-F does have enough documented faults to make ownership a modest wager, if not a drunken binge on a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal. Water pumps are prone to leak, as are the heat exchanger plates buried more deeply in the engine compartment - something that can lead to a substantial bill. Old-fashioned Japanese 5,000-mile service intervals can also quickly add to the pile of receipts. Oh, and the drilled brake discs are prone to crack under hard use.

Alright, so not particularly courageous then - especially not when compared to the well documented foibles of that vaunted M3. Even the bravest Lexus isn't going to be too hard a pill to swallow - but would you want to?

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