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22024Very appropriately for a Lexus whose tagline is "F is everything you thought we weren't", the unexpected surprises at the IS F Press Preview held at Laguna Seca and Carmel Valley, California between Wednesday 24 October and Friday 26 October 2007 began the moment this author stepped off the plane at Monterey Peninsula Airport. Frankly, this übercargeek author had been expecting to meet some of the mainstream automotive journalists and scribes whose work he'd long admired in publications such as Car & Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend and Automobile. Instead, as I was ushered to a waiting bus that would provide transportation to the <A HREF="">Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley</A>, the invited guests all appeared to be twentysomething-year-old guys and girls from lifestyle, fashion and gaming magazines and websites. Later, as we gathered at the hotel's Semillón Suite, yours truly quietly awarded the "most outrageous-looking press colleague" awards to, in the male category, the mega-mohawked (and very cool and friendly) Gerry Block of gaming site, and, in the female category, to very colorfully hyper-tattooed Beatrice Neumann of fashion magazine/car design magazine mashup <A HREF="">Intersection</A>, whose very uniquely-focused automotive articles I'm a huge fan of. As I approached Ms. Neumann to tell her this, she gave me a stunned and icy thank you that surely revealed her thoughts as something like "Who the hell is this old fart? And how does he even know about my way-hipper-than-you magazine?"

Thinking positive, though, such an abundance of this sort of non-automotive journalists would surely mean more seat time at Laguna Seca Raceway the next day. And, to be fair, there were also representatives of automotive publications and websites such as Super Street, Sport Compact Car, Jalopnik and Autoblog. Even before the 6:00 PM welcome reception, however, I'd had the opportunity to log on a computer and discover that, to my initial dismay, as I was traveling to California, the IS F Press Embargo had officially ended and a veritable flood of official Lexus Press Releases and independent reviews had hit the Internet. At that reception, I expressed my fears that all that information release would make Thursday morning's Technical and Marketing Briefings anticlimactic. Not to worry, we were told, there'll be plenty of new information in there. Upon further reflection, there was a positive side to the post-embargo release of information: this article can merely be book-length, as opposed to encyclopedic. At any rate, links to the official Lexus IS F Press Releases and independent articles appear in <A HREF="">a separate my.IS Front Page story.</A>

A very special dinner guest
Upon our arrival at <A HREF="">Casanova restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea</A>, we received the third surprise of the day, and this one was surely the best one: our guest of honor for dinner and at Thursday's Ride and Drive at Laguna Seca Raceway would be none other than Scott Pruett, one of North America's winningest drivers. This was a treat that the large, mainstream car magazines didn't get. See, we are special after all. Scott's most recent accomplishments include the greatest number of Grand-Am Daytona Prototype wins by a single driver (14) and he is a two-time Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series champion (2004 and 2006), all for the Chip Ganassi with Félix Sabatés Racing team and their Lexus-Riley racers. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I walked up to Scott, introduced myself and immediately gave him my condolences for the way that he was <A HREF="">robbed of the 2007 Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype Driver's Championship.</A> He thanked me for that, and I then told him what a kick I'd gotten from seeing team owner Chip Ganassi react to a SPEED TV commentator's question regarding that pivotal and grossly unfair call with a "Penalty? What penalty? What are you talking about?" sort of reaction, and he laughed.

Although we weren't seated together at dinner, our conversation continued post-dinner at the Lodge, and a rambling, interesting conversation it was, covering all sorts of ground. Scott told us, for example, how important he feels it is to learn the art of left-foot braking to become an optimum race-car driver. He is also one of the few Grand-Am Daytona Prototype drivers who actualy enjoys sharing the track with the lesser, slower Koni Challenge GT racers. Indeed, he is a truly personable and friendly individual, a "people person", far removed from the stereotypical taciturn and barely talkative race car driver (think the late Ayrton Senna or current Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen). And, even beyond that, Scott is something of a Renaissance man, as revealed in a story from the October 2007 issue of Car & Driver titled World's Fastest Landscaper, written by John Phillips. (unfortunately not posted on the C&D website). Indeed, Pruett the landscaper has also harvested a plethora of fruit on his 50-acre estate, including grapes that, by the end of 2009 should result in a world-class syrah wine. Hmmm...Scott Pruett thus joins Mario Andretti in the auto-racer-turned-winemaker category. Are competitive wine tastings to follow?

Another of Scott's passions is restoring vintage American cars. The C&D article tells us that his current collection includes a 1960 Cadillac convertible, a 1950 Buick woody, a 1941 Willys in WWII camouflage, a 1955 Chevrolet pickup with a blown 600-cubic-inch big-block, a 1954 Chevy wagon, a 1968 Camaro SS396 convertible, a 1967 Corvette and the Lola-Cosworth he drove to victory at the Michigan 500. Yet, his daily driver is a Lexus RX400h, and, by Thursday afternoon, his enthusiasm for the Lexus IS-F was strong enough that, he hinted, one may well join his amazing stable of cars.

Still another interesting passion he shares with his wife Judy is writing children's books. Befitting Scott's career path, the three books they've co-written thus far are the open-wheel CART racer-themed <A HREF="">Twelve Little Race Cars</A>, the very similar NASCAR-themed <A HREF="">Twelve More Little Race Cars</A> and <A HREF="">Rookie Racer</A>, with the fourth, <A HREF="">Harry the Hauler</A> currently in the works.

Time to call it a night. Thursday 25 October promises to be quite a day.

The Technical & Marketing Briefings
Consider these the "meat and potatoes" of the Carmel Valley/Laguna Seca trip. The presentations were led by David Nordstrom, Vice President of Marketing for Lexus USA and Bob Allan, Lexus College Dealer Education Manager. Their mission was to review with us the Lexus IS F Press Information kit (which goes into far more detail than the five official Toyota/Lexus/Scion North American Pressroom IS F-related Press Releases) and answer any questions.

There is already much IS F specs and technical information out there on the Internet and linked from <A HREF="">a recent my.IS Front Page story</A>, so, in the interest of keeping this story's length manageable, it will focus on facts and tidbits you likely haven't read anywhere else.

A heretofore-undisclosed third Lexus IS V8
Die-hard Lexus IS fans are surely quite familiar with two official, factory-sanctioned efforts at putting a V8 under the hood of Lexus' smallest and lightest car: <A HREF="">the Rod Millen-built red-and-black IS 430 that debuted at the 2003 SEMA Show</A> and, of course, the IS F. The Lexus IS F Press Information kit reveals that the original IS V8 was, in fact, a 1st-generation IS equipped with a 5.2-liter V8 developed by TRD (Toyota Racing Development). While it is described as having "special body work and an updated suspension", the single picture in the press kit shows a Graphite Gray Pearl that, in spite of its massive hood bulge, custom front bumper and wide, tires-flush-to-the-bodywork stance that the IS F can only dream about, is still the most subtle and tasteful-looking of all the IS V8s.

The AA80E: the best-ever torque-converter automatic transmission?
Though nominally shared with its larger GS460 and LS460 siblings, even down to identical ratios for all gears and the final drive, the AA80E 8-speed automatic as used in the IS F has, at the hands of the engineering team led by Yukihiko Yaguchi, received numerous tweaks that may well make it the world's best-ever torque-converter automatic transmission. Its 0.2-second period for shift initiation and 0.1-second gear change times match Ferrari's latest clutch-pedal-less F1-Superfast sequential manual transmission from the 599 GTB Fiorano and are faster than the Ferrari F430's older F1 sequential manual gearbox. The lock-up torque converter clutch feature for 2nd through 8th gears and throttle blip on downshifts are exclusive enhancements for the IS F, and shift speed is faster than in its GS and LS applications.

If left in D-range, the transmission still allows for temporary use of the sequential mode or engine braking via the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. If the vehicle is stopped, driven at a constant speed or constant acceleration for more than 15 seconds, however, normal D-range will resume. This mode uses the torque converter throughout all gear ranges.

Move the gear selector to M-mode, however, and great things start to happen. Torque multiplication is used in 1st-gear for fast starts. Once you hit 2nd, however, the lock-up clutch is engaged and remains so all the way to 8th-gear. this makes the transmission function just like a true manual transmission, since the gear steps are determined by the driver's input and power is transferred directly to the rear wheels. The shift time of 100 milliseconds is among the fastest in the class and the world. Driver audio aids (which, depending on your mood and driving conditions, can be helpful or annoying) are one beep for upshift timing (this generally sounds if you fail to upshift by around 6600 rpm, just shy of the 6800 rpm redline. An upshift precisely at the beep means, in practice, a redline shift) and two beeps for declined downshifts (you certainly don't want to blow the engine to smithereens!).

In M-mode, the minimum speeds by gear range, at 1200-1400 rpm are as follows:
2nd-gear: 6-9 mph / 10-15 km/h
3rd-gear: 9-12 mph / 15-20 km/h
4th-gear: 21-25 mph / 35-40 km/h
5th-gear: 26-30 mph / 42-48 km/h
6th-gear: 33-37 mph / 53-59 km/h
7th-gear: 35-38 mph / 56-62 km/h
8th-gear: 42-46 mph / 67-74 km/h

Still, in spite of all this gee-whiz technology on a torque-converter automatic transmission, I couldn't help but ask, at the end of the presentation, why, if not a true clutch-pedal manual, didn't Lexus go with something like the much-acclaimed VW/Audi dual-clutch (but, again, no clutch pedal) DSG gearbox? It turns out that the cost savings and reliability of the tested-and-proven AA80E torque-converter automatic transmission was too much of a positive lure. And, rather than feeling stifled, IS F Chief Engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi relished the challenge of making that automatic transmission feel as good and shift as quickly as the more exotic, more complex and less reliable alternatives such as the aforementioned Ferrari F1 or VW/Audi DSG. Did Lexus succeed in this lofty goal? Our time behind the wheel will surely reveal the answer, but, in the meantime, the Technical & Marketing Briefing isn't over yet.

A couple of extra gauges
Although it was buried in one or two of the five official Lexus Press Releases, this author was quite surprised to discover that, as one more nod to the true driving enthusiast, the Lexus IS F's multi-information display includes a voltmeter and oil temperature gauge not found on IS 250 or IS 350 models.

The IS F suspension
It's no secret that the IS F's suspension tuning and specification are sportier than its tamer IS 350 stablemate, but the Lexus IS F Press Information kit goes into more detail than any other source. The IS F front suspension has 20% stiffer lower control arm bushings, a 90% increase in both the spring rate and shock rate and a 10% increase in the stabilizer bar torsion rate versus the IS 350. As to the front stabilizer bar itself, it has a 28.6mm diameter and 4mm thickness, versus 27.2mm diameter and 4.5mm thickness in the IS 350.

The IS F's rear suspension uses 50% softer toe control link bushings than the IS 350, which allows for optimum toe variation when cornering. The IS F's rear spring rate and shock rate are both increased by 50% versus the IS 350, and uses a 17mm rear stabilizer bar, versus a 15mm bar for the IS 350.

22025Bridgestone Potenzas, yes, but which ones?
Many of the articles on the Internet dutifully repeat from the Lexus IS F Press Information kit and Official Press Releases that available tires are "Bridgestone Potenza and Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 built to Lexus specifications for the IS F". And, indeed, a search for <A HREF="">the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 page on Tire Rack's website</A> reveals specific Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari and Dodge Viper versions of that tire. Presumably, a Lexus-specific Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 will be offered closer to the car's U.S. on-sale date of very late February or early March 2008. The fact that all the IS F pilot production cars at this event wore Michelin tires, combined with vague references to Bridgestone Potenza tires got the better of my curiosity. The answer, I was told, is that, unlike the case with the Michelins, development of an IS F-specific Bridgestone tire is still ongoing, to the point that it's still undecided whether it'll be a variant of the Potenza RE050A or of the RE070.

Brembo's show-stopping brakes
The front brakes' 6-piston fixed calipers' diameters are 1.5" for the top caliper, 1.34" for the middle caliper and 1.18" for the lower caliper. The pad area is 14 square inches (versus 8.71 square inches for the IS 350), and the drilled and pillar-finned ventilated discs themselves are 14.2 x 1.2 inches in diameter (versus 13.2 x 1.2" for the IS 350).

The rear brakes' 2-piston fixed calipers' diameter is 1.42". The pad area is 7.44 square inches (versus 4.29 square inches for the IS 350), and the drilled and pillar-finned ventilated discs themselves are 13.6 x 1.1 inches in diameter (versus 12.2 x 0.71" for the IS 350).

An ultra-versatile version of VDIM, complete with Electronically Controlled Brake LSD
Lexus has certainly taken advantage of advances in automotive technology and electronics in putting together an extremely versatile version of its VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) suite of Electric Power Steering (EPS), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control (TRAC, or TRC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Brake Assist (BA), Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), and engine torque (via the electronically controlled throttle) controls for the IS F. Chief Engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi and his team certainly knew that, as calibrated in other Lexus models such as the IS 350, GS 460 and LS 460, VDIM would be deemed too intrusive by the hardcore enthusiast. Also, said enthusiast would surely consider it de rigeur for a true high-performance car to have a Limited-Slip Differential. Yaguchi-san realized that the F21FS "pre-torque" semi-LSD used in the IS 350 wouldn't suffice, and he set out to create a new component for VDIM: an Electronically Controlled Brake-based Limited-Slip Differential effect on the rear wheels. During cornering, it suppresses any tendency for the inside wheel to spin, transmitting more power to the outside wheel to maintain traction and momentum. Lexus claims that this "virtual" LSD function is lighter and less prone to heating than more traditional LSD.

The IS F's 3-mode VDIM is controlled by two switches to the right of the steering column. The rightmost of the two is a rocker switch which reads, from top to bottom: SPORT, MODE, SNOW. Upon turning on the car via the ENGINE START STOP button, the "default" mode is Normal VDIM, which fully activates VSC, TRC, ABS and LSD functions and features lighter steering effort and earlier automatic transmission upshifts. A tap on the upper portion of the rocker switch activates the Sport VDIM mode. This increases the weight of the power steering assist for extra feel, raises transmission shift points to higher RPM and increases throttle response. It also expands the threshold and permissible range of lateral acceleration, movement and rotation. A green SPORT light inside the lower right quadrant of the tachometer indicates this mode is activated.

Tapping the lower portion of the aforementioned rightmost rocker switch activates SNOW mode, which maintains the Normal VDIM parameters but reduces throttle response to help control torque on slippery surfaces. A yellow SNOW light outside the lower right quadrant of the tachometer indicates this mode is activated.

Should you trust your driving abilities more than even Sport VDIM mode's expanded safety net, there's always the VSC/TRAC OFF switch, which is actually labeled with a pictograph of a skidding car and the word OFF. It sits just to the left of the SPORT, MODE, SNOW switch. A simple push merely disables the Traction Control, and the TRAC function will return if necessary at 31 mph. This not-quite-off mode is indicated by a yellow light of the skidding car pictograph just above the SNOW light outside the lower right quadrant of the tachometer. For real "the car can't overrule me" hooliganism, you need to press that OFF switch and hold it down for 3-4 seconds. That will fully disable both the TRC and VSC functions, and a yellow VSC OFF light to the right of the SNOW light outside the lower right quadrant of the tachometer will tell you you're pretty much on your own. Well...not quite, for the ABS and LSD functions are always active and non-defeatable, even in full VSC/TRAC OFF mode.

IS F versus the "usual suspects" (RS4, M3, C63 AMG)
With the first part of the presentation (taken directly from the Lexus IS F Press Information kit) over, David Nordstrom and Bob Allan proceeded with a supplementary PowerPoint presentation of images and information. The first one to catch our eye was a competitive comparison chart of the 2008 Lexus IS F, 2009 BMW M3, 2009 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG and 2008 Audi RS4 sourced from Autodata, manufacturers' websites, press releases and media. It was, however, missing EPA Fuel Economy figures for the M3 and C63, as well as curb weight and torque-to-weight figures for the latter. Fortunately, an <A HREF="">RS4 vs M3 vs C63 AMG comparison test from the December 2007 issue of Car & Driver</A> came to our rescue and helped fill in the blanks. Yet, there were also enough discrepancies between the two sources of information to require a few corrections and clarifications:

IS F: 5.0 liters
M3: 4.0 liters
C63: 6.2 liters
RS4: 4.2 liters

IS F: [email protected] rpm
M3: [email protected] rpm
C63: [email protected] rpm
RS4: [email protected] rpm

TORQUE (lb-ft)
IS F: [email protected] rpm
M3: [email protected] rpm
C63: [email protected] rpm
RS4: [email protected] rpm

0-60 MPH (sec)
IS F: 4.6 (mfg. claims)
M3: 4.8 (mfg. claims 0-62 mph/0-100 kmh. 0-60 mph should be roughly 4.7 seconds)
C63: 4.5 (mfg. claims 0-62 mph/0-100 kmh. 0-60 mph should be roughly 4.4 seconds)
RS4: 4.8 (mfg. claims)

CURB WEIGHT (lbs) (manufacturers' figures/C&D Dec. '07 comparo)
IS F: 3780
M3: 3650 / 3571
C63: 3814 / 4034
RS4: 3957 / 3814

MPG (city/hwy)
IS F: 16/23 (EPA)
M3: 13/20 (C&D guesstimate of EPA)
C63: 13/20 (C&D guesstimate of EPA)
RS4: 13/20 (EPA)

TORQUE TO WEIGHT (lbs/lb-ft) (all based on manufacturers' weight figures)
IS F: 10.2
M3: 12.4
C63: 8.6
RS4: 12.5

HORSEPOWER TO WEIGHT (lbs/hp) (all based on manufacturers' weight figures)
IS F: 9.1
M3: 8.8
C63: 8.4
RS4: 9.4

Rather than being the definitive answer to the IS F vs RS4 vs M3 vs C63 AMG comparison numbers, the waters remain quite muddy after viewing the above. Especially bewildering are the curb weight discrepancies between the official manufacturers' figures and the Car & Driver test figures. Do European vs North American spec differences really explain the 143 lb difference between the 2 Audi RS4 curb weights? How did the C&D BMW M3 tester wind up 79 lbs lighter than the official non-US-specific BMW weight figure? And how, in the face of lighter-than-expected RS4 and M3 testers, did the Mercedes C63 AMG tester weigh in at a whopping 220 lbs heavier than the official non-US-specific Mercedes-AMG weight figure? And it was disingenious of Lexus to feature only the more-favorable-to-the-IS F Torque-to-Weight figures in its comparison, so this author couldn't help but calculate and add the Horsepower-to-Weight figures as well. Then again, how accurate are the manufacturers' official figures, especially in the case of the Mercedes?

Yet another curious anomaly is the fact that the online version of the C&D RS4 vs M3 vs C63 AMG comparo omitted this passage that appears in the printed magazine version: "We would have liked to include the Lexus IS-F and Cadillac (2nd-generation) CTS-V, but neither was available in time. Look for those two sedans to be pitted against the winner of this comparison in about six months."

A surprise appearance by a very familiar Lexus IS 300
Several images later in the presentation came one which said, in its right-hand margin, something about 40,000 Lexus ISs in the United States, alongside a photo of a random modded IS. Random, at any rate, to everyone else at this Press Preview Marketing Briefing, but I couldn't help but loudly whisper a "holy s---!" of recognition. You see, the open-hooded Intensa Blue Pearl 2002 Lexus IS 300 in the photo, taken back in the pre-turbo day when it had tons of body-colored underhood accents, is owned by none other than fellow Miamian and friend Mario Echeverría (my.IS member Just IS) and was the subject of not <A HREF="">one</A>, but <A HREF="">two</A> my.IS Front Page articles during 2005. Talk about small-world coincidences!

The unanswered questions
The briefings concluded, and, thorough as they were, a handful of questions remained unanswered. The main one among these, of course, is the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price for the IS F, which Lexus clearly stated, was not finalized at this time. The 2008 Detroit Auto Show Press Conferences is the earliest we're likely to have answers to that question.
Beyond that, my.IS Senior Moderator Rudy Quant (screen name METEORO), sent along several detailed questions on the drivetrain, one of which was not fully addressed in the Press Information packet:

Does the shift speed and smoothness or harshness of the shifts vary between automatic (D-range) and manual (M-mode)? And does the VDIM mode (Normal/Sports/Off) affect the shift speed and smoothness or harshness of the shifts?

Also, a couple of issues have been raised by the my.IS community that beg answers from Lexus. The first of these was actually started by <A HREF="">a photograph of the IS F's rear quad exhausts</A> with a hand behind them that appeared on <A HREF="*#24">Edmunds' IS F Road Test.</A> This led to some angry posts on both my.IS and Club Lexus, followed by <A HREF="">another exhaust photograph</A>, this time from <A HREF="">Autospies</A>, whose "while previous reports have surfaced showing pre-production placeholders for the upper tips, our test vehicle was full-functional for all four" comment led some to conclude that Edmunds' IS F was more of a pre-production prototype than the one Autospies drove. Frankly, this author feels the whole exhaust issue is, in the immortal words of William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. Yet, some words from Lexus about this might help put this to rest once and for all.

The other issue worth of commentary from Lexus is in response to the feeling by a sizable portion of our community that, with 225/40R19 front tires on 8" wide wheels and 255/35R19 rear tires on 9" wide wheels, the IS F could stand to have wider tires, especially at the rear. It is a curious anomaly that the IS 250/350 and the IS F share rear tires that are 255mm wide in spite of the fact that the IS F's wheels are a ½" wider than its less powerful stablemates. Also, wider tires would also give the IS F a broader, more sporting stance that's more akin to its German archrivals.

F Champions at your Lexus dealer
Lexus has always been one to place a premium on the sales experience provided by its highly-trained dealer personnel, and it's certainly not going to risk alienating the new clientele of affluent and very demanding and informed hard-core car enthusiasts that the IS F will bring by saddling them with salespersons more accustomed to dealing with geriatric golfers. Thus, each Lexus dealer will have "F Champions", in both the sales and service departments, to cater to the specific needs of the unique breed of driver that is the IS F owner. These "F Champions" will also be in charge of the <A HREF="">new line of "F Sport" accessories just launched at the 2007 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.</A>

The Lexus Performance Experience returns
At the beginning of this decade, Lexus' initial attempts at catering to the car enthusiast began to take shape. First came the line of L-Tuned accessories for the IS and GS Lexus models. Then came an attempt to emulate the official factory-sponsored racetrack driving schools that are such an integral part of BMW, Porsche, Saab and Dodge SRT enthusiast marketing. The <A HREF="">Lexus Performance Driving School</A> held a number of events during 2003 at tracks in Texas and California. The $395-a-day (including lunch) event received <A HREF="">rave reviews from my.IS members fortunate enough to attend.</A>

Alas, 2004 saw a combination of lackluster demand and corporate budget cuts kill both the L-Tuned line and the Lexus Performance Driving School. Still, the enthusiasts within Lexus started fighting back, and, <A HREF="">in March 2006, rumo(u)rs started surfacing regarding the revival of the Lexus Performance Driving School.</A> We are happy to announce that, indeed, Lexus is working on a revival of that concept, under the new working title of Lexus Performance Experience. Specific dates and venues are not yet available, but we will bring them to you as soon as they are.

Will the IS F go racing?
Much has been written and discussed on our forums regarding <A HREF="">the painful demise of Team Lexus and its Lexus IS racers.</A> Seeing the enthusiasm that brought forth the IS F begs the question of a new factory-sanctioned racing effort, a revived Team Lexus of IS F V8s, if you will. Sadly, the signs aren't too encouraging, for Toyota has decided to expend huge amounts of money and effort (with relatively little to show for it) in Formula 1 racing and NASCAR, plus a few crumbs for the Grand Am Daytona Prototype effort. This has more or less killed any possibility of the IS F going racing. And, if Toyota/Lexus corporate has a change of heart, expect the IS F to compete in the NASCAR-owned Grand Am series, in the GT class, and not in the rival American Le Mans Series GT2-S class like the Lexus IS 350 was about to.

22026Enough talk. Time to drive
With the Technical and Marketing Briefings concluded, we made our way to the entrance of the Bernardus Lodge, where 10 or 12 Lexus IS Fs awaited us in a semi-circular formation, and in various colors and configurations. We were then instructed to pair off with a fellow journalist, and who better to join me than my Club Lexus counterpart and good friend Flipside909? As Flipside sat in the driver's seat of an Obsidian (black) Neiman-Marcus Edition IS F (as if they came any other way...), we were joined by a "guest of honor": David Nordstrom, Vice President of Marketing for Lexus USA. We were instructed to follow a longish route to the Laguna Seca racetrack. At roughly the halfway point, it was time to play "musical drivers" and get my shot behind the wheel of the IS F. I double-checked that the car was in VDIM Sport mode, moved the shifter into M-mode, and drove off.

Given that we were on public roads, out of respect for my passengers and not wanting to risk wrecking this especially rare piece of machinery, I didn't drive at a 10/10ths pace that let me know what the car is truly capable of. Let me just say that it reminded me of a Lexus IS 300 on steroids with an automatic transmission that works as God truly intended them all to work. The drive on the uphill leading to Laguna Seca's entrance, around the outside of parts of the track and the descent into the pit area is one that still remains a pleasant vivid memory.

The Ride and Drive Program at Laguna Seca
After everyone's safe arrival, it was explained to us that the Ride and Drive Program was divided into two concurrent sessions: the actual Drive on the Track and a Slalom-and-Skidpad portion, the former also including hot laps as passengers while Scott Pruett drove. We were randomly assigned which would go first and, fortunately, Flipside and I got to start with the Track portion.

22027A hot lap with Scott Pruett
Flipside and I decided that starting the day with a hot lap driven by Scott Pruett was the sensible thing to do. As we joined him in an IS F, saying he took off would be an understatement. Blasted off was, surely, more accurate. The most jaw-dropping aspect of this lap was the insane pace he was keeping while braking later than mere mortals would dare to, carrying on a casual conversation, removing one hand from the steering wheel to emphasize a point and even turning his head in the direction of the back seat. Ah, just one more day in the life of a professional race car driver...

Driving Laguna Seca, one baby step at a time
Given the wildly varying racetrack experience among this group of journalists, Lexus decided to place instructors from the Skip Barber Racing School with us for the first lap. As a further aid to simplify things, we were instructed not to worry about ideal driving lines and the like. Rather, orange cones were strategically placed along both the left and right edges of the track. The idea was to look ahead and aim the car at the edge of the track where the nearest cone was, then look ahead at the next cone, aim the car there, and so forth.

Follow the leader
The next step involved one Skip Barber instructor driving an IS F, and two other IS Fs, each with a solo journalist driver, following the lead car for 3 laps around the track. The fact that each "pack" consisted of only three cars made this much more enjoyable than the longer "follow the leader" caravans at <A HREF="">the first Laguna Seca event</A> or at the <A HREF="">Audi Driving Experience.</A> It was at this point that I started to truly appreciate the engineering and design marvel that is the IS F.

The solo laps
Finally! Time to run! I strapped myself in and, fearing catastrophic damage to a valuable pilot production car, I set it to VDIM Sport mode and the transmission to M-mode, a decision that I wouldn't regret for a single second. The IS F handled the two elevation drops past the start/finish line and at the top of the Corkscrew with utter aplomb and without bottoming out. As Laguna Seca and I became closer friends, I pressed on, with fun touches of tail-out action that was caught by the VDIM at exactly the right time. The steering in Sport mode was communicative and just right in feel and effort, and the transmission was a willing and able partner. I recall laughing out loud several times.

If there was one complaint, it's the occasional sensation of weight transfer from a hardly-featherweight 3780-pound car. Then again, not even Yaguchi-san and his band of engineers can be expected to defy the laws of physics. Also, that figure is not only comparable to its German archrivals, it's ligher than all of them except the BMW E92 M3.

22028Two wheels are worth a thousand words
The lunch/meeting tent between the Track and the Slalom/Skidpad sections also housed a very telling exhibit: two wheels held together in a seesaw manner under a sign that says it all: UNSPRUNG WEIGHT - Less unsprung weight means better grip. The left wheel was from a Mercedes AMG that, we were told, weighs over 34 lbs (15.5 kg). To its right, standing higher was a Lexus IS F front wheel that weighs a scant 24 lbs (10.9 kg).

The Official Lexus IS F Press Packet tells us that the BBS-developed-and-built IS F wheels are forged, rather than cast as are most factory alloy wheels. The forging process, which requires up to 16,000,000 pounds of pressure, result in a wheel that is 40% lighter than a cast alumin(i)um wheel of the same size and in a wheel that costs about 3½ times as much as a cast alumin(i)um counterpart would.

The aforementioned IS F Press Packet then goes on to offer this useful comparison between the IS F's front and rear forged wheels and the Lexus LS's similarly-sized cast wheels:

IS F front and LS: 19-inch 8J
IS F rear: 19-inch 9J

LS: 35mm
IS F front: 45mm
IS F rear: 55mm

IS F front: 24 lbs (10.9 kg)
IS F rear: 26 lbs (11.9 kg)
LS: 34 lbs (15.5 kg)

LS: 100
IS F front: 346
IS F rear: 354

22029Over to the slalom and skidpad
After a quick bite to eat, it was now time to switch stations.

The first portion of this exercise was a slalom consisting of 4 equally-spaced cones, which was timed, followed by a straight acceleration run where we were to hit the brakes at a specific point, followed by a left turn and a drive through a pathway of side cones akin to those placed at carmakers' driving events, then on to a wet, soapy skidpad marked by a circular formation of cones, which we were to circle twice, and then out to set up for the next run. We were further instructed to perform six runs, two in each VDIM mode. Curiously, the sequence was VSC/TRAC fully off, then VDIM Normal/fully on, ending with VDIM Sport mode.

The slalom
The first slalom run, with VSC/TRAC fully off, taught me the sort of experience that autocrossers in Mustangs, Camaros and Corvettes must surely go through, with the tail swinging out beyond "wow, I love this" and into "oh, boy, if I'm not careful, I'm going to lose it." I managed to bring it back alright, but, in the process, recorded the slowest time of my six runs: 8.39 seconds. My confidence affirmed, my second VSC/TRAC fully off run was also my fastest: 7.86 seconds. Some tail-happiness was there, but it was rewarding to tame the wild beast unfettered by any electronic nannies. If you're seeking consistency, though, forget this mode, for the spread between the two VSC/TRAC fully off runs was by far, at 0.53, the broadest of the 3 modes.

Next came full-on VDIM Normal with all the bells, whistles and nannies. While not as intolerable as I'd feared, this mode, with its noticeably lowered level of steering feedback still made its mark on the slalom times, which were 8.25 and 8.05 seconds, respectively, a spread of only 0.2 seconds.

Finally came what is showing itself to be the IS F's "Goldilocks mode": VDIM Sport. It was, by a hair, the most sensible of the three modes, even though its times were barely faster (at 8.23 and 7.98 seconds, with a spread of 0.25 seconds) than those with the VDIM-fully-on mode.

The overarching lesson, however, is that the IS F is more a "big bruiser" of the ilk of the aforementioned Detroit iron, and less of an autocrosser with finesse the likes of the 1st-generation Lexus IS 300.

The skidpad
The first two skidpad runs, in VSC/TRAC fully off mode, were quite a handful, as I struggled to keep the IS F along its intended circular path. The next four runs, in full-on VDIM Normal and VDIM Sport modes, made the IS F much more manageable and able to follow its intended path. It comes at a price, however: an incessant and highly annoying beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep that, by the last run, had me uttering every curse word in my repertoire, in both English and Spanish...

22030Back to the track
Being among the first to complete the Slalom-and-Skidpad exercise, I returned to the Track, in the hopes of sneaking in another few solo laps. Unfortunately, my hopes were deflated. Literally. For, in front of me sat a Matador Red Mica IS F with a flat right front tire. It turns out that a scribe from a men's clothes-and-shoes magazine decided to try the IS F's off-roading capabilities at the first right-hander after the Corkscrew. And, after this IS F was gently driven forward off pit lane and into the pits themselves, the right rear tire joined the right front in its flattened misery.

Sir, we wish to remind you that, if off-roading is your thing, Lexus offers three SUVs of varying capabilities. That is not the IS F's mission within the Lexus lineup.

At this point, the Lexus staffers decided to return to the "follow the leader" format, and I scrambled to get my balaclava (head sock) and helmet on and get behing the pace car for another trio of laps.

And after that, my friends, the trackside fun ended, for some of the journalists in the second group hadn't been able to get all their laps in. As we prepared to leave Laguna Seca and return to the Bernardus Lodge, Flipside and I jumped in a bare-bones, no-navi, no-sunroof Obsidian (black) IS F driven by Lexus College's Bob Allan.

Fortunately, the fun didn't end here, for Friday 26 October awaited, with more driving opportunities.

Hit the road, guys
After breakfast, the journalists that remained were allowed yet more opportunities to drive the IS F, albeit on the road. Not just any roads, however, for Lexus had prepared what they call the "F Roadbook" with 4 routes: Big Sur (50 minutes - 40.9 miles), Santa Lucía Preserve (1 hour 5 minutes - 32.7 miles), Laureles Grade (30 minutes - 16.5 miles) and Carmel Valley Road (50 minutes - 26.6 miles). Again, this was an exercise where we were to pair off, so Flipside and I hopped on a silver IS F (probably the most "photogenic" color in the IS F palette). We decided to start with the Big Sur drive, and I took the wheel for the first half. Turning out briskly from the Bernardus Lodge, a dip in the road produced a firm but short single hop in the IS F, and this was the only instance where the suspension felt a tad too firm. Still, after driving the IS F both on the street and on the track, my respect and admiration for the perfect suspension setup by Yaguchi-san and his engineers only grew, and I remain baffled by Edmunds' incessant and gratuitous criticism of the IS F's suspension as too harsh.

After driving for 20.4 miles of driving, I entered the Rocky Point Restaurant parking area down a narrow, unpaved road for our designated driving change. Inveterate, diehard manual transmission fan that I am, I'd been driving in manual mode all this time, but I was so concerned with negotiating this narrow road gently that I totally forgot about downshifting from whatever gear I was in when I entered (3rd or maybe 4th, I'd say). Fortunately, the car felt fine and, when I realized my slipup and looked down at the instrument cluster and was about to shift, I was pleasantly surprised to see the car already in 1st gear. This is entirely normal, however, for, as one of the official Lexus Press Releases reminds us, "In M mode, gears will be held until the driver up- or down-shifts (except) if vehicle speed falls too low for the selected gear, then the transmission will downshift automatically." Hmmm... I can just see the Weekly World News tabloid headline: "Transmission Outsmarts Human".

22031Given the drop-dead gorgeous sceney around us, it was impossible to not take advantage and shoot a few photos. Once we were done, Flipside took the driver's seat and we headed back on the return portion of our route. As I looked at what the "F Roadbook" held in store for us, I started laughing out loud at "23.2 miles - cross over Garrapata Bridge". You see, garrapata is Spanish for tick, as in fleas and ticks. No wonder I then started to feel itchy...

As we returned to the Bernardus Lodge, we still had plenty of time to continue driving, so we chose the Carmel Valley Road loop. This was the most fun drive, with more twisties and elevation changes than the Big Sur drive. By this time, going into a curve on high revs, then pulling on the left downshift paddle to hear the assertive whompf of the throttle-blip for speed matching became a deliriously and deliciously addictive treat. The IS F was certainly happy to romp in the twisties, as were its drivers.

Be reminded, however, that this fun has its price: less-than-stellar fuel economy. Sure, the IS F is better in this regard than its German archrivals, but we're still talking about a V8 with over 400 hp, and a glance at the multi-information display's current fuel consumption readout revealed an eye-popping 8.8 mpg.

22032We returned once more to the Lodge, and asked about the remaining time and routes. We'd only be able to get one more run in, and the folks at Lexus recommended the Santa Lucía Preserve. Most of this drive takes place on a private road, so we were given special permits to enter. This route was slower than the Carmel Valley Road loop, with narrower pavement and trees that were very close to the road, but it was also by far the least trafficked of all the loops. Best of all, the historic Hacienda at the midway point (and driver change) marked another beautiful photo site.

We returned to the Bernardus Lodge just before the 12 noon ending of the Ride and Drives, and without having driven the Laureles Grade loop. No big loss, though, for that was essentially the route from the Lodge to Laguna Seca racetrack.

22033The post-drive
Given that, by coincidence, Flipside and I were the last ones scheduled to depart from the Lodge to Monterey Airport, we were able to stick around to watch the pilot production IS Fs that had served us so well loaded onto a car carrier truck for their departure. Where to, though? The crusher, since these cars are not meant for public sale? Lexus' U.S. headquarters in Torrance? Or, perhaps, a cross-country trip to delight even more driving enthusiasts?...

And now, the Thank Yous
It is inevitable that an event of this magnitude, and one that went off without a hitch (albeit with a couple of flat tires) has behind it a ton of hardworking people without whose efforts this simply wouldn't have happened. We've already mentioned the Bernardus Lodge and their attentive staff, the Casanova Restaurant, Lexus USA's Vice President of Marketing David Nordstrom and Bob Allan of Lexus College. Equally important and pivotal roles were played by Brian Bolain, Lexus' National Interactive and Automotive Event Marketing Manager; Justin Hood, IS-F Project Marketing Manager, Julie Alfonso, Manager of Lexus Division Communications and Charles Hubbard of Lexus College. Also worthy of mention is Jenece Waid and her staff's almost round-the-clock service and attentiveness to the needs and transportation logistics of this motley crew of journalists (not to mention keeping us very well fed) at the Bernardus Lodge. And, finally, though we weren't able to meet with him personally, surely this event wouldn't have taken place without the support of Mark Templin, Lexus group Vice President and General Manager.


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