Sometimes the road to Mammoth Mountain can be just as much fun as carving up its fresh powder.
I took a 415-horsepower Lexus ISF to Mammoth a couple weeks back and was nearly blown over by its staggering performance on the 700-or-so mile round trip, leaving me feeling like I'd pointed the skis straight ahead, taken a deep breath, and hopped a double-black-diamond cornice.
All new for 2009 and the most exciting car to come out of the Lexus stable since the inestimably upscale 460L I tested here last year, the ISF packs a whallop that puts it firmly in BMW M3 or Mercedes AMG territory, and the luxury performance sedan sector so prized by German and Japanese carmakers.
So I got a speeding ticket, my first in about three years. It was inevitable, perhaps, given the clear open roads en route to Bishop at about 6 a.m. and the temptation to open this baby up. I know. I take responsibility. It was wrong. I'll pay the hefty price and promise not to do it again. And it gave me extra pause for thought before ragging a 540hp Shelby Mustang around Sonoma this week. Moral: Save it for the track.
But a couple pointers here first off on how the I SF stacks up against its competition: It's definitely got a more amorphous feel than a typical sports sedan crossover like the Cadillac CTS-V I took to the Hoover Dam a couple years back. Similarly, it's got a more accessible all-around feel than the multiple Corvettes I've driven through the years. It handles better than both. It may even (whisper it) be family friendly, with its back doors and surprisingly roomy back seat. OK, it's not roomy, though I did get a pair of carving skis in there and it's certainly a heck of a lot better than its sister SC coupe, which proved a rather painful experience for my backseat companion on a couple trips to Frisco and Vegas. I seem to remember rating both its stock sisters, the IS350 and IS250, very highly indeed as everyday luxury runabouts.
Maintaining its accessible theme, the ISF also has three settings that greatly improve driver experience on long trips in a performance car, which, maybe surprisingly to the uninitiated, can prove exhausting (not least by the concentration required to stay within the speed limit). The car's Sport setting was great for short bursts of pace but usually I kept it in the Cruise setting, which softens the rock-hard suspension some. And surprisingly for Southern California, I got to test the car's Snow setting, which performed admirably amid ice, snow and slush.
But the real star here is the car's performance: 0-60 mph in about five seconds, or fractionally slower than a Corvette but a decent burst above what you'll find in hot hatches that cost half the price. Trick here is that all that pace comes decked out in finery it seems like only Lexus can provide -- I'd venture that the insides here shade even Mercedes for their opulence. The ISF is, after all, a gazelle dripping in Gucci, and packs all the finery (think perforated leather seats and top-notch Bose stereo) and technological wizardry (including onboard memory storage and iPod/iPhone hookup) you would expect in a luxury car costing in the region of $60,000.
Other things to note: It's not a pedigreed sportscar like a Bimmer or Benz, but my guess is it'll prove a high-seller in Southern California despite a drag on luxury car sales affecting all of the major carmakers and almost every dealer from Santa Monica to Newport Beach. Reason? It's a significant departure from anything that's been seen in the Lexus lineup so far and therefore packs much appeal to the guy who wants one before the neighbor. Also, given Lexus' legendary reliability, chances are this one will proof bulletproof in future. There's also the question of how much Lexus will be willing to knock off the price off one of these given aforesaid dire industry conditions right now.
Other nuts and bolts: it packs caliper brakes courtesy of Brembo, a 416 horsepower 5.0 liter V8 aluminum-infused powertrain mated to an eight-speed automatic box (yes, eight, nabbed from the 460L) with optional manual shifting on the gearstick or steering wheel paddles. Suspension is double-wishbone at front and multi-link at rear. Theoretically it'll hit 170 mph after nailing the quarter mile in just 13 seconds. This baby redlines at 6,800 rpm but I'd be massively surprised if anyone legally manages to hit this. Let me know if you do, and I'll reply to your cell in the county lockup.
Couple important points: Yes, the integrated vehicle dynamic management system and electronic stability control are annoying and will take you to some interesting places if you try to push too hard around tight turns or spin the wheels on takeoff or in power slides but also, and more importantly, they'll probably stop you coming to a very messy end. Safety-wise, it packs all the bags that its sister IS350 needed to get four out of five stars awarded by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Gas is not bad for a performance car with four exhausts, at 18 mpg overall.
So have you had enough of pushing it to the limit? On or off piste, a trip to Mammoth in an ISF won't leave you asking.