Think of this column as a sign that a change is going to come. And while this is happening far from the firms in Munich, Stuttgart, Ingolstadt, etc., they will be the ones affected in the long run. The outcome of this will be a truly worldwide offering of some superlative cars as the outer limits are explored and developed.
A few months ago, I had lunch with a recently retired honcho who has a firm grip on German automotive reality and is still on the company payroll as a consultant. This is the usual manner of keeping the inner circle loyal and not allowing that knowledge to end up in a competitor's camp. As we walked out to the parking lot, I was surprised to see him getting into a new Lexus LS. "Hey, what are you doing in that POS?" was my comment. His reply was a revelation: "It's a great car and I don't have time to deal with any issues."
Anyone who has doubts on how Lexus has become the new standard should have heard the rest of the conversation. But the one area where Japan has not made an impression is with a true supercar. The Acura NSX may be a great driver, but fails in almost every respect when pressed over a long haul as a true exotic. Porsche purchased one right off the showroom floor. When testing at Weissach, the brakes caught fire after the eighth lap.
Japan has also never produced a truly worldwide competitor to go up against Audi's S and RS cars, AMG and the mainstay M cars from BMW. Until now. Occasionally, european car receives invites from the Rising Sun to inspect their wares. Normally we answer with a polite 'no thanks.' But this was different. This offering will have an impact on the world we cover.
Yukihiko Yaguchi is a chief engineer at Lexus. A small, compact, thin-framed, intense-looking individual who could easily be a stand-in for a Gokudo action film, Yaguchi-san considers himself a car guy first and an engineer second. His resume over the last 30 years at Toyota ranges from the turbo Supra to the GS and LS models of flagship division, Lexus. He simply wanted to build a car he would want to drive. He had been lobbying for some time with the board to develop a sports branding that was not simply a badge. Rebuffed, he went to work in his own time, developing his concept of what he felt a full-performance Lexus should be.
The new Lexus IS F is a lot more than a big V8 stuffed into a small chassis. Yaguchi-san is well aware of that learning curve. The normal IS tub was deemed strong enough that the F model would not require the usual strengthening to accommodate all the specially developed sport parts. A 5.0-liter engine putting out 400-plus ponies and with 371 lb-ft of torque sounds more Roush than Munich, but the eight-speed direct-shift paddle gearbox is closer to Maranello than Tokyo. Yaguchi-san and his small hand-picked team tested the IS F on tracks all over Europe as well as at Fuji.
Yaguchi's casual comments were of major interest. Besides being a fan of Formula One, purely for its technological aspects, he acknowledges that the current crop of DTM cars rates very high in his opinion. He said he would like to see a serious Lexus push in that area of competition. While speaking as an individual, the message is clear that Yaguchi-san knows what it takes to make history. Lexus may rule the luxury segment and put up impressive sales numbers, but for a company to be taken seriously in the history books, it will have to compete on the track. And I'm not counting the Lexus-powered proto-turtles of the Grand Am. The IS F is only the first salvo. Although Lexus won't comment, once you venture down this road, there's no turning back.
Track time aboard the IS F at Laguna Seca was plentiful. The paddock area was set up with the usual cones for the itchy-twisty runs, a skidpad and a run-off to test the big Brembo calipers for a two-feet-on-the-pedal panic stop. Then exercise on the full circuit. Although the batch of IS Fs we had were all pre-production, what impressed me most was that-after having been totally thrashed by a variety of drivers of varying skills-at the end of the day, nothing rattled or came loose. No new noises; the only visible wear being on the 18-inch Bibendums and a lot of dust from the evil-looking black Brembo calipers. Oh yeah, 120-plus from turn 11 to the braking point for turn two is more than acceptable-all this while in D.
Yaguchi-san asked what I thought of the car. I told him it was the best mode of transportation to come out of Japan since the Nekobasu from Miyazaki's Totoro. This brought actual laughter and a huge smile. Yaguchi-san retired early that evening; he had a morning flight back to Japan. A pair of IS Fs were making their home debut as safety cars for the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji-where else would you expect a proud father to be?