Mean-Looking, 416-Horsepower Lexus Muscle Car Takes on BMW’s M3

April 2 (Bloomberg) — And for the car most likely to frighten small children, steal their lunch money and generally upset the peace, I nominate the Lexus IS F.

Wait, a Lexus, Toyota’s upscale brother, turned … bad? Actually, not just bad, but evil?  

I blame it on the 416-horsepower beast’s upbringing: Obviously one of the Lexus engineers simply couldn’t take it anymore. It was the critics’ endless gibes that no matter how easily Lexus cars drive, how nice they look or how much technology they offer, the cars are really boring.

So that engineer turned to the Dark Side, obviously. How else can you explain this sport sedan’s power, the intestine- jolting torque, or the fact that my tester is all-black, with darkened rims? And that ungodly sound from the engine bay when you stomp on the gas? A blast of rage and fury — not nice, but oh so fun.

Few places are more appropriate for this bad-attitude Lexus than Southern California, and when I cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway, nearby cars slow tentatively, as if they know I’m a bad seed. One guy in a convertible Mini Cooper pulls alongside at a stoplight and shakes his head.

“Man oh man, what a crazy car,” he marvels.

The IS F has a naturally aspirated 5-liter V-8 engine, an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle controllers (at least two gears of which are entirely superfluous), Brembo brakes and 19-inch sport wheels. Based on the IS, Lexus’s so-so sports sedan, it features a nasty twin mesh grill, all the better to suck in air for that big engine; deep vents aft of the front wheels; and four tailpipes, stacked on top of one another in a two-by-two configuration. That’s a bit of design tomfoolery that evokes the rear end of a jet.

Challenge to BMW

Notice that it has exactly two more horses than BMW’s latest M3. Figure that to be intentional (the disgruntled engineer again) and a direct challenge to Bimmer. You’ll pay for those two horsepower of extra bragging rights, about $1,000 per. The Lexus starts at $56,000, about two grand more than the M3 sedan.

The M3 is available in four doors, too, and while it actually leans toward more refinement — a manageable daily driver — the IS F has no intention of filling that role. Its intentions are less law-abiding.

The most evocative perspective is actually from the driver’s seat, where the sight lines are scrunched from the bulging hood and deeply sloped roof. This is the road’s-eye view you get from inside a muscle car. Not American muscle, granted; rather, some anime version of a muscle car, as if the designers had been watching the Japanese techno-cartoon “Akira” for inspiration.

Cartoon Interior

Even the interior is a bit cartoonlike, with dashes of composite materials and interior door handles that look like backward Zs. The leather-trimmed seats are extremely well bolstered and tightly clutch your sides. When I first get inside, I feel like I’m about to play a video game.

I’m soon testing that theory as I hook a turn next to a biker’s bar and head into the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s an extremely narrow, serpentine road, most often prowled by motorcyclists on pocket rockets and Rolex cowboys on their weekend Harleys.

The IS F isn’t up to the task. Even with those eight gears, it’s hard to find the right one to channel all that power on such nuanced lanes, and the coupe doesn’t tuck into the corners very sweetly. The steering is mainly at fault: This is a Lexus, all right, with precious little road feel coming through the wheel. The steering is simply too light to make the fast, delicate turns, and I struggle to find a rhythm. A Porsche Boxster would eat the Lexus alive on these roads.

Freeway Animal

The IS F is better suited for straightaways and highways. In other words, it’s perfect for Interstate 405. I drop out of the mountains and onto L.A.’s least-accommodating stretch of road. On this day, the freeway is just clear enough for everyone to drive at full thrust, dodging and ducking, fighting for every opening. The IS F sucks up extra spaces in an instant and makes lane changes with the brute strength and confidence of a schoolyard bully. The other cars seem to respect it, even in this most car- jaded of states. Let it by or it’ll bruise ya.

It fares well one other place, too: At the valet. I pull into the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica and the valets jockey with one another to park it. Several guests ask me about it, and a woman coyly asks if I might give her a ride.

So it’s true: Everybody really does like a bad boy.

The 2008 Lexus IS F at a Glance

Engine: 5-liter V-8 engine with 416 horsepower and 371 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city; 23 highway.

Price as tested: $63,440 ($56,000 base).

Best features: Tough look; highway performance.

Worst feature: Light steering.

Target buyer: The Lexus owner with a chip on his shoulder.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)