The idea that muscle cars are some uniquely American creation is a bunch of automotive jingoism. Taking a pleasant car, shoving a great honking engine under the hood, and not changing much else before sending it out to amuse the masses is an idea nearly as old as the car itself.
And the latest muscle car doesn't hail from Detroit or Germany, but from Japan. Meet the 2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance, exactly what you didn't expect from Toyota's luxury brand. See, ever since Lexus discontinued the IS F, fans have clamored for a revival of the first F car. Lexus gave us the Predator-faced RC F and the dearly departed GS F in the intervening years, but the one people really wanted, a new IS F, never appeared. And it's still not here, at least by name. Instead, the first V8-powered IS in nearly a decade carries the F Sport Performance name and it’s more muscle car than sports sedan.
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|Quick Stats||2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance|
|Output:||472 Horsepower / 395 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH:||4.4 Seconds|
|Top Speed:||165 MPH (est)|
|$56,500 + $1,075 Destination|
F Sport Performance marks Lexus' move into the realm of performance hierarchies, serving as a competitor to Audi’s S and Mercedes-AMG’s 53-series models – the full-blown F cars will take on the RS and AMG 63s. But where there are big performance leaps between an A4 S-Line, an S4, and an RS4, the first F Sport Performance car is only an incremental improvement in terms of performance over a standard F Sport, focusing wholly on straight-line speed and making little to no improvements in handling or aesthetics. At the same time, this sports sedan is nearly as quick as the Lexus RC F coupe. The result is a car with a very confused personality.
The heart of things is another new member of Lexus' enjoyable 5.0-liter V8 family. A direct descendant of the engine found in the original IS F, the new IS 500's V8 offers identical power as the RC F coupe – 472 horsepower and 395 pound-feet of torque, which is 161 hp and 115 lb-ft more than you'll find in an IS 350 F Sport. Consequently, the improvements in straight-line speed are dramatic, with Lexus citing a 4.4-second sprint to 60, only two-tenths off the RC F and 1.3 seconds quicker than the IS 350.
The improvements in straight-line speed are dramatic, with Lexus citing a 4.4-second sprint to 60.
Indeed, floor the IS 500's pedal from a standstill and you'll be wondering why even bother with the $67,000 RC F. The naturally aspirated engine lacks the off-the-line punch of a turbocharged mill, but it makes up for that shortcoming with an eagerness to rev straight up to the lofty 7,300-rpm redline. Peak horsepower comes in 200 revolutions before that magic number, while max torque arrives at 4,800 rpms.
You need to rev the fuel injectors off this engine to get it going, but the straight-line performance is intoxicating once the 5.0-liter builds up a head of steam. Keeping the revs up in a car is always fun, but driving the IS 500 quickly requires it. The throttle response in the most aggressive drive mode is excellent, with a predictable curve and a snappy, can-do attitude on tip-in.
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The powertrain is a lot like the RC F’s (which, duh), but in a few important ways, the IS is better. Lexus pipes in fake engine noise to the IS 500's cabin, but the Japanese brand has realized that less is more in this application and seemingly lowered the volume in the noisiest setting compared to the last RC F we drove. The kick-in point of the amplification is also less noticeable, so where the RC F's soundtrack suddenly comes on at a precise engine speed, the IS 500's concerto feels like it's based less on rpm and more on throttle position.
And what a sound it is. While the IS 500 lacks the visceral bark of the LC grand tourer (which also uses a version of the 5.0-liter V8), particularly on wide-open-throttle upshifts or rev-matched downshifts, the sound from under the hood and out the four exhaust pipes is classic high-revving V8, with a rich timbre and pitch. Tunnels will become your new best friend in this car.
The powertrain is a lot like the RC F’s (which, duh), but in a few important ways, the IS is better.
Praise also goes to the RC F–sourced eight-speed automatic. It's intelligent in everyday driving and able to find the right gear with little hunting, while the computers also seem acutely aware of the limited torque and are always willing to kick down a gear or two to bring the revs up.
The manual mode is fun, and the wheel-mounted paddles are the right size and shape, but the 8AT lacks the alacrity of the LC's 10-speed automatic and feels merely average alongside the BMW M340i's eight-speed auto or the Mercedes-AMG C43's nine-speed box. Too often for a V8-powered performance sedan, we found ourselves just leaving the car in full-auto mode and letting the computers sort things out.
But beyond the powertrain, it's hard to understand the point of the F Sport Performance badge. Aside from the 5.0-liter V8, the IS 500 is barely any different from a regular IS 350. You do get a Yamaha-sourced rear damper to reduce structural flexing, slightly larger brake discs (14.0-inch front/12.7-inch rear versus 13.2-inch front/11.7-inch rear) to corral the extra ponies, and an array of small aerodynamic and aesthetic tweaks, none of which are consequential enough to affect the overall drive experience.
Instead, you'll still find the same adaptive dampers, the same Torsen limited-slip differential, and the same staggered Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires sold on the IS 350 F Sport. So while the IS 500's cornering ability is sharp and enjoyable with well-controlled body motions, it also feels like an IS 350 from behind the wheel. It also suffers from that car's ills, namely the hyper-active steering rack that requires small, annoying corrections at highway speeds.
In the cabin, IS 350 owners will recognize the lovely and supportive seats, as well as the steering wheel, paddle shifters, pedal covers, and pretty much anything else. It's good stuff, but not what we expect considering what a Mercedes C43 brings to bear over a standard C300.
Living In A Vacuum
It's when you start comparing the IS 500 to the competition, as we just did, that problems really start to show up. Not because of the powertrain, of course. On paper, this is the most powerful vehicle in the class, besting its primary competitors – the Mercedes-AMG C43, BMW M340i, and Audi S4 – by between 87 and 123 hp. The Lexus also edges out the C43's 384 lb-ft of torque with its best-in-class 395 lb-ft. But this power advantage never shows up on the stopwatch. At 4.4 seconds to 60, the IS 500 ties the BMW M340i and Audi S4, and it's only a tenth ahead of the C43.
The broader problem, as we see it, is how the Germans feel in the corners, both relative to the IS and to their base models. The ultimate handling ability of a C43 or M340i is far beyond a C300 with AMG badging or a 330i M-Sport. And those same hot Germans provide a more exciting cornering experience than the IS 350 F Sport or our IS 500 F Sport Performance.
Had Lexus focused on massaging the suspension to up the ante on the regular IS 350, the IS 500 would be a far more exciting and compelling car. But as it stands, the carryover suspension is the prime contributor to this feeling like little more than an IS with a V8, rather than what the F Sport Performance name should stand for.
Bearing that unchanged suspension in mind is also the main reason we struggle with the IS 500's price, which starts at $57,575 (including a $1,075 destination charge). If you select the Premium trim, which adds navigation, a Mark Levinson audio system, upgraded LED headlights, and a surround-view camera with front and rear parking sensors, the price jumps to $62,075. The upside is that, beyond the trims, the IS 500 family is monospec – pick a trim, pick a color, and be on your merry way.
But when the competition – and not just those cars from Germany – provides a more invigorating all-around experience for similar money, it's easy to look past the IS500. The M340i is the most dynamic car in the class and its $55,695 (including $995 destination) price tag is $1,880 lower. It's a similar story with the Mercedes-AMG C43 and Audi S4, which attach standard all-wheel drive while offering sharper reflexes to go with their $57,550 and $51,545 price tags. And even the Cadillac CT4-V, a car we're loath to recommend for several reasons, is more exciting in the bends while carrying a starting price $12,000 lower.
But when the competition – and not just those cars from Germany – provides a more invigorating all-around experience for similar money, it's easy to look past the IS500.
We can stomach the prices of the competition because they're big, all-around upgrades. The $13,000 that separates the M340i from the 330i feels reasonable not just when charging forward, but when attacking a corner. You look at the C43 and understand why it's $14,900 more expensive. It's a similar story with the Audi and even the Cadillac. But with $13,550 separating the IS 500 from a car that's almost identical in all but the way it accelerates and sounds, there's a sense you're not getting everything the higher price tag suggests you should.
The IS 500 F Sport is frustratingly close to being a great sports sedan and an equal to Germany's mid-range performers. And while we're glad Lexus finally shoehorned a V8 engine back under the hood of an IS, all we're left thinking about is what could have been. A firmer, more exciting suspension and some visual flair could have justified the IS 500's existence while also planting a flag for the F Sport Performance line and left room for a potential IS F. Instead, we get a muscle car masquerading as a sports sedan. The IS 500 sounds good and accelerates well, but it fails to scratch the F'ing itch.
IS 500 F Sport Performance Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance: First Drive
2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance Premium