BMW M3 vs Lexus IS-F
– photography Paul Maric & Matt Brogan
Most tests involving upmarket sport sedans provide you with a few laps of a track, and little else. While this may indeed be a lot of fun, it’s of little use to anyone who plans on buying such a car for any other purpose.
So with that in mind, we set out to drive these amazing machines with real world expectations, and in real world conditions, putting each through a 1000 kilometre course of city, highway and performance driving to determine which will win the battle of BMW versus Lexus.
The BMW M3 has been the datum point of the mid-sized sports sedan market for more than two decades now, and though many have tried to rival the successful formula the M3 offers, few have managed to equal the sharp driving dynamics and crisp performance credentials offered by the German marque.
Similarly Lexus, though a solid contender in the luxury car arena, had not until now proven itself as a rival in the performance motoring category, ergo the ‘F’ badge was introduced in a bid to bolster the brand’s image.
Representing Japan’s famous Fuji Speedway, the site of Lexus’ performance vehicle development, the ‘F’ badge aims to represent similar qualities in the Japanese brand’s performance future to that we’ve come to expect from BMW’s ‘M’ branded cars.
As we soon found out, the IS-F is a worthy first effort for our challenge.
The fourth generation M3’s specifications may not, on paper at least, seem as impressive as the IS-F. So to better understand how a 309kW/400Nm engine can propel a 1605kg car so quickly, you’ll need to appreciate that this light-weight, naturally aspirated engine is in fact derived from BMW’s ground pounding 5.0-litre V10.
The result? A 4.0-litre, quad-cam, V8 arrangement that can only be described as a masterpiece of modern engineering. It is both remarkably free revving and linear in output with the available power matched impeccably well to an equally impressive and wide torque curve. This fatter band of output will see the M3 avail strong and linear drive to the rear wheels continually until a stratospheric 8300rpm.
When approaching maximum engine speed the symphony of the sublime eight-cylinder howling in full flight will have any motoring enthusiast’s grin stretched ear-to-ear and, as if that’s not enough, a quick glance at the speedo will most certainly reassure you that the claimed acceleration figures are indeed accurate with 0-100km/h dealt with in under five seconds no matter how many times you try and test the theory.
The IS-F on the other hand is, in terms of cubic capacity at least, a better-endowed engine with its 5.0-litre, quad-cam, V8 unit producing 311kW and 505Nm, some 2kW and 105Nm more than the M3 respectively.
Trouble is the car weighs almost 100kg more (IS-F 1700kg / M3 1605kg), and though that may not seem like a great deal, it is indeed noticeable when you start throwing the pair around, but more on that in a little while.
When driven in a city environment, the IS-F is much like any other Lexus. I’d even say that beneath 4000rpm it almost feels slow, quiet and respectable, but open the taps and everything changes.
With the exhaust baffles open and the cams on song the ensuing propulsion – and glorious V8 roar – is nothing short of enormous. Acceleration is blisteringly fast and, should you manage to keep traction sorted, the IS-F will see 0-100km/h times fractionally quicker than those of the M3 (4.6 and 4.9 seconds respectively).
Unfortunately the IS-F’s engine, however strong, is a little disinclined to hold higher revs thanks to electronic intervention, which means any sustained operation above 6000rpm is very quickly met with a warning chime and/or unwanted gear shift.
It is also challenged by the fact that unlike the M3 the IS-F presents all of its available torque quite late in the rev range (5200rpm), which makes any effort to try and maximise the use of all that mumbo a near waste on anything other than a straight line drag strip.
Both cars tested feature sophisticated, automated transmissions, though we should point out the BMW is still available with a six-speed manual gearbox as well.
The Lexus offers a traditional torque converter controlled arrangement with a staggering eight ratios and offers torque lock up on the second and eighth gear, while the BMW utilises a seven-speed, dual-clutch system (or M-DCT in BMW speak), as is becoming more commonplace in sport-based derivatives nowadays, and boasts gear shifts of less than 1/10th of a second.
Given the 4.0-litre V8’s tendency to enjoy a few revs the M3 power package as a whole makes for more rapid and precise upshifts coupled with free flowing downshifts, seemingly no matter how high the needle on the tacho may point, allowing maximum use of the engine when both ascending and descending the speedometer.
Around town both gearboxes do suffer a little in the way of refinement. The IS-F is fluid on upshift but very indecisive on kick down; perhaps suffering from too many ratios, and it can tend to hunt after even slight throttle application when in the drive (‘D’) setting.
Similarly, the M3’s seven-speed unit will offer a moment of indecision after throttle reapplication at roundabouts or in slip lanes, which can leave you “hanging” momentarily before the ‘box has a change to grab another gear.
In all though it has to be said that both cars do offer a mammoth amount of bang for your buck, but for my money the M3 is a more complete driver’s car demonstrating clearer purpose, better balance and greater control in terms of power, its delivery and as such, it has won this round.
The M3 and IS-F are similar sized vehicles and therefore offer closely match power-to-weight figures. It would stand to reason then that both are very similar in respect to their driving dynamics, and for the most part that’s true. However, start to push the boundaries a little and it’s soon becomes evident as to why one marque has enjoyed such a long standing reign at the top.
The main issue here is chassis design and development followed closely by suspension arrangement. The M3 simply feels more taut and more nimble corner-to-corner with faster response from the chassis allowing quicker turn in at higher speeds.
The IS-F tends to feel a little more unsettled when faced with the same situation feeling more bulky when presented with sudden lateral weight transfer. The result is a sudden loss of grip, and although it’s easy enough to correct, does unsettle the car’s poise, which means cornering speed is lost to the more agile M3.
BMW use a strut front/multi-link rear arrangement under the M3 which in this instance was assisted by optional Electronic Dampening Control (EDC). Despite this technological assistance, the M3 still feels to have the upper hand over the IS-F’s double wishbone front and multi-link rear, which is seemingly compromised by being too stiff around town and too soft for use on the track.
Steering on the IS-F too is a touch heavy, I liken the experience to an old-style race car with no assistance and too much positive camber. Turn in isn’t quite as sharp as the M3 either and a little more follow through in terms of steering input is required to maintain mid-corner poise.
Brake feel is also a little lifeless in the Lexus with the initial bite seeming quite dull, and while both vehicles stop incredibly quickly, the M3 offers a stronger and more progressive response with more involved pedal feel than its new found rival.
I also found that the Electronic Limited Slip Differential (ELSD) did not feel as alive in response as that of the M3, or for that matter to most mechanically based LSDs. As such the request for drive from corners doesn’t feel nearly as neat or as composed as it otherwise should. It’s a small and momentary delay when all is said and done, but a delay none the less which still affects the car’s overall dynamism.
We also noticed IS-F will disallow down shifts if it feels the engine speed is too high, which results in heavier than intended brake application as you work to get the revs low enough to reattempt another pull on the “minus” paddle. By this stage of course you’re very late in to the corner, which can lead to an unsettled rear end – a fault from which the M3 does not suffer in the slightest.
With Australian roads being what they are the stiffer rebound dampening, sharper turn in and earlier torque delivery found in the M3 make it a far better choice to live with day-to-day, and as it is more comfortable in terms of ride, it has again won by a nose in this part of our test.
Comfort & Practicality
As you’d no doubt expect of a high-end performance sedan both the M3 and IS-F offer potential buyers an extensive standard feature list to ensure that no matter your choice in marque, you are befitted with a car that surrounds you with the latest and greatest array of gadgets one would rightly associate with a vehicle of such lofty expenditure.
Now the details of all this equipment can be a little boring, but when suffice to say it is without doubt the best money can buy and is also exceedingly generous in each car given their intention as a performance vehicle, rather than a luxury car.
The details of all the bells and whistles however are best left to the brochure for as stated we intend to provide you with a feel for how the car is to live with, rather than get too bogged down in the details of who has the loudest stereo or the fastest power windows.
From a comfort standpoint, the vehicles are both relatively easy to comprehend and develop a feel for. Instrumentation, seating position, switch gear and auxiliary controls are all laid out in a similar fashion. My one qualm here would be that the IS-F does house some of its crucial functions on the lower dash fascia behind the steering wheel (such as transmission settings, ESP switch) meaning sight use can be exceedingly difficult until you’re accustom with their position.
Other than this one small issue it really is a matter of personal taste when it comes to layout with the only noticeable difference perhaps coming in the form of BMW’s iDrive menu system.
Many publications have criticised the complexity of this arrangement in the past, but don’t be put off by it, for if you can operate your mobile phone then the wizardry of BMW’s iDrive system shouldn’t provide you with any great difficulties.
The other benefit to iDrive is that many of the functions contained within it are “set and forget” which results in a cleaner, less cluttered centre stack (pictured above) that presents the M3 with a more simplistic appearance.
Seating is generously proportioned, comfortable in terms of adjustment and well bolstered to offer an acceptable level of support when cornering. The M3 does however offer adjustable side bolsters in addition to the more traditional settings shared by each car (forward, aft, recline, lumbar, tilt, etc), which can increase the amount of lateral hold substantially.
The IS-F offers two seating positions in the rear and is low slung to maximise headroom. The result however is that your knees extend higher and further forward in the leg well, which can limit the already tight space available. The M3 is more generous here and also offers a middle seat, though this is best thought of as for temporary use only where adults are concerned.
Both vehicles offer impressive five-star safety levels and are fitted with the latest active and passive safety features including dual front, side and curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability program, traction control, electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake assist. The M3 adds Cornering Brake Control while the IS-F gains knee airbags in both front seat positions.
Boot space is slightly larger in the M3 with an additional 72-litres on offer over the IS-F (450-litres and 378-litres respectively).
While the details of interior decor and appearance of each vehicle is sure to come down personal taste, I have to again give the overall practicality of each vehicle another vote toward the M3. As touched on earlier the ride is simply more comfortable, the space is more generous and well utilised and the driving position (and subsequent feel for the car) more well suited to a car of such high levels of performance in the BMW.
At the end of a very pleasurable week’s driving there could be only one winner, and as you may have by now gathered, that winner is the BMW M3.
It’s not that the IS-F is a bad car – far from it – in fact for a first attempt at a performance vehicle of such calibre it’s bloody brilliant. The simple fact of the matter remains that the M3 has heritage, and it’s that development and character that can be felt in every facet of the car’s design and ability, clearly not something that can be replicated overnight.
I’m sure in years to come that this battle will become even closer, and yes I know the M3 is a touch more pricey, but truthfully you do get what you pay for, and when you drive the two back-to-back I’m sure you’ll agree.
Ratings, Specifications & Option Pricing
BMW M3 Sedan Ratings:
CarAdvice Overall Rating:
How does it Drive:
How does it Look:
How does it Go:
Lexus IS-F Sedan Ratings:
CarAdvice Overall Rating:
How does it Drive:
How does it Look:
How does it Go:
BMW M3 Sedan Specifications:
Lexus IS-F Sedan Specifications:
BMW M3 Option Pricing:
Lexus IS-F Option Pricing:
Road Test the Rivals: