Lexus continues to tweak its BMW M3 rival, though the pricing remains consistently sharp.
It may be a hard-hitting contender against better-known German rivals, yet the Lexus IS-F remains a leftfield choice for those in the market for a high-performance luxury four-door.
It seems that a slew of luxury features, fiercely competitive pricing and a reputation for unassailable reliability are not quite enough for the Japanese maker to muscle in on the European game.
The superior value proposition of the Lexus is nothing to be sniffed at. Priced at $126,300 (plus on-road costs) the IS-F undercuts the M3 Coupe (BMW no longer produces a four-door version) and C63 AMG by $28,800 and $28,600, respectively.
Lexus’s case is all the more convincing when you consider the only item on the IS-F options list is a ‘delete’ box for the electrically operated sunroof – a far cry from the endless list of costly extras peddled by its German counterparts.
Visually, the IS-F’s bodybuilding kit with bulging wheelarches and double-decker exhausts seems pretty much unchanged, but Lexus has continually applied various updates and improvements to its super-sedan since its 2008 launch.
The latest Lexus IS-F boasts a lightweight version of its mechanical limited slip differential (LSD), revised ZF Sachs shock absorbers and springs (front and rear), along with a wider track and wider wheel width.
Its naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 engine is now Euro 5 compliant and revisions to the electric power steering calibration has sharpened the steering response.
The IS-F now also gets self-restoring paint and two new exterior colours: white nova and sonic silver. Inside, the car’s satellite navigation has moved from DVD to a hard drive system – and it’s a lot quicker for it.
Despite easing its emissions output, the Yamaha-developed V8 still sends the same 311kW and 505Nm to the rear wheels.
There’s still a sense of occasion with the Lexus IS-F whenever you climb in behind the wheel and press the starter button. The high-tech V8 barks into life, but quickly settles into a smooth burble as you pull away.
It’s not as boisterous as the C63’s huge 6.2-litre engine, or quite as manic as the smaller, 4.0-litre V8 in the M3, but it produces a charismatic engine note nonetheless.
Driven in the automatic Drive mode there isn’t a lot of urgency with this car (in fact the IS-F is rather docile, requiring a proper bootful of throttle to get it moving with any ferocity), yet the upside is a wonderfully relaxed drive around town particularly when crawling along in stop/start traffic.
Unlike the dual-clutch automatic in the M3, the IS-F employs an eight-speed automatic transmission which isn’t as quick but does shift seamlessly.
There’s a Sport button on the steering wheel that moves the shift points higher up the rev range, but it still feels lazy under a light-to-medium throttle.
It’s not until you shove the shift lever over to the right (thereby engaging Manual mode) and pin the throttle that the full might of Lexus’s M3-fighter comes into play.
At about 3700rpm there’s a boom in the engine note, which is suitably amplified to near motorsport-style levels as the IS-F hurls itself forward at what feels like a blistering pace.
The iridescent-blue tachometer needle will happily spin out to a shade under 7000rpm, and if you’re not quick enough with the beautifully crafted metal paddleshifters, the engine will be bouncing off the rev limiter until you finally shift up a cog manually.
When you’re really moving, the gearshifts are lightning fast and accompanied by rousing throttle-blips on the downshifts.
The IS-F’s 0-100km/h sprint time is unchanged from 4.8 seconds (4.7sec for the M3 Coupe), as is its 270km/h top speed (electronically limited).
You’ll need to limit those full-throttle moments if fuel consumption is ever going to be a consideration with the IS-F. Rated at a combined 11.7 litres per 100km, it didn’t take us much to record a wallet-shredding 17.1L/100km during our test period.
The suspension revisions have definitely improved the ride and rear-end compliance over general road surfaces, but it still has problems absorbing smaller potholes efficiently.
However, there are no issues pushing the IS-F into corners under heavy loads, as the steering is well weighted and very quick right from dead centre.
There’s also loads of grip at the rear end thanks to a solid bite from the Bridgestone Potenzas, but get on the power too early out of a corner and you’ll need to be quick with the lock, as the stability control system allows a modicum of freedom before the orange warning light starts flickering on the dash.
Sadly, the front end doesn’t feel quite as settled as the M3’s (the effect of the car’s 1700kg-plus heft), so while you can still get on the power early, you’ll need to be smooth and consistent with the throttle.
Inside the Lexus you get the same familiar cabin that’s been around since 2008, bar some minor touch-ups. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the sports leather seats remain some of the most comfortable in the business.
We also like the LF-A-inspired instrument panel with the oversize centre-mounted tachometer, complete with shift indicator lights – perfect for those track days.
The plastic slab encasing most of the switchgear on the centre stack has always felt out of place in the top-shelf IS-F model, but the latest updates to the satellite navigation system are a welcome improvement.
Lexus will launch the next generation IS range in June, but it will be well into 2014/15 before we are likely to see a fresh new IS-F variant join the line-up.
With a superior value proposition clearly not enough to pull the punters away from the German badges, Lexus will really need to pull out the stops next year if it wants to take on BMW’s next-generation M3 that’s also due in 2014.
Until then, the IS-F is a model starting to look its age but remains a feature-packed and beautifully built contender for compact performance sedan buyers looking for a good alternative to the usual (German) suspects.