For the first decade of its existence, Lexus wasn't exactly known for exciting cars. High-quality cars? Luxurious cars? Stylish cars? Absolutely. But from the LS to the SC to the LX, the Lexuses that defined the brand were anything but fun to drive. All that changed in 1998, however, when the company rolled out the first IS — a nimble, compact rear-wheel-drive sport sedan that seemed designed to make the BMW 3 Series and Infiniti G35 look like schmucks.
Since then, Lexus has gone on to embrace sportiness with both hands, working to imbue its vehicles with dynamism and involvement and capping its lineup with an exotic supercar that epitomizes those ideals in the form of the LFA...and then walked back in the opposite direction, aiming. The LFA and GS sedan have been put out to pasture; the RC and LC coupes struggle on, but considering they sold as many units combined in the first half of 2021 as Lexus sold RXs on any given 10 days together in June, odds are they may not be around much longer.
The IS, however, endures. And hot on the heels of a 2021 model year refresh that spiffed up the design and tech, Lexus is rolling out a new range-capper to the model's lineup, one that, at first blush, suggests itself as successor to the much-loved V8-powered IS F of the late Aughts: the 2022 Lexus IS F Sport Performance.
Yes, but its intrinsic components aren't. The chassis dates back to 2013, while the 5.0-liter V8 beneath its hood was first used back in the aforementioned IS F that debuted in 2006. Granted, power has risen from 416 to 472 horses and 371 lb-ft to 395, but at the end of the day, it's still the same basic motor.
Here in 2021, any new four-door with an eight-cylinder engine is worth acknowledging — and a compact one with a naturally-aspirated eight-pot a rare bird indeed. While basically every other carmaker has moved on to forced induction motors — especially in smaller performance cars — the IS 500 F Sport squeezes five pulsing liters of old-fashioned, un-turbocharged hell yeah under the hood of a car roughly four inches longer than a Honda Civic.
While the spec sheet might make you believe you're getting the second coming of the IS F, a couple hours behind the wheel is enough to disabuse you of that assumption. The steering isn't what you want from an agile speed machine; it's low on feedback, even numb, and surprising slow to boot; I repeatedly found myself having to adjust trajectory mid-corner to compensate for the rack. The ride is tuned more for luxury than sportiness, remaining smooth as butter over imperfect pavement at the cost of a bit of sharpness in turns.
That said, this thing certainly does haul. The N/A V8 may not slug you in the chest with low-end torque the way modern turbocharged performance engines do, but wind the engine up towards its 7,100-rpm redline, and it makes every one of those 471 horses known, lunging towards the horizon with a verve that'll push your back into the seat and your lips into a smile.
And you will want to wind it up early and often, because it sounds delightful — the sort of snarling eight-cylinder exhaust note that's only going to become more and more rare as the years go on. In an odd way, it feels more like kin to the Camaro and Mustang than any German sport sedan — hardly a bad thing, just perhaps unexpected for something wearing a Lexus badge.
Basically identical to other current-issue IS models. Lexus, to their credit (or detriment, depending on your perspective), didn't add any weird, wild or crazy trim elements like carbon fiber or hand-burning metallic shift knobs to celebrate the bigger engine; it's just like an IS 350. The steering wheel is reassuringly chonky, as is the shift lever, and the instrument panel's commitment to making the tachometer the most important piece of information should be not just commended, but copied by others.
Still, like the most of the interior feels a tad past its prime. The aging Toyota cruise control stalk, the CD player, the sliced-Chiclet-sized radio buttons, the truly awful sliders that control the temperature for the climate control, the hard, cheap-looking plastic — all seem more suited to a car from a lesser brand. Hell, a new top-shelf Avalon or Highlander feels way more like a Lexus inside than this.
Plus, the array of seemingly arbitrarily-placed buttons will remind you why so many automakers have switched over to iDrive/MMI-type systems. While a well-designed, well-executed layout of hard buttons remains invaluable, the IS's interior seems scattershot, with buttons oddly placed at different locations and angles — and on top of all that, you still have to deal with the infamous Lexus trackpad situation. (Luckily, the 8.0-inch infotainment display is also a touchscreen.)
While its power output might seem to place it against the likes of the BMW M3 / M4, Mercedes-AMG C63 and Audi RS 5, in size and performance, it competes a rung lower. Even after destination charge, the IS 500 starts below $60,000, and comes well-equipped with all the performance hardware you'd want; the aforementioned Germans, meanwhile, all start at least $10,000 higher, and scoring their most potent versions can mean spending even more
The Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing might be the closest competitor, matching it on price and power; those preferring space over pace should consider cross-shopping against the likes of the CT5-V, Audi S4, BMW M340i and Mercedes-AMG C43, while those who'd flip the variables in that calculation will probably also consider the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 or hold out to try the next BMW M2 or Audi RS 3.
Base Price: $57,575
Powertrain: 5.0-liter V8, eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 395 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: Not yet rated
Seats: Five (technically, but it might be tight)
The results may surprise you.