The Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance Is a Modern Take on an Old-School Muscle Car

a silver car parked on a road
The 2024 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance, DrivenWill Sabel Courtney

Let's get this out of the way: The Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance is not an IS F. If it were a new IS F, it would just be called... IS F.

That sedan, which went on sale in early 2008, launched the luxury brand's full-court press into the sports-car space. And that opened the door to the l the GS F, RC F and, of course, the now-beloved LFA. These days, though, Toyota City has re-focused its performance ambitions on the mainstream brand, rather than the luxury one. Lexus now focuses on keeping the cash flowing with a steady flow of profitable SUVs. Seriously — the Lexus website lists 13 of them.

But just because it's not a true successor to the brand's first compact sport sedan doesn't make the IS 500, as I'll call it from here on out to avoid carpal tunnel, an inferior product. What it is, is a Japanese interpretation of an American idea: the muscle car.


As originally formed, the muscle car recipe was generic — take a rear-wheel-drive family car and cram a big V-8 inside. That's exactly what Lexus did with the IS 500, taking the IS 350 and plugging in the engine and gearbox from the RC F coupe and leaving the rest of the mechanical bits largely untouched.

2024 lexus is 500 f sport performance
Will Sabel Courtney

In fact, the IS 500 stacks up competitively with the Ford Mustang, the last American muscle car left. This Lexus doesn't even count as a luxury car. Today's average new car price hovers around $47,500, but the IS starts at $41,735 — and a Mustang GT's Monroney can easily be pushed above the IS 500's $60,020 base. The S650-gen Mustang and the IS are within a couple inches of on another in length, width, and wheelbase, and weigh in about 50 pounds apart. Only one horsepower separates the Mustang GT and IS 500 — unless you go for the Mustang's active exhaust, in which case the difference jumps to a whopping seven — and less than five cubic inches separates the displacement of their, nominally 5.0-liter, engines.

For those arguing that muscle cars should only have two doors, well, the IS ranks among those cars that should be coupes if not for the fact that almost nobody buys coupes anymore. The back seats are barely more usable than those in the Porsche 911 — the seats Porsche made optional for the 992.2 because most people plop bags down back there instead of butts. Consider them an extension of the cargo space instead because, at 10.8 cubic feet, the trunk can use all the help it can get.

2024 lexus is 500 f sport performance
Tell me this car wouldn’t look better with just two doors.Will Sabel Courtney

And like many recent muscle cars — looking at you, Dodge — it feels old-fashioned. The current third-gen IS entered production back when Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" was atop the charts, and it's showing its age inside. Lexus's accursed trackpad is still in attendance, although the infotainment screen now supports touch. So the only worry is accidental elbow grazes. There are plenty of physical knobs and buttons, but many are the size of a sliced Chiclet. The electrostatic swipey-swipe climate controls are a curse from an earlier era. The entertainment system still has a CD player, for God's sake.

Still, it's not without charm inside. The instrument panel is digital, but the physical ring outlining the simulated analog tach (as in the LFA) slides left and right depending on what secondary info the drivers decide is best displayed. The compact size and all those buttons give the cockpit a fighter jet feel, and the busy dashboard is oddly refreshing in this era when half the world's carmakers are compelled to push anodyne interiors that resemble a big-screen TV on display in an empty room.

Also charming: that honey of a V-8. Switch off the traction and stability controls, slide the old-school physical shift lever over to the manual shift gate (which, annoyingly, still requires a push forward for upshifts and pull back for downshifts in direct opposition to inertia, but at least there are shift paddles), rev up the engine with one foot on the brake and then let it fly. It'll paint the pavement with rubber streaks that go on as long as the accelerator is floored.

Note that I said charming, not involving. While there's nothing to complain about in terms of performance, the IS 500 always feels a little bit at arm's length — able to dance well, but not particularly enthused by the prospect. The IS 500 is well-balanced and comports itself well in the bends, but the steering is numb, and the gas pedal seems almost hostile to the idea of rapid acceleration unless you stomp on it as though it were a particularly large cockroach. It'll make great pace, but anyone seeking passion or playfulness from their compact, 470-ish-horsepower sedan should go buy a CT4-V Blackwing instead.

That said, in this day and age — when the number of eight-cylinder sedans under $100,000 is down to a stunning two — a thumping naturally aspirated V-8 makes up for a lot of weak spots. Indeed, Lexus may be missing an opportunity by not using that motor as a way to break in with buyers who wouldn't otherwise have considered the brand. With the Camaro, Challenger and Charger riding off into the sunset, anyone who wants a Mustang alternative is forced to cast a wide net. I bet more than a few such shoppers would be happy to take two extra doors in exchange for Toyota build quality and better coffee at the dealership with their eight-pot.

And hey... who doesn't give a damn about outdated controls, cramped back seats, or even numb steering? Muscle car fans.

You Might Also Like