My first hour behind the wheel of the Lexus IS 500, I was thinking about it all wrong.
See, we've been led to expect certain things when an automaker shoehorns a big V-8 into a small, rear-drive sedan. Rowdy, neighbor-waking, vertebrae-pummeling things. Nurburgring lap-time-setting things. The V-8 engine is swiftly becoming specialized equipment, reserved for vehicles with vaunted letters on their decklids: AMG, M, V.
Judged against that competition, the IS 500 can't quite hang. It's not a track-ready sports coupe disguised as a family sedan. It's something a bit more genteel—a wholeheartedly luxurious machine with a surprise dose of thrust and revs. And in a realm where seemingly every performance product has to be an all-out circuit weapon, that's refreshing.
The full name of this vehicle is unwieldy, if not a slight overpromise: the 2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance. It's the first member of Lexus's new F Sport Performance line, one notch more serious than the mere F Sport variants the company has offered for years.
Explaining the IS 500 is decisively simple: Imagine an IS 350 powered by Lexus's tasty, naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V-8, the same one that motivates the gorgeous LC 500 and the perplexing RC F. Designers raised the hoodline and nudged the front bumper forward to fit the big eight-cylinder in this relatively compact sedan, and gave the car unique 19-inch split-spoke alloy wheels and blackout trim to differentiate it from its four- and six-cylinder siblings. Stacked double-dual exhaust tips nod to Lexus's last rambunctious V-8-powered compact sedan, the IS F, though this time, the tips are actually attached to the exhaust.
Sliding behind the wheel, the IS 500 offers up the same high-quality but slightly old-looking interior you'll find in the rest of the lineup. Lexus's dash design is a bit button-heavy, and the company keeps trying to convince us that a laptop-style track pad is somehow superior to a touchscreen. Thankfully, the system offers haptic feedback to let you know when your finger has found a button, and unlike Acura's infuriating mousepad, the cursor doesn't disappear into digital purgatory when you lift your finger.
But we're not here to talk about infotainment. Strike the start button, and the 4969-cc, 32-valve engine zings to energetic life. The chunky shift lever traces a sawtooth pattern stolen from an Eighties Mercedes, and thank goodness for that: no matter how hard the German automakers try, a fussy, overcomplicated joystick shifter will never do the job better than a lever moving through P-R-N-D—even if that lever isn't actually connected to anything in the transmission itself.
I had one afternoon with the IS 500, so I headed out of NYC and up to the twisty hillside roads of Bear Mountain State Park. Lexus's V-8 is a sharp, quick-responding delight, the kind of powerplant that makes you wonder why anyone would choose forced induction over honest natural aspiration. It's a born revver, serving up its maximum 472 hp at 7100 rpm, just 200 away from redline, along with 395 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. But in a model distinguished by its eight thumping cylinders, the sound from the exhaust is quite a bit more muffled than you'd expect. What you do hear, singing through the firewall, is a healthy dose of intake honk, though I suspect there's more than a dash of stereo enhancement to the sound.
Lexus says the IS 500 will sprint to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. In my day of driving, I wasn't able to do instrumented testing of any sort, but I believe that number. With traction control off, the little sedan is happy to spin its tires into third gear. Driven hard, it begs you to keep the revs up, a snappy midrange feeding into a crescendo of speed and sound as the tach passes 6000.
The only transmission available is an 8-speed torque-converter automatic. There are paddle shifters, but they react just a touch too slowly, clonking low-speed downshifts and threatening to bonk you off the rev limiter on aggressive upshifts. Better off staying in Drive and clicking into Sport or Sport+ mode, each of which moves the shift points successively higher and increases steering effort slightly.
If you hop into the IS 500 expecting a CT5-V or C63 experience, you're going to be disappointed. Those V-8 super sedans offer thunderclap upshifts, meaty turn-in, and dampers that turn to concrete when you click into the sportiest modes. Even the performance sedans that get by on a mere six cylinders—the BMW M3, Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and Cadillac CT4-V—offer an aggressiveness the Lexus can't match, compromising comfort and quiet in the name of all-out speed.
The Lexus never asks you to give up luxurious smoothness. It never disturbs the peace with childish crackling exhaust. It's more than willing to hustle—the steering lacks feel, and the brake pedal could be firmed up, but the handling is calm and competent, and when you're scything through corners in Sport+, the transmission is more than willing to hold a gear all the way to redline. The V-8 adds 143 pounds to the IS 500's claimed 3891-pound curb weight, putting it pretty much toe-to-toe with the M3. The Lexus handles its weight gracefully, without rattling your teeth over bumps.
The IS 500 is not a sports coupe with two extra doors. It's a restrained and comfy sedan that brightens up and flies when you floor it from a red light or chuck it down a back road. It doesn't have the bravado—nor the contrivance—of the track-day sedans from GM or Germany. It's more like an old-school V-8 Mercedes, back before every AMG came with paddle shifters and ultra-sticky tires—a calm and competent machine with a surprise dose of hot-rod acceleration. It's confident in its capabilities. It never needs to shout about them.
Frankly, in a world of burbling, carbon-flecked super sedans, that kind of restraint is refreshing. You just have to understand what Lexus was going for.
The IS 500 starts at $56,500. The Premium model you see here stickers at $61,000, while the top-spec Launch Edition goes for $67,400.
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