Lexus IS-F vs BMW M3 vs Merc C63 AMG

Close your eyes and imagine a medium-sized, 250kph performance car with rear-wheel-drive, lots of cylinders, and a level of quality and driving dynamics born from serving the most demanding and discerning buyers on the planet. Not hard to answer, is it? It’s got to have a small round badge on the nose, divided into either three or four equal-sized segments…

Wrong – it’s neither. It comes from Japan. Its badge is a stylised ‘L’ and there’s none of this gentleman’s agreement on restricting top speed to 250kph. The Lexus IS-F (claims Lexus) is good for 270 before the limiter reigns in, making it one of the fastest four-door production sedans on the planet, an advantage which should set BMW and Mercedes-Benz salesmen quivering in their pointy, highly-polished Winklepickers

BMW M3 Merc C63 AMG & Lexus IS-F

Importantly, it looks like it’ll boast the bargain-basement price of R780 000 – despite a list of convenience, comfort and safety features as long as Lady Gaga’s legs. Which suggests it is gunning for the Teutons on price alone, and that’s surely a recipe for a bloody nose: saving R40k isn’t the issue at this end of the market and sticker price is secondary. First and foremost the car must deliver as a driving tool while simultaneously massaging both the ego and the image.

This is the car Lexus has built to do just that, and has been doing so overseas for the best part of two years. The ‘F’ nomenclature (which appears in no less than nine places inside and outside the car, excluding its momentary appearance on the liquid crystal dash display at start-up) is what the company hopes will grow into something with the same mystique and meaning as BMW’s M, Merc’s AMG, and Audi’s RS. They’ve got a way to go but you’ve got to start somewhere and legend – as detailed in the company’s press material – has it that a pair of performance-mad engineers kicked it all off by quietly experimenting with the previous-generation IS300, tweaking its systems to make it a more invigorating drive.

They carried out some of their initial research and development at the Fuji Speedway in Japan, and because of this it became known internally as the ‘F’ Project. Indeed, the badge displayed all over the IS is said to be inspired by the shape of one of the circuit’s especially demanding bends. True? We assume so. Cheesy? Most definitely.

Merc C63 AMG, M3 & Lexus IS-F rears

This car was unveiled on the motor show scene in 2007 and introduced to the UK in March 2008, the final showroom versions digging deep into the Lexus parts bin. That’s no bad thing, especially in the engine and gearbox department. The bent eight started out as the same quad cam 5.0-litre used in the hybrid Lexus LS, here substantially re-engineered to give it the power and character befitting of a performance flagship, but also to retain the smoothness and reliability which are Lexus hallmarks.

Yamaha, of which Toyota is a minority shareholder, played an important role in developing the cylinder heads, now with a lightweight drivetrain with such niceties as hollow, chain-driven camshafts and titanium inlet valves operated by roller rockers. Iinlet and exhaust camshaft timing can be altered to suit engine load and speed thanks to VVT-iE valve timing control, the former adjusted via an electric motor, the latter using oil pressure. The reasoning is that at low engine speeds there is insufficient pressure to operate a hydraulic system and going the electric route on the inlet side increased efficiency by reducing valve overlap right down the bottom end.

Increasing the size of the engine’s lung still further is a dual air-intake system which uses a primary intake passage for low and medium engine speeds, while above 3 600rpm secondary passages open to boost high rpm power. It’s also responsible for a delicious shift in the exhaust note. Up to 3 600rpm you could be driving your dad’s LS – at least as far as the aural excitement goes. But as the blue, luminescent tacho needle sweeps towards 4 000 there’s a dramatic and sudden blast of steely-edged sound from under the back bumper, accompanied by a surge of acceleration.

The IS also gets both direct and indirect fuel injection, respectively catering for high-speed operation (and allowing for a compression ration of almost 12:1) and more normal engine speeds, where conventional port injectors help produce a more precise burn to optimise efficiency.

Headline numbers are 311kW at 6 600 and 505Nm at 5 200, which stack up well against the establishment and sees the Japanese slot in neatly between the brawny 6.2-litre C63 Benz motor and Beemer’s high rpm 4.0-litre screamer. Lexus has achieved its engine objectives with a lot of character and charm, but when this trio is singing in tune, choosing one to take home is a tricky affair – much like it was when deciding which member of the 1980s girl band Bananarama was the sexiest. Readers over the age of 40 will understand.

C63 AMG, IS-F, M3

When it comes to where the torque goes, the Lexus impresses too, and not just in terms of the numbers. There are eight ratios in the Direct Sport Shift transmission, some so closely stacked you barely feel the cogs swapping. Select Sport mode, and whether you leave it in Drive or shift manually using the paddles behind the wheel it whips through the box even faster, each change of ratio bringing a fresh surge of noise and forward progress. Lexus says shifts take 100 milliseconds, beating even the most advanced, automated clutch-type boxes for sheer pace.

Manual shifts can act as a reminder that the power peaks and maximum usable revs are just 200rpm apart and the box is designed to allow the engine to run to the 6800 cut-out, so drivers need to be precise to avoid an embarrassing stutter as the limiter stops play prematurely. Fortunately Lexus has installed a warning chime, so when you hear that ‘bing-bing’ sound you tap that right-hand paddle. There’s also automatic throttle blipping to match engine and road speed on downchanges, but to be honest, the ratios are so close that you barely notice it.

For the 2010 model year the IS-F finally gets a Torsen (which is a contraction of Torque Sensing, not the name of a Scandinavian mechanical engineer) limited-slip differential, and even with the stability and traction control systems switched out the start line grip is impressive, the 255/35 rubber hanging on gamely to Gerotek’s coarse tarmac. Apart from a hint of tardiness before the box hooks up first gear, there’s not a lot to complain about, and considering that the homologation unit we cadged from Lexus South Africa had less than 300 kilometres on the odo when we pointed it down Gerotek’s runway-wide test track, our VBOX data shows that it’ll be a close contest against the natural rivals.

But this isn’t a drag race, and as a driving tool designed to entertain and invigorate, the IS-F has some issues. Depending on what you as a driver consider important, they could be deal-breakers.

Firstly there’s the ride quality. It is so unforgiving, particularly at the rear, that it’ll wear you down faster than a teenager begging for extra pocket money. Fundamentals are based closely on the IS, which means double wishbones in front and a multi-link rear, but all uprated. Springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, ride height (dropped by an inch though it looks like more) are reworked, while the rubber bushings attaching the suspension subframes to the body are stiffer.

Sideways Lexus IS-F

It doesn’t work that well, at least not on the roads around Hennops River and out to Zwartkops Raceway near Pretoria. There’s just too much unpredictable and unwanted body movement, too much thumping and thudding and knuckle-clenching harshness as your body is pushed down against the seat cushion when the suspension rebounds. Clearly the roads where the suspension was signed off were a lot smoother than ours, and it is only on the rare encounter with virgin tarmac that its excellent cornering ability and chassis balance can be exploited.

It gets worse. The steering is electrically assisted and unless you grew up in the PlayStation ‘force-feedback’ era, you probably won’t like it. There’s some heft to the helm, which is fine, but little in the way of actual feel, even with the Sport button engaged to sharpen responses. Matters improve the instant you apply some lock and aim for that first apex, and once turned in you can’t argue with the accuracy, but the artificial nature when travelling in a straight line gives new meaning to the term ‘dead ahead’.

Any good news? Yes: the IS-F can power slide with the best of them, and holding it on opposite lock for lurid, rubber-laying stints is easy. But then the C63 and M3 can do so equally well.

Where the Germans are better is in the tactile nature of the steering wheel itself. The one fitted to the Lexus feels surprisingly thin and insubstantial, and there’s no delight in sitting down and grabbing hold of it. And horrors or horrors, there’s a tasteless blue leather insert down at six o’clock. The wheel looks like an Autostyle special, better suited to adding bling to a CitiGolf.

M3 Lights up the rears

The blue signature colour works well in other areas though. The stitching on the black leather is blue, as are the perforations in the leather, and there’s a cool blue tinge to the interior lighting. Pity Lexus hit the Austostyle catalogue once again with the swathe of shiny metal-look carbon fibre finish on the centre console.

The rest of the interior is all solid and dark Lexus sobriety. Precise panel fit and classy finishes (apart from those mentioned) look like they’ll remain unsullied as well as squeak- and rattle-free into the next century, and there’s so much equipment that listing it all here would be pointless.

Once on the road though, you find that the switchgear essential for enhancing the driving experience (Sport button and stability control override button) are hidden behind that skinny wheel, requiring a stretch forward and some sight-free prodding to get the fun police to go away.

And so, on to the exterior styling. The IS-F is a substantial car and is 85 mm longer than a regular IS. Some work was required to get the V8 into the engine bay, achieved by creating a longer front overhang, and adding height to the bonnet. The result is a bulbous Quasimodo hump at the leading edge – and that’s putting it tactfully.

There’s more grille area to aid engine cooling, with the upper and lower sections getting a bespoke black mesh finish. The lower grille is flanked by brake cooling ducts and fog lamps. Wheelarches have been pushed out to accommodate the handsome BBS wheels, which measure 19 by eight inches in front and are a further inch wider at the back. There are gill-like air outlets in the front arches, with lower edges which transition into the side sills, and continue as a character line into the rear bumper.

The overall effect is street figher rather than pure athlete and despite the cleanliness of the original wedge profile, the car now looks heavy, losing some of its litheness with each additional piece of colour-coded polymer. Aggressive it might be, but it doesn’t really promise the kind of driving experience buyers in the segment shop for.

Wheelspinning the C63 AMG is simple

Saving the worst for last, it seems the four chromed exhaust ovals, stacked vertically in pairs either side of the rear diffuser, don’t even connect to the exhaust system: their openings communicate with the four round exits from the silencers, but there is a gap between the two so they’re just for effect. Somehow it corrupts the car’s rear three-quarter view, which is arguably also its best.

There is no question that the IS-F ticks all the right boxes as a compact, working-class super sedan. Lots of power and torque: no question. Stirring engine note: very definitely. Gears galore: for sure. Stopping ability: unquestionably, thanks to six-pot Brembos in front. Seats for four: yep. Boot space for a long weekend: yes, and maybe even with golf clubs. Loads of sporty details: mostly. Sharp-dressed man looks: agreed, depending on individual taste.

But a car which can be hammered with confidence it ultimately isn’t, let down by steering which doesn’t provide the requisite feedback, and suspension settings which will have you – on anything other than a perfect surface – second-guessingwhat is actually going on.

These are major issues at this price point and in this segment, undermining the car’s ability to involve the driver on anything more than a superficial level, and that’s something that can’t be overcome by any amount of equipment.