Review: 2022 Lexus IS500 F Sport Performance
This is a tale of frustration. It is also a tale of how a small complaint can kill the core of an otherwise nice experience, but then you shrug and carry on anyway.
I digress; we are skipping ahead.
We are discussing a throwback. A sport sedan. A machine straddling the line between performance car and family transport. Nobody buys that sort of thing any more, not since we collectively decided that tall, vaguely trucklike dowd-wagons are The New Minivan. (Translation: Fashionable initially, then ubiquitous but harmless, and decades later, heinously square.)
(Note: We have not yet reached the decades-later part.)
(Note the second: Your narrator is not against SUVs per se; he is merely repelled by mission creep and engineering bloat. He also enjoys big dumb fun, which can these days mean anything from the occasional fat SUV to, say, an IMAX screening of Top Gun: Maverick. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, your narrator contains both multitudes and an undying love for the F/A-18 Super Hornet.)
The car in question wears a naturally aspirated, 32-valve, 5.0-liter V-8 making 472 hp at 7100 rpm. That engine drives the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic, the only available transmission. There is a low roofline and a fast windshield, and yet outward visibility is generally killer. That vast and toothy front grille looks like melted Predator schnoz, or maybe just a mid-2000s Lexus plus the drooping inevitably born of an old face.
As modern luxury cars go, the interior is understated calm. At no point does it feel like the foyer of a Berlin art gallery or the bathroom of a Japanese restaurant in WeHo. The heated-and-cooled sport seats are all-day comfortable, big support but soft foam. The cockpit holds a large touch display but also a simple array of real buttons and knobs, so you can tweak stereo or A/C with eyes on the road. The optional 17-speaker, 1800-watt Mark Levinson stereo is fine, if a little sterile. The sole eye roll is the infotainment controller: You either find its rocking haptic touchpad maddening in use, or you are, as my phone’s autocorrect software puts it, none compose mantis.
In other words, this is a Lexus IS. The mouthful name—IS500 F Sport Performance—indicates a $58,000 sticker, that V-8, and a hankering for corners. Tweaks abound, including a model-unique trunk lip spoiler and hood bulge, a Torsen limited-slip, a rear diffuser, and quad exhaust tips. That 5.0-liter is the strongest engine on offer and only available in FSP trim, trumping the 241-hp turbo four in the base IS (IS300) and the 311-hp V-6 one step up (IS350).
In new-car terms, that engine is older than dirt. An early version was first sold to the public almost 15 years ago, under the hood of the 2008 IS F. That car was the first fists-out Lexus sport sedan, lovely on good pavement but a pitchy, bumpstop-smashing mess in the real world. The engine it carried, however, was a throaty and effervescent gem. In the IS500, it produces 395 lb-ft at 4800 rpm and a 4.3-second run to 60 mph. Apart from fuel thirst—17/25 mpg city/highway, up from the IS F’s 16/23—the eight’s only real drawback is its virtually hidden soundtrack. Intake and exhaust noise essentially vanish below full throttle.
The IS F kicked off a process. Lexus has spent much of the time since quietly pumping out restrained performance cars in the same vein. Some of those cars have been great to drive. If the general public has not given a flying toot, it is only because, again, we live in a world where the sport sedan has dropped to a niche interest, where the gold-standard brands in the discipline saw the market shrinking and thus wandered off to demonstrate their engineering mastery in fields as diverse as custom-perfume development and gratuitous Twitter trolling.
F is the Lexus performance letter, like BMW’s M. FSP means something less than hard-core. To wit, ride quality is delightful and has not been sacrificed here on the altar of tire grip. Four hundred and seventy-three horses is nice but not class-defining. What you do get is difference: a naturally aspirated V-8 plus a purposely restrained and hugely adult chassis in the same price bracket as the turbo-six competition from BMW, Audi, and Cadillac. Next to those cars, it feels of a different, calmer place and from a different, less arrogant group of people, which is good.
The roof wraps your head like a low-pulled hat. On a back road, the car seems to want to be driven with fists and fat palms, inputs big and binary—throttle on or off, little in between. That personality lives in everything from the thickness of the steering wheel to the way the suspension seems happiest at full compression, to how the engine pumps out always-there torque. In normal driving, the Lexus seems to want you to relax, to cover ground with your head back, to put on your Keep on Truckin’ face.
Plus, the gearbox needs to die in a fire.
Aisin AA80E 8-Speed Sport Direct Shift Transmission with paddle shifters and a locking torque converter, this means you.
You don’t really think about the nuances of the human brain in flow state until something serves to kick you out of it. At one point, on the back roads near my house, I began talking to the shifter, aloud:
Transmission! Hey! You have one job. You have four modes, from Eco to Sport S+. None of those modes seem even remotely satisfying, unless you define “satisfying” as “short-shifting to 2000 rpm at every possible opportunity and then slapping off a fat downshift brutal enough to crack my neck.”
The car said nothing. Because it was, of course, a car.
The shift paddles, I continued, because I occasionally cannot help listening to myself talk, they tell you what I want. And yet, you do not always listen to those paddles, at least not urgently, and especially not on downshifts. You deny shifts down when there is more than enough room on the tach. You eat and breathe low rpm in your sporting modes, then go looking for redline in Normal. You are as frustratingly close to a satisfying experience as the food at Del Taco.
The world continued to spin on its axis.
Why does this happen? I asked. Are you, dear gearbox, confused as to your role on this earth? Inconsistency is your cruelest trait. One moment we’re walking through corners in Normal, maybe six tenths, and you’re slamming through gears. Whiplash on the headrests at part throttle! Two seconds later, I have switched transmission modes to Sport and am attempting to reach the end of a back road in great hurry. You are asleep, remarkably, shifts soft and poky, exhaust note reflecting this unpredictable slug of slurry lightswitch engine braking that you incessantly kick out on gear drops.
I know 16-year-olds, Professor Aisin, who could shift better while blindfolded. I know small dogs who are more consistent in their life choices. I once met a pet goldfish more charming.
If the Aisin was offended, it did not indicate as much.
At no point during any of this, dear gearbox, are you anything but in the way. You shove the driver out of the moment. The cardinal sin of a good fast car.
I stopped talking, spent. The roads carried on, and Lexus tires rolled over good and winding pavement, and blood pressure dropped.
The thing is, the rest of the car is so close.
Twenty years ago, this would have been a bad torque-converter automatic. In 2022, it’s just embarrassing. We have solved for this; we know better. The world’s best traditional automatic is currently the ZF 8HP, found in more new and late-model cars than this review has space to name. The best twin-clutch automatics currently come from Porsche. Gearbox refinement varies with software calibration, which varies with manufacturer and budget, but each of those technologies is, at its best, so satisfying and smooth, it could pass for a mind-reader.
The Lexus carries other issues. None of them are critical; after a few miles, you tend to forget they exist. Example: The steering weights up with speed but not load, oddly disconnected and artificial. As if the servo were fighting your hands. But that’s par. The old sport-sedan gods, your M156 Mercedes-Benzes, your BMW E39s and SS Chevrolets, they had flaws, but no detail outshouted another. And then the industry went all in on power and torque and spring rate over everything, and we were suddenly left with a bunch of extremely powerful and high-limit new 4000-pound four-doors that no one was buying, and subtlety was a distant memory.
The line those great old names straddled! Adult and serious but also not! Fun without overkill! A considered, grown-uppy poke in the eye of the uptight weirdos who think cars are low-class bad and fast cars even worse! This is where the Lexus comes so close!
A sport sedan should be equal parts feedback and reserve. You want to get lost in the thing, to hit that feeling where the machine is both with you every step of the way but also evanesced and gone, leaving only the road and you. And then you want it to leave you alone during your commute the next morning, while you inhale coffee and try to wake up.
Shortly before he died, Abraham Lincoln told a story to a group of military officials. A man had approached him, he said, asking for a prestigious appointment. This man initially wanted to be a foreign minister; Lincoln turned him down. Nonplussed, the gentleman asked for a more modest position; Lincoln turned him down again. The next ask was more desperate, a low-ranking spot in the customs department.
No, sorry, Lincoln said.
“Oh,” the man said, dejected. “Then may I at least have an old pair of your trousers?”
“Ah,” Lincoln laughed, finishing the story. “It is well to be humble.”
The Lexus is Lincoln pants: Maybe not the sport-sedan job we wanted, but a good approximation of what is left to be had.
Careful observation of the new-car market can occasionally feel like philosophical exercise. It is also entirely possible that we are simply past the age of performance sedans of great refinement and delicate balance. The Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, would tell us to accept a moment like this, work with what we have. Look on the bright side, they would say: Parts of this car are spectacular. Someone at Toyota still cares. They may not always have the right ingredients or funding, but they are still trying to make something modern and relevant from an old mold.
The breed is shrinking. I so wanted this car to be great. It felt right pulling out of the driveway, as great cars always do.
We can label the ensuing disappointment as depressing, or we can believe it counts for something. Proof that somebody still holds a candle. They don’t have to be here, and they are trying. They are making a sport sedan.
Fingers crossed the next one—assuming we’re lucky enough to have it—isn’t so much a pair of old pants.
2022 Lexus IS500 F Sport Performance
Price: $57,925 / $62,425 (base / as-tested, Premium model*)
Highs: Hell of an engine. Understated and tasteful interior. Great seats front and rear, and the back has real room for heads and legs. Decent grip and balance but ride won’t beat you up. While the usual German suspects are busy mimicking each other, this looks and feels like its own thing.
Lows: Odd and artificial steering. Gearbox is a frustrating buzzkill. Predator face is an acquired taste.
Summary: Awfully close to being an awfully good sport sedan, if short in the details.
*10.3-inch cockpit display screen instead of standard 8.0-inch unit, Mark Levinson stereo, etc.