2023 Lexus IS 500 F-Sport Performance

The IS 500 is dripping with character, and it feels and sounds so very right in a way almost nothing else does
The IS 500 is dripping with character, and it feels and sounds so very right in a way almost nothing else does

by Nathan Leipsig | August 10, 2023


This 2023 Lexus IS 500 F-Sport Performance is the first occasion where I already knew exactly what I wanted to say before I got the car home. If you’re looking for a critical review of this car, move on. I adore this thing. It’s one of those precious few moments in life where you have expectations in mind, you’re hyping them up, the moment of truth finally comes, and — it blows those elevated expectations out of the water. It feels like Akio Toyoda built this car just for me, and he started this process by seemingly benchmarking this new sports sedan against a 30-year-old Mercedes.

Seriously, hear me out. I know that wasn’t the case, but it really feels like it is, and it’s why I (and so many others) are smitten with this car, despite knowing full well that the BMW M340i xDrive is objectively superior. The IS 500 is dripping with character, and it feels and sounds so very right in a way almost nothing else does. I feel like a sizable chunk of this rightness comes from the fact that it feels like a continuation of the 1992 Mercedes-Benz 500E.

I won’t go into too much detail — that’s a story for another time — but in the late 1980s through the early ’90s, Mercedes was in a bit of a tight spot despite being on top of their game, with BMW on the attack from above and a certain new spinoff luxury brand from Toyota eating their lunch from underneath. One of their responses was the now legendary 500E, a brawny version of their W124-generation E-Class, famously co-developed and assembled with Porsche, sporting their new all aluminum quad-cam V8 from the flagship 500 SL.

Over the years, 500Es become a sought-after collectors item, commanding astonishing sums of money, with exceptionally clean examples surpassing the IS 500’s $74,450 sticker. I’ve had the privilege of considerable seat time in a few of these legendary “velvet hammers,” and myself have owned a V8-powered W124 Benz as a daily driver, I know these cars rather well. So, take me seriously when I say that I instantly felt at home in the Lexus IS 500, despite never having so much as sat in a modern IS.

They’re quite similar on paper. The modern IS 500 is within a couple inches of every dimension of the elder 500E and only 100 pounds heavier, despite having having exponentially more on-board tech, safety features, sound deadening, four more forward cogs, a Torsen limited-slip differential, and vastly larger rolling stock. They both feature a 32-valve naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 engines, although while it was state of the art in the 500E, it’s a charming novelty in the IS 500.

Let’s talk about that engine. It’s more or less the venerable V8 that’s been around since the Lexus IS F in 2008, tuned both mechanically and acoustically by Yamaha. They’ve found quite a bit more power in it over the years, as it’s now putting out 472 horsepower — enough to make the IS 500 properly quick, even if it doesn’t have quite the same urgency as its turbocharged counterparts. Yes, I’m pretty much exclusively singling out the underrated, manic-panic B58 inline-six in the M340i.

Outside of raw power, this gem of an engine has a serious ace in the hole: it’s quite possibly the best-sounding engine you can buy in a new car, at any price. The Americans can make a V8 with a wonderfully exaggerated, barrel-chested grumble, and the Germans can build a V8 that sounds tight, disciplined, and expensive. But only Yamaha can so sublimely blend these characteristics together in a smooth, relatively efficient, and bombproof-reliable package. This is one of the very few motors on the planet that sounds incredible just putting around town, with a deep, lopey warble that’s as refined as anything the Bavarians have ever bolted together, culminating into a glorious mechanical crescendo at high RPMs.

There’s more to the IS 500 than the delicious engine, though. The driver controls and chassis calibration do a brilliant job of impersonating the 90s-era German sports sedans the modern Lexus is seemingly modelled after. It doesn’t have the split personality of its modern contemporaries, transforming from demure to demonic with the press of a sport button. It’s always relaxed, in confident command of the road, and not overly eager with something to prove.

The steering is glass-smooth and a little dull on-centre, but weights up nicely under cornering, plus it’s quick enough and fairly communicative. Like a Mercedes, the steering isn’t the last word in telepathy, but it does a commendable job working in conjunction with the front end to relay what’s going on. The rear end is less Mercedes and more BMW, as it’s endowed with an honest-to-god mechanical limited-slip differential, which I’ve always held as a non-negotiable in anything pretending to be fun — e-lockers and active traction control be damned.

The IS 500 is fitted with traction control and stability management and all that jazz. It works well, but turning those nannies off reveals a classic, hoon-tacular charm that I’m not sure any other new cars are capable of. It’s generally quite neutral, with loads of lateral grip and maybe a little bit of front-end push, but it’s easily dialed out with the skinny pedal. You can go all-in and hang it all out, or nudge it into a controlled four-wheel drift, using the Yamahammer’s torque to give yourself a few degrees of yaw to steer the car with the throttle. Of course, if you’re just looking for a little wee shot of dopamine, you can casually kick it out at pedestrian speeds around town. It’s glorious.

The IS 500 does have different drive modes, but I found they didn’t really do a ton, save for raising and tightening shift points. Much has been said about Lexus’ eight-speed automatic, namely that it’s not as good as the ZF eight-speed in every BMW — and the Toyota Supra — but it’s by no means bad, either. It does a fine job mimicking its spiritual forefathers, being seamless in action, and becoming decidedly crisp under power. No, it isn’t bewilderingly excellent like the ZF, but it’s more than up to the task, such that I seldom ever put the thing in the aforementioned Sport or Sport+ drive modes.

The similarities to the elder Benz continue inside. The IS 500 is impeccably put together, with excellent materials, a great driving position, great visibility, generous amenities, and a thoughtful layout with physical buttons and knobs to ensure you’re spending minimal time using the trackpad to navigate the infotainment. I personally really enjoyed the user interface and found everything super easy to use, but it bears mentioning that I was the only on staff who liked the trackpad.

Audio is handled by an 1800-watt, 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, augmented by a remarkably quiet cabin. Ride comfort is exemplary, as Lexus hasn’t gotten swept up in the general trend that everything sporty has to be track ready — and therefore grievously compromised as a daily driver.

The two-tone red-and-black leather interior looks and feels fantastic, and adds a nice little visual pop to the gorgeous black paintwork on the outside — a colour Lexus simply calls “Caviar.” The style borrows its theme from the Mercedes 500E, with subtlety being the name of the game. Only tastefully revised fascias, exhaust tips, and a bulging hood indicate this is no ordinary Lexus, but only those in the know will know. It builds on the already really, really, ridiculously good looking IS to become comfortably the best looking sedan available today, in my humble opinion.

All of this is not to say that the IS 500 feels old. Some have called it dated, and they are what I like to call incorrect. This is not a disposable, whiz-bang, here-and-now throwaway car. The IS 500 will still be relevant and desirable as years go by, just like the Mercedes 500E. A comparable, contemporary BMW may be faster, but in this modern era — where someone who doesn’t like gas stations can buy a Tesla and inadvertently have the fastest thing in town — fast is irrelevant. The IS 500 has the rare gift of being an absolute pleasure to drive at any speed, in any situation, with a genuine sense of character, and charm. For the buyer that cares more about the driving experience than arbitrary performance numbers, the 2023 Lexus IS 500 F-Sport Performance is peerless among sports sedans.

See Also

2022 Lexus IS 500 Launch Edition

2022 Lexus LC 500 Convertible

2023 BMW M340i xDrive

Vehicle Specs
Compact sports sedan
Engine Size
5.0L normally aspirated V8
Horsepower (at RPM)
472 at 7,100
Torque (lb-ft.)
395 at 4,800
Fuel Efficiency (L/100km, City/Highway/Combined)
Observed Fuel Efficiency (L/100km)
Cargo Capacity (in L)
Base Price (CAD)
As-Tested Price (CAD)
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About Nathan Leipsig

Deputy Editor Nathan is a passionate enthusiast with a penchant for finding 80s and 90s European vehicles. He can typically be found messing about on his E28 5-series or on Kijiji looking for the next project. Current Toys: '23 Miata Club 6MT, '86 535i, '99 Beetle TDI 5MT