Cars like the Lexus IS500 are a dying breed, and it’s likely the last time you’ll see something like this from Lexus. Hybrids and EVs are the priority moving forward. That’s just how it is. But for those of us who still want an old-school sedan with big V8 thrills, the IS500 is something special. It’s analog in the best way. And you owe it to yourself to go drive one.
Full Disclosure: Lexus tossed me the keys to an IS500 with a full tank of gas for me to drive for a week. I loved every minute of it.
Before I explain what the IS500 is, I have to explain why Lexus just doesn’t call it an IS F. The company uses a four-tier system for its various F lines – F Sport Design, F Sport Handling, F Sport Performance, and full-blown F – and the IS500 falls in the third tier of that hierarchy. This means it gets a big performance upgrade, hence the V8, but it isn’t a full-blown performance makeover in the same way that an RC F differs from an RC350. It’s confusing. But when you drive the IS500, it makes a lot more sense.
Besides, the IS500 is great because of this simplicity. It’s literally just an IS with a V8. That’s it. No huge chassis upgrade, no expensive carbon-ceramic brakes, no high-performance wheel-and-tire combo. Just a regular ol’ IS sedan with a 5.0-liter V8 making 472 hp and 395 lb-ft of torque.
Because it doesn’t have all that fancy performance stuff and it’s not a full-bore F, the IS500 is also reasonably priced. This sedan starts at $58,270, including $1,150 for destination. As optioned, my IS500 test car cost $62,770. The only add-on it was missing was the $2,450 pack that includes black-painted BBS wheels.
The IS500 has a slightly retuned suspension with Yamaha adaptive dampers and a larger rear stabilizer bar, but it’s not a major hardware upgrade. The brakes consist of 14.0-inch discs with 4-piston calipers up front and smaller 12.7-inch discs in the rear. Interestingly, despite all the modifications and the much larger engine, the IS500 weighs just 143 pounds more than a comparable, rear-wheel-drive IS350.
Puttering around town in Normal or Eco mode, the IS500 drives like any other Lexus, just with the added bonus of a big-ass engine under the hood. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that during normal driving. The IS500 is actually relatively quiet and comfortable – so much so that you can actually drive this thing every day without every errand needing to feel like an event.
But once you turn the drive mode knob and select Sport or Sport S Plus, the IS500 comes alive. Plant your right foot and 60 mph arrives in just over four seconds. Because the V8 doesn’t have a turbo, it loves to play in the heart of its powerband above 3,000 rpm. There’s nothing like the sound of a naturally aspirated V8, and I love that the torque and power are ready for you at any moment.
However, while the eight-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly when you need it to, the downshifts are harsh – so much so that there’s an audible thunk as the transmission grabs lower gears under braking. Also, because the engine only really livens up above 3,000 rpm, you constantly have to floor the IS500 to eke out its performance. Peak power doesn’t actually arrive until 7,100 rpm, just ahead of the 7,300-rpm redline, and the 395 lb-ft of torque doesn’t fully hit until 4,800 rpm. And as cool as a big V8 is, we now live in a world where turbocharged, hybrid-assisted four-cylinder engines can make over 600 hp. This makes me wish Lexus would’ve tried to squeeze a few more ponies out of the V8.
Still, the IS500’s steering is precise, it corners flat and the brakes are strong. The powertrain might not be perfect, but everything this car does is straightforward. You know exactly what’s happening, when it’s happening, and why it’s happening.
I’ve always found the IS to be handsome, but being a performance model, the 500’s design is too sedate. You almost can’t tell the difference between an IS350 F Sport and an IS500. The major cues that separate the two are the power dome hood, unique wheels, ever-so-slightly different lower front and rear fascias, and the IS500’s stacked exhaust.
The IS500’s interior is the same, too. But that’s a good thing. It’s a Lexus. It’s high quality. And it still has those slick reconfigurable gauges. Overall, the interior is handsome but plain. There’s nothing to set it apart from the other IS models. There’s a different door trim pattern, the front seats have slightly bigger bolsters and there are aluminum pedals and an F badge on the bottom of the steering wheel – but that’s all. No carbon fiber trim, no F logos on the seats. Nothing.
The IS thankfully has a touchscreen infotainment system now, though the old trackpad interface is still here, and it’s as annoying as ever. Lexus even includes a DVD player – yes, in the year 2022. Lexus assured me the IS’s infotainment system will soon get an upgrade to the one used in newer models like the NX and RX. If you ask me, it can’t get here soon enough.
Also, as comfy as it is, the IS500 is still a small sports sedan. Front passengers won’t have much to complain about, but the IS has less rear legroom than the Genesis G70 and a more minuscule trunk than a Ford Mustang. Something to bear in mind if you’re in the market.
When it comes to the competition, the IS500 is in a strange gray area. Without reading its specs, you might assume it competes with cars like the Audi RS5, BMW M3, or Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing. Yet its relatively low price and level of equipment put it closer to mid-tier performers like the Audi S4, BMW M340i, and the non-Blackwing Cadillac CT4-V. The big difference is that you get a V8 – and all the character that comes with it. Plus this is a Lexus, which means proven quality and reliability. That’s a huge advantage over the competition.
The Lexus IS500 F Sport Performance isn’t the quickest or most powerful compact sport sedan, but I love that it exists. It’s here at a time when the auto industry is moving away from cars like this. It reminds me of the fun, skunkworks-type stuff engineers secretly work on at night, when nobody’s looking.
We won’t be talking about naturally aspirated V8s or loud exhaust notes forever. Appreciate the IS500 for what it is – and while you still can.