Face-Off: Lexus IS-F versus BMW M3

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Lexus IS-F vs. BMW M3

Dinan BMW M3
Lexus IS-F

  • Smooth, high-revving V-8
  • Comfortable interior suited for spirited driving
  • Great handling

  • Ripping V-8 power
  • Comfortable and well appointed interior
  • Good handling

  • You have to pay extra to get the Dinan goodies
  • The “Powerdome” in the hood
  • A twin turbo would have been so cool

  • Automatic transmission with too many gears
  • Jarring ride characteristics
  • Fast and Furious styling cues on the outside, bland on the inside

I was recently able to lay my hands on a 2009 Lexus IS-F in eye-popping Ultrasonic Blue. Since the IS-F is touted as an M3 killer, I decided to bring along an M3 during our evaluation in order to determine how the Lexus compared to the benchmark BMW. Unfortunately, I didn’t give the nice folks at BMW enough notice to provide me with a stock M3 in time for the comparison. However, Dinan offered me one of their cars. Actually, they offered me Steve Dinan’s personal car. I became a little worried when the guys at the shop said something about rolling back the odometer before I returned it, but I’m sure Steve was well aware of what was going on.

A little about the Dinan M3 Coupe: it was equipped with their Stage 3 suspension, Dinan brake kit, their new E92 M3 exhaust, a modified rear differential with a lower ratio over stock (was 3.85, now 4.10), and 19 inch Dinan forged wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires. You might say that comparing a Dinan-prepped M3 against a stock Lexus IS-F is unfair…and you would be right. The sum total of the Dinan upgrades added up to a car that performs a step above a stock M3. An accurate title of this article would be “Lexus IS-F vs. Dinan BMW M3 Coupe”. Click the link to read our separate article describing modifications applied to the Dinan M3.

Lexus IS-F

Testing was conducted on a variety of road surfaces, including city surface streets, highways, and some very spirited driving on the CarReview.com secret test track. Temperatures were in the low 60’s with partial cloud cover. In other words, perfect conditions for a little fun!


I’ve never been partial to the styling of the Lexus IS series…too much uninterrupted sheet metal falling down the sides of the car and a rear end that is a bit too portly. However, the stock IS is a better looking car than the IS-F. A bulging hood, front fender ducts, and quad exhausts end up resulting in a hodge-podge of external styling cues that represents a wannabe street racer that was cut from “Fast and Furious”. As far as the dual-stage exhaust note itself, give me a break. It sounds decent under normal acceleration, but stomp on the go-pedal, push the engine over 4,000 RPMs and the noise emanating from the quad-exhaust pipes is worse than an elephant who had too many beans for lunch. Aftermarket tuners are going to make a lot of money selling better exhaust systems to IS-F owners.

Lexus IS-F vertically stacked quad exhaust pipes Bi-Xenon HID, auto-leveling headlamps

The BMW styling is more purposeful with a distinctive character line following the sides of the car and appropriately bulging fenders covering wider tires. The black, carbon fiber roof contrasted nicely with the white paint, but I doubt it provides much of a performance advantage. My thoughts are that the BMW’s styling will age better than the Lexus, but the power bulge in the hood has to go. I know the bulge is a matter of function over form to accommodate the V-8, but it upsets that balance of the design.

BMW M3 carbon fiber roof


The IS-F interior is comfortable and quiet. The seats are supportive and comfortable for the long-haul, but I would have liked more side bolstering for spirited driving. The high contrast Alpine and black leather seats is a personal preference call. And personal preference leans towards the conservative side with solid colors for the seating.

Controls within the Lexus are easy to access and understandable. However, the styling is a bit bland. The gauges are exciting, but the rest of the dashboard is composed of great unbroken expanses of high quality soft-touch plastics. There was some silver, pseudo-carbon trim. But it looked more like an afterthought. All-in-all, they could have made it much more interesting.

The M3 provides a little more excitement in the interior department. While still fairly conservative, it is more visually stimulating that the Lexus. The seats are very comfortable for the long haul, while still providing adequate side-bolstering for spirited driving up to and including track use. All of the controls are well placed and easy to read. I was way too busy testing the performance capabilities of this car to fool around with the I-drive, so that will have to wait until a later review.


This is where Lexus got things right – well, almost! The 5.0 liter V-8 pumps out 416 horsepower and 371 pound-feet of torque for a tire-shredding good time. These numbers compare very favorably to the M3’s 414 horsepower and 295 feet-pounds of torque. You can expect 0-60 times in the mid four second range. However, the IS-F doesn’t deliver power in the same manner as the M3.  While the BMW M3 has a torque curve as flat as a Kansas corn field, the power in the IS-F comes on later in its RPM range and drops off sharply after 5,200 RPM.  This means that the M3 provides more usable torque throughout most of its rev range.  The power delivery produced from the M3′s V-8 makes it easier to drive, especially out of corners.

Lexus F badge

No doubt, the Lexus IS-F delivers 0-60 times in the mid four second range. This is seriously fast indeed, but somewhat tempered by the fact that the only transmission option is an 8-speed automatic.  While this is a very good automatic transmission, it is still an automatic.  Conventional wisdom has long held that a good manual transmission is always faster and more fun than an automatic transmission. The IS-F turns this idea on its head by employing lockup in all gears except first when in manual mode. This eliminates any power loss from the torque converter from 2nd through 8th gear while preserving desirable torque multiplication in first gear for stunning launch acceleration. The result is a direct feel unlike any other automatic, and “right now” response to the throttle.  Shift times are fast! A typical F1 transmission shift time is approx. 0.05 seconds, with virtually imperceptible lag. The IS-F shifts occur in approximately 1/10th of a second.  We discovered in very spirited driving, the transmission in the IS-F was indeed very fast and smooth up-shifting, but it behaved harshly during down-shifts and the car seemed happier when left in the fully automatic “sport” mode when driven hard.  Even with a technologically advanced 8-speed gearbox and ultra-fast shifting, this car would be much better with one or two fewer gears and a manual transmission.

(Continued on page 2)

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  • Gus says:

    I recently went to the Lexus dealer to look for a luxury car; maybe an LS. Not knowing abut this car, I ended up buying a new black 2010 ISF. I have owned several Mercedes (including AMG) and BMWs and the moment I drove this car I was sold!! In one word, Amazing!! I traded in my mercedes and have not missed it at all. This is a very powerful and unique car. The best part is that there not many on the road and I have blown the doors off many fast cars including mercedes and BMWs; most people do not know what this car is. Just yesterday i took my wife to a fancy restaurant and the valet boys where debating which of them was going to park my car. When we return the valet guy said to me; Sir. by far you have the best car here; love those rims. Amazing to hear that when you see all those fancy cars including many mercedes BMWs and Porsches parked there. I would advise to anyone looking to buy a race luxury car that can seat four to get the ISF. Service at Lexus is superb; free car wash any time!!

    Thanks Lexus.

  • mark says:

    this is quite possibly the worst written car review ever, and would be torn apart by anyone who knows cars..

    Manuals have the fastest times? Since when? 1970? DCT, PDK, author of this article go find out what those mean and please stop being an embarassment to car people everywhere, how did you get this job..

    A twin turbo would have been cool? Do you have any idea what you are saying, and about what car? Try seeing what most M owners think of FI..

    this was so horribly bad I actually took time to write it, and those are just the glaring points that stuck out. you are lucky to have a job, because whoever pays you has no idea

  • Travis says:

    The M3 was from 2010… and had Michelin Pilot Sport CUP tires!

    IS-F has EARNED the CROWN from M3!

    Buh Bye…

    2009 article says the cup tires on the M3 only shaved 0.2 off the previous time with stock PS2.

    So yes, stock for stock.. the IS-F is faster on this track by 0.2 seconds.

    What it took BMW 20 years to make.. took Lexus 3 years to match and pass. Not only is the ISF faster then the M3 at the red light.. but handling and track advantage the M3 had over the ISF is no longer existent . . .

    The Ferrari and Lambo beating LFA, the ISF…. I cant wait to see the GSF . .

  • Travis says:

    Not sure if anyone has seen the Feb 2011 C&D yet, but they finally test the 2011 ISF with both the revised suspension and LSD. Long story short, the suspension updates drop an incredible 8.6 seconds from C&D’s previous VIR lap time.

    Here are some of the lap times from this and previous Lightning Laps for reference:

    RS4 – 3:11.2
    S4 – 3:10.6
    Mustang GT 5.0 – 3:08.6
    E63 – 3:06.8
    C63 – 3:06.5
    Cayman S – 3:05.8
    Carrera S – 3:05.8
    M3 – 3:05.4
    2011 ISF – 3:05.4
    CTS-V coupe – 3:04.0
    GTR – 2:55.6

    The ISF now ties the M3 and tops the AMG Benzes and RS4. C&D was overall very complimentary of its performance and called the brakes fantastic and fade-free, something that could not be said for the E63 which faded on the very first lap. They also mentioned that the ISF matched the M3′s lap time with a higher curb weight and no real power advantage.

    I guess this is the end of the “I know it’s a bit slower on the track but it’s a much better daily…” comparisons with the M3.

    Bravo Lexus!

    If you just want to see review of 2011 IS-F here you go.

    Lightning Lap 2011: LL2 Class – Feature

    Three years back, an IS F turned a less-than-impressive 3:14.0. We said then, “A little attention to springs and damping might make this eager contender a real champ,” as the stiffly sprung F zapped confidence in high-speed corners.

    Boy, were we right. Lexus has since tweaked all suspension elements. Spring rates are down in the front and up in the rear, and there are larger anti-roll bars, stiffer subframe bushings, and longer bump stops, which effectively increase spring rates when the car is nearing its maximum roll angle. Lexus also lightened the front hubs and control arms and slapped a Torsen limited-slip differential in the rear axle. The result is BMW M3–matching performance around VIR (3:05.4). That’s heady company for Lexus to be keeping. Especially considering that the IS F weighs 3801 pounds (195 more than the M3) and makes only two additional horsepower, at 416.

    Lexus also redesigned the gauges, enlarging the tachometer and relocating it to the center of the instrument binnacle. But it could have removed the thing altogether because we did not so much as peep at it: The IS F’s audible shift warning is plenty loud, even when you are wearing a helmet. While the alert is slightly obnoxious on public roads, it lets you keep your eyes up when driving on a track.

    The old F rolled around on the track like a keel-less boat in gusting winds. The aforementioned updates quell this tendency and increase confidence. Our backside impressions are supported by numbers: The F exits sector two 13.1 mph quicker than before, at 109.1. Steering is communicative, and the chassis is set up for safe, moderate understeer, but vector adjustment is just a throttle tweak away—the torquey engine (371 pound-feet) can break the rear tires loose easily. The brakes are fantastic, too. The pedal might be a tad wooden (more pliant pine than hard oak), but the system remains fade-free after multiple laps of abuse, something none of the other large sedans could claim this year. The 180-degree character change performed by this Lexus gives us hope that Toyota can still make fun-to-drive cars. Now  where’s our Supra?

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  • Andre says:

    I have been a BMW fan for years (since the I was a little boy when the 325is was around)…

    Now although BMW is my favorite brand, I am not in the business of kidding myself.

    I recently went to test drive both cars and must say that even as a BMW fan it would not a difficult choice. The Lexus felt like a combination of a drive on a motorbike and car with a powerful engine (those gears sift fast!!!!).

    And I don’t know that the engine sound is all that bad, if compared to the C63 and the RS4 the Lexus is slightly quieter (not that I was doing noise comparisons though). And as usual the M3 had the most disappointing sound of the 3 (the RS4 is definitely the noisiest).

    The ISF definitely felt faster. And both cars interior were good in their own way (maybe I am used to the BMW interior), but I must say the Lexus interior and features have no fuss about them, so much is automatic and “seemed” to have more features (not sure if I drove the same “spec” for each)

    If you want a straight-line beater the ISF and if you want a car with great cornering the M3 (handling as always in own class)

  • brian says:

    you guys are crazy. i test drove the two before going with the 08 m3. the is-f’s interior looks like utter garbage, The tranny is way too sluggish while down shifting, and the fake exhausts are hideous.

  • mark says:

    I don’t know how old this reviewer is, but its apparent how little he knows. What do you mean, ‘conventional wisdom’ says a manual is faster? All the fastest shifts and times for the M3 are achieved with their DCT….not a manual. You will never be able to execute manual shifts even near or close to as fast as these newer transmissions. This was clear years ago.
    You think the exhaust note on the ISF sounds like an elephant? did you even drive the ISF? this review is a joke

  • Andrew says:

    The ISF is by far the better daily driver than the M3. Better interior, better ride, better reliability, better service.

    The M3 has marketing and car & driver reviews. BMW tells people they’ve got a magical driving experience when really, it’s a compromise both ways. ISF is better as a DD and the Cayman, GTR, etc. are far better for the track. Hell, GTR is probably better as a DD too.

  • IS F Driver says:

    I just purchased my first “performance” car & after visiting and reading about both cars, I went with the IS F. The epople at the BMW dealer were idiots — they know NOTHING about customer service!

    The ride in the ISF is the biggest problem — it is WAY too hard! The exhaust is also over done with the four pipes, but the front design is very attractive. I liked the fact that the IS F came with most items included, and the equivalent M3 was $15-$20K higher ;-( … I think that if Lexus had that additional money in each car, they would crush the M3. Let’s rememaber thet the IS F is their first model in this class … I would be worried if I were BMW …

    The multi-stage intake makes you know that you are in a performace car — it is very ice to hear & feel. I do not like the IS F controls that limit power to the rear tires — seems like Leus it concerned about Marginal drivers’ skills … kind of a bummer that this is in effect.

    I’d like to know what this car could do with turbocharing …

    I have a friend who has owned BMWs for years; he usually has 2-3 on hand & he was very impressed with my IS F — thought it would blow the M3 off the road.

  • ewall says:

    i own both 2008 isf and 2008 bmw m3 with dinan exhaust. theyre both fast but the lexus is faster. both are very cofortable inside but the m3 feels a little more rigid.( which i like for everyday driving, i drive fast, im 30.) the lexus accelerates faster and smoother than ANY bmw to date.(8 speed automatc). the m3 is a choppy ride because its a 6 speed manual.(a little more fun on the way to the office. both vehicles have tight suspension and are a ton of fun. i would recomend either car to anyone who likes fast imports.

  • Derek says:

    Maybe the Lexus is better suited as a daily driver over the M3, but I have to disagree with the other points.

    The Lexus IS-F is not faster than the M3 — even it was in stock trim. As stated in the review, we found the M3 was much better at the upper limits than the IS-F. In fact we had to back down a little when approaching the limits because the feedback from the car was not confidence inspiring. And the rumblings from the IS-F is good only until the 2nd stage opens up. When hard on the accelerator and revving over 4k, the rawkus from the dual stage intake is horrible.

    And I have to bring up the 8-speed gearbox. The tranny was too busy shifting trying to find a sweet spot in the power band. Whereas the M3 had a much wider power band and smoother power delivery.

    Admittedly, the Lexus interior is nice, but the aluminized trim looks like some aftermarket add-on that can be purchased from Pep Boys. Sheesh!

  • Philip says:

    So, how much did BMW pay the author for this article…?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the styling of the M3 Coupe, its an excellent car, but the majority of the “pros” the author states the M3 has over the IS-F are subjective.
    The Lexus is so much more suited as a daily driver than the M3. not to mention the Lexus is faster, has a waaay better interior, and sounds better than the M3.
    The growl of the dual-stage Intake (not exhaust, does the author even know anything about cars?) is amazing! the Bmw sounds like a supped up V6, much like the previous gen.

  • Derek says:

    I have owned previous generations M3s (E30 and two E36)and never had reliability problems. I haven’t purchased the current generation M3, so I cannot provide any insight with regards to long term reliability.

    Looking at the Lexus, the IS-F is definitely less comfortable than the E90/E92 M3.IMO, the IS-F suspension is too stiff for being a daily driver and doesn’t absorb rough road surfaces very well. On long road trips, the occupants come out shaken, not stirred. The M3 has a much better ride quality and can be driven to its limits with more confidence because it communicates back to the driver much better than the IS-F.

    The IS 350 upgrade with the F Sports parts is a nice compromise for people who are a fan of Lexus. They don’t get the growling 400+ hp V8, but the suspension and exhaust upgrades excellent. An IS 350 setup with F Sports upgrades behaves nicely on the street and on the track.

  • Preetham Mukhatira says:

    For most people who cannot see past an M3, if i want a track car i would rather get a Cayman S or the GT-R(if i had more dough) and if i want a superfast Luxury saloon i would get the IS-F. It’s a simple choice as the Lex is anyday more comfortable and reliable than the M3 as a daily driver. For performance driving on the track or the road they are close, but if i want to take any car to the track it would be none other than the Porsche. I drove the Cayman S once and i would take it anyday over the M3 to the track. Hence i really do not see the point of the M3 apart from appreciating its great engineering and the fact that it inspired Lex to build a great superfast Luxury saloon.

  • Chris (ex CarReview guy) says:

    That’s pretty much what I figured… BMW still beats out Toyota.

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