2023 Lexus IS 500 review: Greatness held back
Great value aside, a fantastic engine alone can't hide the fact the IS 500 could use some work to unleash the potential lurking beneath.
2023 Lexus IS 500 review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Five liters of naturally aspirated V8 greatness. Unfortunately, that alone can't make for a great performance car. Take the Lexus IS 500 for example, a mild-mannered sedan that has has been entrusted with their trademark, hooligan-spec five-oh V8. You'd think I'd be singing praises enough to change the course of the turbocharged and electrified tides, but I was left somewhat disappointed, not with the car itself, rather by how much better it could and should be to make it the fighter it so sorely wants to be.
There's no shortage of acclaim towards this amazing engine. Comprising a swept volume of five liters through its eight cylinders arranged in a familiar V configuration, it's a marvel in an age of digitized and uncharismatic turbocharging. Outright power stands at 467 horses, and despite the capacity, this is a engine that lives for revs and doesn't have a whole lot going on down low below 3,500 RPM. Bury your foot and watch the revs climb to their 7,000 RPM peak and it's then that you'll understand what we're all missing with all these downsized six and four-cylinder replacements. You might need to call the local undertaker and let him to check that none of the deceased have waken from the dead during the cavalry of V8 explosion, a feat and trait that only a V8 can make.
Even with all that on-paper oomph, the IS 500 is not a light car, weighing close to 4,000 pounds, and as such, 0-60 MPH isn't all that impressive in 2023, taking 4.4 seconds to dispatch the benchmark time. A BMW M340i might have nearly 100 less horsepower on the spec sheet, but it's a faster car at any point in its rev range with ballistic thrust from a Bavarian turbocharged inline-six. However, it won't sound as good doing so.
Also not helping is an aging and derelict eight-speed automatic transmission that can be woefully slow to respond to downshift inputs via the paddles, and upshifts have both a delay and are lackadaisical in actual shift time. New transmissions have progressed so far, including Lexus' own 10-speed unit in the LC 500, as I can't help but feel this reminds of an old (and bad) automated single-clutch sequential transmission. You would hope that the transmission is at least smooth because of its laziness, but there's harshness during shifts even. Slow and hardly smooth - not a good combination. Oh, and first gear is way too short, and at times, pulling away from a stop feels like its in limp mode due to how the throttle response is programmed combined with that short gearing. It's like they made it this way to avoid drivers from blowing up the rear tires, but it comes across like a massive overcorrection. Utilizing one of the sport modes helps here, but the default, standard driving characteristic should be better.
When it comes to tackling the twisty bits, the chassis and handling are a mix of disappointment and relief. As to what I like, the suspension is soft enough to make for a comfortable ride over a variety of pavement, and it's also rarely upset by larger intrusions. And because the suspension is on the softer side, it means the Lexus, as a performance car, is more approachable in terms of its limit when you do decide to wring its neck a bit as the symphony of combustion beckons you so. This allows you to gain confidence behind the wheel as you're fed increased information as the chassis leans and loads up through each corner.
The downside to this, is that the IS 500 cannot be considered anything resembling a track car. Even on my preferred local roads, the limit of its soft suspension becomes apparent as composure can be lost in quick transitions. When combined with a high curb weight, that makes for a lot of pounds sloshing from side to side during fast left-right changeovers that it struggles to handle. The overall character is an impression more of a classic muscle car, having a lazier nature and less an appetite for hard charging through the bends. That's not to say the IS 500 is a complete dog, because it isn't - it's actually a lot of fun to drive quickly in due part to that V8 emitting noises like an Avenger Gatling gun, but it's not the performance sports sedan you might be hoping for in the mold of a BMW M3 or Alfa Quadrifoglio. Remember, this is not an IS F, but an 'F Sport,' meaning it doesn't get the full-fat treatment and thus has a chassis begging for upgrades. I reckon a set of good coilovers and anti-roll bars would go a long way improving the capabilities for track and hard driving duties. And while I didn't get a chance to test them fully, I've heard the brakes do not stand up to even moderate track driving.
I further found the steering to be too light and lacks resistance AKA re-centering, and this light and loose nature of the steering certainly doesn't help in conjunction with those soft springs. Still, disable the traction and stability control, which you annoyingly and tragically have to be at a full, complete stop to turn off, and you can easily hang the 'rear out in some nice moments of oversteer in slow, 90-degree corners. However, I really cannot understand the oversight in needing to come to a complete stop in order to turn off the driving aids. If you're under 30 MPH, you can halfway disengage them, but the moment your speed climbs back up above 30, the leash is fully tightened again. For a car like this, that's a just lame bit of programming.
What cannot be denied (in most any Lexus product) is the inherent quality and luxury inside. With sumptuous leather and a steely solidity to it all, this is the caliber and characteristic you would expect and want in a luxury car. Rattles were non-existent (and this is a press car that has had a hard life), and I predict it'll stay that way for a long time. The obvious downside? Lexus has still not introduced its updated infotainment system here, so you're still stuck with the vile, villainous cauldron of ineptitude that is the trackpad-operated interface. I'm tired of writing about it; It sucks and it might be enough for some to turn away completely from owning one of these. I don't understand how Lexus has still not updated all their models in this regard.
Beeps and bongs are ever-present in typical Lexus and Toyota tradition, but I also found the active safety systems on this example to be far too intrusive and nigh-on dangerous. Multiple times behind other cars at intersections, I would release the brake when the light turned green, but if the car in front hasn't moved far enough, the collision avoidance engages and completely cuts power on you. Then, the car in front pulls away while you're still left for several seconds in actual limp mode. This happened once at an intersection where I had cars coming up behind me at speed, while I'm just sitting there literally powerless, flooring it to go and get out of the way, but to no avail as the car in front has now disappeared into the distance. I wasn't even close to hitting them and I've never had this problem in any other car I've tested. Actually, wait, I have had this happen before, and it was in other Toyota products...The way it cuts power so abruptly and for so long ends up putting you in a more dangerous situation than what it thought of avoiding in the first place.
When you're just cruising, though, this is a very nice vehicle. The V8 gently churns away and burbles, the seats and ride quality are very comfortable, and it even doesn't get horrid gas mileage, averaging a decent 22 MPG during our week together. For the casual driver that wants a luxurious and characterful car, but that'll never take it on hard weekend drives - let alone the track - the IS 500 makes a pretty good case for itself (if you can stand the infotainment). A BMW and Mercedes might seem trite and boring, whereas the uncommon Lexus with a burly V8 suddenly is now a way of standing out. And did I mention that it looks magnificent? Wow is it a pretty thing.
You can do a lot worse than the Lexus IS 500, but I think Lexus can also do a lot better. Having that engine and an 'F Sport' in its name - even it's not a real full big F - demands and yearns for a more capable chassis as a sports sedan. If you just want a comfy cruiser with the same looks and you don't care as much for driving, there's the cheaper IS 350. I think if you're wanting a car with a big and punchy V8, you're going to want it to also be a more sporting prospect and as a more affordable M3 alternative. There are already other similarly-priced soft-core performance sedans like the boring Audi S4, of which this IS 500 at least trounces in terms of charisma and character. Even if it's objectively inferior to BMW's M340i, again only one of them has that burly V8 that pushes the desirability above the expected. But that's the thing, and maybe the most impressive part of the IS 500 when all is considered: it starts at less than $60,000, even with this fully-fledged tester pushing that to just $66,525. Despite its flaws, the value is undeniable. Still, there is more greatness to be had here, just Lexus is holding it back.
2023 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance
As-tested price: $66,525
Pros: Wonderful V8 engine; Great value and quality
Cons: Too soft for hard driving; Old transmission and oppressive aids