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BMW M3 Sedan VS. Lexus IS-F - One-Horse Race

Greg Emmerson
Sep 15, 2009 SHARE

M3 VS IS-F
Having read magazines, watched TV shows and spoken to people who'd driven it, everybody had good things to say about the Lexus IS-F. Several people suggested they preferred it to the venerable BMW M3, which is fighting talk where I come from, sonny. So when we discovered our sister mag, Super Street, was borrowing an IS-F, we insisted on "borrowing" it ourselves.

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Up front, I should confess I love the E90 M3. In a perfect world, where fuel was cheap, it's all I'd need. However, the IS-F ticks all the boxes. It has a willing 416hp 5.0 V8 that sounds more muscular than the M3's high-strung 420hp 4.0 V8. The larger capacity allows it to make more torque, with 371 lb-ft against the M3's 295. Yet the IS-F is only available with a paddle gearshift, so we went for BMW's dual-clutch transmission, which is a giant leap over the older SMG tranny.

Having finally driven the IS-F and been able to compare it directly to the M3, all I can say is "it's good for a Lexus." Is it a competitor for the M3, as people would have us believe? Absolutely not!

The best thing about the IS-F is its exhaust note at WOT, while the M3 sounds more mechanical. The Lexus also has a good touchscreen nav system, but the improved iDrive is no longer the embarrassment it once was, proving easy to use.

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Where the IS-F comes undone is steering, throttle and shift response, with the BMW feeling razor sharp in comparison. The Lexus has a Sport button that alters shift points, but it can't compare to the adjustable dampers, throttles, shift speed and traction control on our optioned M3. And after a relatively short canyon run, we had the 14.2" IS-F front brakes smoking, where days of greater abuse in the M3 never created such problems (same size brakes).Certainly the M3's 3648 lb curb weight compares favorably to the IS-F's lardy3780 lb. But you also have to factor in theBMW's legendary 50/50 weight split to fully explain the advantage it carries.

To drive the knife a little deeper, we also found the IS-F interior rather nasty, with cheap graphics on the dash, tacky silver carbon trim and cheap-looking plastics. We didn't like its white leather seats either, preferring the more supportive and classic black leather sports seats in the M3, which also spanked the Lexus with its carbon-embossed leather dash trim.

The exterior styling takes a similar path, with the IS-F appearing to try a little too hard in a slightly juvenile way. While the M3 whispers its potency from behind an admittedly large power bulge in the hood.

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We guess you could mistake the IS-F for a good car if you only drive traffic light GPs. Aim it at something more demanding and the Lexus falls short of the M3's brilliance.

It's like comparing a 9mm Glock to a baseball bat, a scalpel to a sledgehammer. And at the end of the day, even the Super Street editors recognized the superiority of German engineering, which allowed us the classic retort: "I told you so!"

If you're considering either car, realize they'll both hit you in the pocket. The $56,760 IS-F is more expensive than the $54,500 M3, which was optioned up to $65k with the paddle shift trans, nav, 19s, etc.

Both cars struggled in city driving, creating generous amounts of heat that was targeted at the front windows by the IS-F's fender vents. Neither was able to match its EPA fuel economy either. In city driving we saw 13mpg from the M3 (14/20mpg claimed) and 11mpg from the IS-F (16/23mpg claimed).

Which car would we choose? Have you not been following along? The M3 is king.

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Is this a serious question?
I must commend Lexus for trying with the IS-F, but the BMW M3 easily takes my vote in this head-to-head comparison. Unfortunately, I was only able to drive the M3, so my opinion is biased. But even if you only consider the styling, the M3 comes out on top.

After spending hours photographing both cars, the Lexus exterior looked confused. The front bumper features a large mouth like the M3, but it's overwhelming, almost too square for the car. Yet the rear kills me the most with those vertically stacked tailpipes. What were they thinking? It looks like a spaceship! Perhaps my favorite element is the front fenders, which incorporate a large vent. But even that is a little fussy.

Eurp_0909_04+bmw_m3_vs_lexus_isf+sam_du Photo 6/10   |   BMW M3 Sedan VS. Lexus IS-F - One-Horse Race

Now take a look at the M3 Sedan. I should note, I'm fonder of the Coupe, but the four-door still outshines the IS-F. The front-end is aggressive with a well-designed bumper. The hood is pronounced with vents and a bulge to highlight the massive V8 underneath. The side gills are a tolerable detail but I prefer them on the Coupe where they flow better with the body lines. I'm also not a big fan of the tail lights, but the rear bumper screams aggression and complements the front.

Overall, the M3 is well put together, being sophisticated yet sporty. And that's before you get to its remarkable performance!
- Sam

Momentarily Defection
I knew the second I got behind the wheel of an E90 M3 I'd become the driver I dislike. Try to understand, I don't dislike people because they own M3s, but because they give off an "I'm an asshole" vibe that's all too common in LA. But when I turned the thing on, I wanted very much to be one of them.

Like my previous experience with the older E46 Coupe, once I got on the road and punched it, things suddenly became crystal clear: I was the asshole - and I loved every second of it.

This is why the IS-F, while clearly not your average Lexus (or Toyota for that matter), was an excellent step in the right direction for the Japanese powerhouse, but is still very sedate. And if you aren't quick to notice the V8 growl or the beefed-up bumpers, you'd probably mistake it for any other Lexus on the road.

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The M3, meanwhile, is clear in its definition: a real sportscar (even if it is a sedan) with all the bells and whistles the Lexus lacks. It also performs so much better that it's a shame the IS-F can't compare, except in price.

Overall, the IS-F is heavier and more difficult to maneuver, but is still quite fast, luxurious and an "A+ for effort" attempt to overthrow the M-Series cars. Maybe when the LF-A is released, Lexus will have a fighting chance - and they probably will. But until then, BMW can enjoy their view from the top, along with all of its owners, even if they are assholes.
- Jonathan Wong, Editor, Super Street magazine

My Thoughts
Overall, I preferred the IS-F over the M3. However, I was only in the M3 briefly, so this is based purely on appearance. I think the IS-F is sleeker and sexier. I also have to add that the Lexus kept me safe while descending a canyon road at speed with Greg at the wheel. I couldn't see a thing because my eyes were closed the whole way down, but I felt every turn and could tell the car handled really well - Thank God. I'd also like to give props to the brakes and the Oh-Shit handle!
- Bernice

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Designer's Perspective
I'm a big fan of the 3-Series, especially the Coupe. It's a very tight design but the rear bumper is a little fussy and less developed. The surface development and quality is much better on the Coupe, though.

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I prefer the BMW to the IS-F because the details on the Lexus look cheap, especially the hood, which is unresolved. The stacked exhaust tailpipes are cool but the execution is a little unsophisticated.

I really like the Lexus IS range, which is probably the best design the company has ever produced, but the IS-F doesn't have enough sophistication to be its flagship model. However, it does look sporty and muscular, particularly with its fender vents. But on balance, the BMW is a better design.
- Derek Jenkins, Director of Design Mazda NA (ex-VW)

Eurp_0909_08+bmw_m3_vs_lexus_isf+chase Photo 10/10   |   BMW M3 Sedan VS. Lexus IS-F - One-Horse Race
TECH SPEC BMW M3 LEXUS IS-F
Base price $54500 $56760
Engine 3999cc V8 5.0 V8
Compression 12:1 11.8:1
Power 414hp at 8300rpm 418hp at 6600rom
Torque 295 lb-ft at 3900rpm 371 lb-ft at 5200rpm
0-60mph 4.7sec 4.6sec
Top Speed (limited) 155mph 170mph
Economy (city/highway) 14/20pmg 16/23mpg
Fuel tank 16.6 gallons 16.9 gallons
Curb weight 3648 lb 3780 lb
Transmission (semi-auto) 7-speed 8-speed
Length 181" 183.5"
Wheelbase 109" 107.5
Width 71.5" 71.5"
Front rotors 14.2" 14.2"
Front calipers single-piston six-piston
Rear rotors 13.8" 13.6"
Rear calipers single-piston two-piston
Wheels 18x8.5/18x9.5" 19x8/19x9" BBS
Tires 245/40-265/40 225/40-255/40
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By Greg Emmerson
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