Cars.comparison: Luxury Sports Cars

BMW's M3 is a legend in the high-performance luxury car segment, and for 2008 the brand with the spinning propeller logo brings out a new version of the car with a high-revving V-8 under its hood. Two new V-8-powered challengers await in the Audi S5 and Lexus IS-F, but do either of these upstarts have what it takes to claim the throne?

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2008 Audi S52008 BMW M3 sedan2008 Lexus IS-F
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Price as tested
Valet appeal
The S5's sleek lines and vivid LED running lights will appeal to the most jaded of luxury car owners and is the one that's most likely to turn heads. The M3 will get respect when you drop the keys off, but its similarity to previous generations and the regular 3 Series decreases the "wow" factor. The domed hood looks like an alien tumor from the driver's seat. It looks like the IS-F's bloated hood was the only way to fit a big V-8 inside. It was, but the result is distorted — more aberration than enhancement. The IS-F seems a younger person's choice, or just a sillier one.
Engine performance
Incredibly smooth-revving, the S5's 4.2-liter V-8 makes its torque at low rpm, which you'll appreciate every time you leave a stoplight, and can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, according to Audi. However, its deficit of more than 50 horsepower versus the others is surely felt. The M3's V-8 combines a broad torque curve with linear power increase, making it the most effective and satisfying of the three. BMW cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds. Even with an eight-speed transmission to work with, the IS-F makes you wait for your torque. It has the most of the bunch, but it peaks higher in the V-8's rev range than we'd like. All the same, it's mighty quick; Lexus claims it can hit 60 mph from a standstill in just 4.6 seconds.
Shifting and clutching
The six-speed manual slides smoothly from gear to gear with a slight mechanical feel, but the shifter itself is on the tall side. A touchy clutch makes driving the S5 smoothly at low speeds a little challenging, but more aggressive driving gets better results. Light clutch-pedal effort won't wear out your left leg. BMW's shifter is still too tall for our tastes, but the entire action of shifting in the M3 is superbly natural. This is the easiest M to drive to date and will make anyone feel like a pro. The automatic transmission's manual mode makes you reprogram your mind to think about which of the available eight speeds you should be in. It shifts quickly, if sometimes harshly.
Guzzler vs. power factor (mpg city/highway vs. hp)
14/21 vs. 354
The additional weight of the S5's standard all-wheel-drive system hurts the coupe's gas mileage, yet it remains competitive.
14/20 vs. 414
Whether you choose the six-speed manual or the seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, the mileage is the same.
16/23 vs. 416
What's going on here? The largest engine with the most horsepower and an automatic gearbox gets the best mileage? Thank the eight speeds and modest low-rev torque. The IS-F avoids the $1,300 gas-guzzler tax the other two incur.
Handling prowess
Rear-biased Quattro all-wheel drive gives the S5 some of the handling characteristics of a rear-wheel-drive car when cornering, which is welcome, but the car is still nose-heavy and the steering doesn't give the driver enough feedback. "Flat" is what we call a car's ability to keep its wheels planted during aggressive driving. The M3 is flat all the time, with excellent balance and little body lean. BMW is known for its pinpoint steering, and the wheel isn't as heavy as you'd expect.The IS-F feels nimble, but understeer opposes a tail that tends to loosen up in response to the late-arriving torque. For what it is, the IS-F's electric power steering is well-executed, but it can't compete with the M3's trusty hydraulic type.
Ride comfort
Though it's not over the top, the suspension is firm, which results in minimal body roll.
The M3's suspension possesses an admirable degree of suppleness, which you'll appreciate when you encounter rough stretches of pavement.
The ride is taut but not punishing. Anyone who would buy this type of car will be fine with it, but this Lexus won't get the M3's wider acceptance.
The driver-centric cockpit is large enough for tall drivers, but the gas pedal is too close for comfort. Even though it's a two-door, the S5's backseat isn't much tighter than the M3's or IS-F's. The M3 is virtually identical to a regular 3 Series, but has larger front seats. They're a bit snug, but comfortable. The second row is bigger than the IS-F's, and an infant baby seat installed quite easily — for those speed-demon moms and dads who are interested. Despite its ample front-seat legroom, the IS-F is the most snug of the three. Its four doors don't translate to additional backseat legroom; it's actually quite restrictive. The front seats got rave reviews for comfort.
Features that pamper
Features like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, keyless start, Bang & Olufsen audio and a backup camera can make driving more enjoyable, but all of these things are options that'll add to the price of the car. Audi's MMI system still isn't our friend, though it becomes easier to use with practice. The iDrive multifunction controller will get an upgrade when the M3 is revised late in 2009, but this version still irritates. Optional M Drive combines all your performance settings, which can then be activated by a single button. The IS-F's features are mostly useful rather than gimmicky, such as Sport and Snow transmission modes and front and rear parking sensors, a stand-alone option. Navigation with a backup camera is an option. The IS-F gets bonus points for its simple controls.
Overall value
The S5's styling makes it stand out, in our opinion, but design is subjective. The low base price is attractive, but its lesser capability hurts it in this type of comparison. Even at its tested price the M3 seems like a steal. A thousand dollars here and there shouldn't change the mind of anyone shopping for this type of car, and truly performance-minded buyers won't opt for the $1,000 moonroof's added weight anyway. The M3 also has the lowest projected five-year ownership cost. The IS-F's higher price is easier to justify if you consider that it includes an automatic transmission, which would make the others more expensive. Of course, if you don't value an automatic, the Lexus seems to give you less while costing you more.
Editors' choice
A compelling new entry in the luxury performance segment that's sure to make enthusiasts in the Snow Belt rejoice, the S5 has the looks and power to be a strong entry, but it can't match the BMW's power or its ride and handling. Audi, Lexus and the rest are simply trying to catch up. There are few better combinations of performance and livability. Three body styles, a terrific manual shifting experience and an optional double-clutch transmission should satisfy every performance-car shopper.Even though it's very quick, the lack of a true manual transmission will be a deal-breaker for some enthusiasts, especially because the automatic in the IS-F has its faults.
Posted on 9/25/08
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