words: Stu Fowle

The face-off between ultra-capable small sports sedans from Mercedes-Benz and BMW is nothing new. As you likely know, the original M3 and the Cosworth-powered 190E 2.3-16V started one of the most heated rivalries in auto-racing history, each company countering the other with more power, more speed, and bigger, wilder spoilers. When the 190E became the C-class, AMG took over where the Cosworth car left off and both manufacturers stepped up to six-cylinder engines. For 2008, the fight gets a few more firsts. The BMW has its first V-8 and the Mercedes, well, it promises to be more than a straight-line muscle car for the first time since AMG started tweaking the C.

Neither of those things is as headline-worthy as this: Finally, Japan has an honest-to-goodness answer to Germany's legends. The IS-F has been a glint in Lexus' engineers' eyes ever since the company commissioned Rod Millen to squeeze an LS430's V-8 into the first-generation IS for the 2003 SEMA show. And now here it is, complete with a punchlist of Lexus-like one-upsmanship. With 416 hp, it tops the M3 by a deliberate two horses. With an eight-speed transmission, it out-gears the Mercedes by one. Then there are the massive stacked exhaust outlets, but they speak for themselves. (They ask, "Why?") Still, we're skeptical. Can Lexus really crank a jar of wasabi out of the vanilla factory?

To answer that question we've rounded up a BMW M3 sedan, a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, and the new Lexus IS-F for an afternoon of hot laps at Autobahn Country Club's south track in Joliet, Illinois. To mix it up a bit, we've brought along a special guest — Andy Miodynski, one of the top salesmen from McGrath Lexus, the brand's biggest dealership in the Chicago area. Andy isn't your average Lexus salesman; he's a true car enthusiast. He has track hours on his IS-F, and his Fox-body Ford Mustang lifts its front tires waist-high before launching down the quarter-mile. Just ask to see his cell phone pics. His role here is specific — if he can't walk away praising the IS-F after driving the other two cars, how can we?

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At First Glance

For how evil this trio looks, each also has a visual shortcoming or two. The M3 has too many extraneous vents on its fenders and hood, while the IS-F just has too much hood in general. Also, the stacked exhaust outlets aren't actually connected to the exhaust system. We hoped this was a pre-production issue, but we reached under one right on the dealership floor to confirm the oddity. The most common complaint about the C63 around the office was that it simply has too much going on at the front end, even if the twin veins traversing the hood are a cool homage to the 300SL Gullwing.

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Inside, all three practice more subtlety. Changes across the group are limited to new gauge clusters, higher-quality trim, and more supportive seats. The Lexus takes the prize for coolest cabin material with its "aluminized composite accents;" a set of shiny silver carbon-fiber panels on the console and dash. Its special sport seats are comfortable but turn spongy under heavy lateral loads. The M3's seats, on the other hand, are plenty firm but could use deeper bolsters. Other than some more intricate stitching patterns, they don't offer much more — especially in thigh and side support — than the sport seats offered in pedestrian 3-series models. The M3's thick leather steering wheel is the best of the group, though, and it's held together with tri-color M thread. The strength of the C63's cabin has to be its seats, because nothing else is upgraded from the C350. Luckily, the seats are very good. The leather is extra soft and the bolsters might be cut deeper than any other production car out there. Not only that, there's an adjustment to squeeze the sides in or out depending on how many cheeseburgers you've eaten that week.

Outside the Circuit

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Before we even pile into the three cars to head for the track, our Lexus boy has his opinion of the M3. "That engine's too peaky. It isn't even fun." We can see where he comes from, but the M3 is like a seven-layer dip and he's writing it off as a bowl of refried beans. BMW has offered up a complex, multi-faceted approach to the sports sedan, but yes, it is a bit underwhelming in normal driving conditions. The engine lacks power under 4000 rpm, and there's just too much refinement dialed into the chassis, especially with our electronic damping control-equipped model. Set it to the softest setting, turn off the "power" button (which doesn't actually alter power levels as it does in the M5, but instead dials back throttle response), and short shift the transmission, and you may as well be driving a 328i with a silly bulge in the hood. The everyday experience is a far cry from the homologation specials of the past, but the tame manners should appeal to more mainstream buyers. And yet, with every on-ramp stomp of the throttle, it's obvious that the M3 is crying for a racetrack. There, it's a whole different car.

If the M3 feels relaxed on the road, the IS-F feels removed from it. A second air intake opens up with a wail at just over 3000 rpm, but those sorts of engine speeds don't come readily. The combination of impressive low-end torque and an eight-speed transmission keep the engine turning modestly, and there's hardly ever space on our way to the track to really work the higher range of the tach. Otherwise, acceleration, braking, and steering inputs are smooth and linear, as if the car is merely a shrunken-down LS460. Our only complaint is the way its suspension rebounds in quick, elastic jolts rather than the smoother, fluid recovery exhibited by both Germans.

Mercedes-Benz has put together the most entertaining road car of the bunch, and by a huge margin. It feels as if the AMG engineers took the innocent little C-class and gave it the soul of a NASCAR racer. All 443 lb-ft of torque produced by the 6.2-liter V-8 goes right to the ground in a mess of tire smoke, exhaust noise, and uncontrollable, maniacal laughter. The quick steering and lively suspension of the C63 are also the most enjoyable on normal roads and the 7-speed "Speedshift" automatic blips the throttle for downshifts. Pulling into Autobahn Country Club, it's our early favorite and even Andy likes it: "The power is really impressive and it sounds so mean. But the M3 still doesn't impress me. It is just a normal 3-series under 5000 rpm."

Track Time

The noise each car makes as it leaves pit lane is a good early indicator of its track behavior. The M3 lets loose with a mechanical harmony that grows sharper and sharper, just as the car itself gets better with more speed. Piloting the IS-F, the monotone whoosh of intake noise is predominant, hinting at the car's smooth but less communicative character. Then there's the C63, an exhaust-note hero. The burbles and barks of four massive tailpipes foretell the car's raucous power and unruly manners. Let's start with that one while it still has tires left.

We fell in love with the CLK63 AMG Black Series last summer, and it is no coincidence that the C63 feels similar to that car. In search of the same handling characteristics, the AMG crew pushed the C63's hand-built V-8 rearward by two inches and down just a touch from where the stock V-6 would sit. The front track is 35-mm wider and the three-link front suspension borrows geometry from the Black Series. The result is crisp, direct turn-in feel that pays dividends when the rear steps out (and it will). Precise corrections are easy because the steering wheel has the ability to calculate exactly at which angle the front tires are pointing. But that quality is almost a necessity considering the way this car acts out on a track. Leave stability control on and it'll cut in at nearly every corner exit. Turn it off, and the C63 is a lesson in finesse. Braking must all be done early and in a straight line in order for the car to turn in tidily. The AMG doesn't respond well to late lifts or trail braking. On the exit, you need to ease gradually back onto the throttle or be prepared to catch the rear tires before the outer one slips off the curbing.

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While the C63 demands concentration on the track, turning fast lap times is a challenge. Clean laps in it require more concentration and more effort than in the other two cars, and that can be exhausting for both the car and driver. Before our day is over, the Merc's differential burps from exhaustion and the resulting cloud of diff oil smoke gets us black-flagged.

What never flagged was the C63's 7-speed manumatic. In manual mode, the Lexus 8-speed box is slightly quicker and smoother, but the AMG-tuned unit performs better when it's thinking for itself. Left in auto mode, it foresees downshifts, self-blips the throttle, and always seems to find the right gear.

But who would settle for seven forward cogs when one could have eight? Lexus originally developed its 8-speed automatic to fight a different crowd of Germans — the Audi A8, the BMW 7-series, and the Mercedes-Benz S-class. In the LS460, it provides quick, smooth acceleration and best-in-class fuel economy. Expecting that same gearbox to fight in this crowd was an enormous gamble, but a lot of changes were made to make it a safe one. In gears 2-8, the torque converter is locked up and taken out of the equation for greater efficiency in power delivery. A high-flow solenoid works with IS-F–specific shift programming to change gears in just 0.1 seconds, only five hundredths of a second slower than a Formula 1 transmission. When controlled via two steering wheel-mounted paddles, it's the most impressive automatic we've ever driven. Shifts feel as urgent and seamless as in any dual-clutch gearbox we've used, so they don't upset the chassis and hardly disturb power delivery. However, Lexus's programming isn't as clairvoyant as AMG's. In full automatic mode, it holds a higher gear through corners and doesn't downshift without heavy throttle inputs. Normal "drive" is best left out on the street.

In full manual mode, the IS-F's transmission won't upshift automatically at redline as in many cars, including the Mercedes. While we respect Lexus for that decision, it's problematic for first-time drivers of the car. With a helmet on, the 5.0-liter V-8's overwhelming intake noise never changes its tone, so there's no audible warning to shift, other than a short beep that chimes in too late. A hard rev limiter cuts in abruptly as if to signify an epic fail. Luckily, most of the IS-F's power lives lower in the range, so shifting early as a preventative measure doesn't hurt lap times.

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Going into a corner in the IS-F also requires a complete brain reflash after spending time in the C63. Rather than being prone to massive oversteer, the Lexus' front tires give way first and the car pushes wide. Part of this, Andy confirms for us, is because of our car's Bridgestone Potenzas. Lexus chose to offer two stock tire choices, our Bridgestones and a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 2s, with the latter being the stickier option. Getting those tires is all just luck of the draw, but we're told some of the car's more discerning buyers have demanded to have their tires swapped out for the better PS2s.

Though the car does understeer, the chassis can be manipulated by throttle and brake inputs to move toward neutrality and even beyond it to power oversteer. It just doesn't do so as naturally as the other two cars. Come into the corner hot, using trail braking to load up the front suspension and make the tires bite in. That will lighten the rear, which lets the car rotate slightly. Then get back on the throttle early, letting a wave of torque push the rear back out at the exit. The IS-F never tries to snap around, but provides a smooth and predictable drift that's held by a steering system that weights up progressively but lacks feel compared to the Mercedes and BMW.

The IS-F and the C63 perform like polar opposites of each other at Autobahn, but the M3 on the circuit is the opposite of itself on the street. There's evidence of this duality throughout the car and we see it as BMW's attempt to draw in new customers without alienating the car's fan base. It's the reasoning behind developing the optional three-mode electronic dampers, adding a button to sharpen steering and throttle responses, and developing an engine that's tame at low revs and a monster up around its 8300-rpm redline. The same logic seems to be at work behind BMW's new M-DCT dual-clutch transmission, which we unfortunately couldn't arrange for this test in sedan form. Instead, our M3 packs the lone six-speed manual offered among this bunch.

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Out where speed limits and traffic aren't factors, the high-revving 4.0-liter V-8 comes alive, spinning to 8300 rpm — 1500 rpm faster than the other two cars. The power from 5000 rpm on up is thrilling and relentless, and the engine sounds like it was boosted right from a Sauber F1 car. A 12.5:1 steering ratio provides quick and direct turn-in that's complemented by a chassis that, when pushed hard, is just as sharp. However, the M3 is the least predictable at its limit. A few degrees of oversteer turns to 180-degree spin without warning.

As different as the characters of these three cars are, they share some commonalities beyond the fact that they're all stupid fast. Like the brakes, which all smoke and get hard to find through the day but never disappear. They all exhibit similar feel and similar power, and they also all share a front rotor diameter of 14.2 inches. Rear brakes range from 13.0 inches on the Mercedes to 13.8 inches on the BMW. The latter seems to have marginally more stopping power left at the end of the day, despite single-piston front and rear calipers (the IS-F uses 6 and 2, and the C63 uses 6 and 4, respectively.) But all are thoroughly impressive.

At the end of the day our quickest lap times are close, but in the order we expect. The M3 turned the best time, at 1:41.8. The C63's top time was 0.8 seconds slower at 1:42.6, with the IS-F running an even one second slower still. With better tires, the Lexus may have jumped a rung in the rankings. Even as they stand here, the close times make it hard to argue objectively for any of the three cars.

Afterthoughts

So don't be disappointed if we don't place the cars in a neat little order, with one losing, one winning, and one just sitting in the middle somewhere. As the track times attest, it isn't that easy, especially with a Lexus salesman offering me a hot lease rate if I pick his IS-F. Here's his argument:

"I'll admit that all three of the cars are amazing in their own way. The C63 is for the street, but isn't set up for the track. The M3 is awesome for the track, but boring on the street. The IS-F is a nice balance of the two vehicles and types of driving. It really can hang with the best of them on the street and holds its own on the track."

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Gee, what a shocker. The Lexus guy likes the Lexus best. What's next? Popes in funny hats? At least he didn't tell us that the IS-F could fly to the moon and back while fondling our manhood and returning 200 mpg — Andy is too honest, if still slightly biased. The best choice, however, does depend on what you're looking to get out of your $60,000 super sedan.

The BMW M3 is for the enthusiast who appreciates heritage and race-bred engineering. It has the most direct controls, the sharpest chassis, and the most high-strung engine. It's for the guy who's out to set lap records and has the time, money, and skill to do so. It's also for the track star who wants a complete escape from the intensity back on public streets, or simply gets enough track time that public roads aren't worth exploiting. But thanks to its split personality, it's also for the guy who wants to pretend to be that guy. And with stability control and its impressive drivability, the wannabe's lap times probably won't be terribly far behind.

The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG is the entertainer of the group and, as such, it isn't for people who take life too seriously. The car's lap times will always fall a second or two behind the BMW's, but the extra time on the stopwatch will be worth it. For the other 340 days a year when you're not at a track, it's the most comfortable and the most fun to drive, not to mention it that it looks and sounds like it means business. And with one of the silkiest V-8s on the market, it truly does. The C63 is the car this writer would buy if he had the means.

That leaves the newcomer from Lexus, which, fittingly, is the best choice for track-day newcomers or casual enthusiasts. The car is an amazing first effort that needs better tires and better chassis control. It isn't as frenetic on-track as the M3 but it isn't as subdued on public roads. At the same time, it doesn't appeal to our inner child in either setting like the C63 does. It'll win most stoplight drag races and it'll turn respectable track times, but it's tuned for safety and won't bite. It sounds cool, looks flashy, and has a fantastic Mark Levinson sound system. Do those things top your requirements? The IS-F is for you. Andy's accepting orders now.

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For more specific analysis of each individual car, check our original first drives:

BMW M3

Lexus IS-F

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG