For $25K you have many great options for a high-performance daily driver. If you want a brand new car you can get a Honda Civic Si or a Volkswagen GTI, both great “hot hatches” with amazing handling and turbocharged power. Looking a couple years used, you can find a current-gen Subaru WRX, or variants of the Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro. But what if you want something even more serious with more emphasis on luxury and even higher performance? For $25K, the cars will be a few years older, 8-10 years old in this case, but you are getting $60K worth of car for less than half the price.
I’m starting to look around in this general price range for my next step, and I have various options depending on what I decide to do with my current stable of cars. I decided to go have a drive in some of the cars I’ve been looking at to see what they’re really like from behind the wheel.
I went to a local dealer to check out two Audi B8 S4s, and low and behold, they had a Lexus IS F on the lot as well – it hadn’t been listed online yet. IS Fs are pretty rare, and this one was in my range, so I added it to my list to drive.
The S4 and IS F are a somewhat strange comparison, the Audi is AWD with a supercharged V6, and the Lexus is RWD with a 5.0L V8. When it comes to driving in bad weather, they don’t really do the same things. That said, both are midsize sedans that offer high performance with a lot of polish. Overall, they serve the same basic function for the same basic price, so, despite their vast differences in many areas, that means they compete.
If the S4 is a pistol, then the IS F is a machine gun.
After experiencing them both, back to back, that’s what I’ve come away with. The S4 is an effective weapon on its own, but it doesn’t bring theatrics to the driving experience like the IS F does.
This was my first time driving both a B8 Audi S4 and Lexus IS F. I have, however, driven similar cars in each company’s lineup – the C7 A6 for Audi and the RCF for Lexus – so I had some base of expectation.
Even before experiencing the IS F, I felt a bit let down when I stepped out of the S4. It just felt like a normal Audi with a sweeter engine. The S4 has some very solid performance, but you wouldn’t know it until you step into the throttle. In normal traffic, it might as well be a standard A4 as far as how it feels from behind the wheel. That may be fine for many drivers, but I think it makes the S4 seem pretty mundane for a high-performance car. Again, that was before I hopped in the IS F.
A few minutes later, driving the Lexus, I was reminded how to make a fast car feel special on the road. Any interest I had in the Audi faded. Maybe it’s because the Lexus is a higher caliber car, on the level of an RS 4 rather than an S4, but to me, it just felt like a far more significant experience. The 5.0L Yamaha V8 in the Lexus is not only a masterpiece of performance but also a masterpiece of sound. The way it absolutely roars as the engine wakes up adds so much to the exhilaration of the increasingly rapid acceleration. There’s a real sense of unleashing the beast in the IS F, and that never gets old.
The steering and chassis also feel especially tight and well-connected with the road, even driving in normal traffic. Compared to the RCF I drove, the IS F feels a little more analog, which is great. There’s definitely no mistaking an IS F with an IS250 when you’re behind the wheel. Then, when you actually give it the beans through some bends in the road, the car totally comes alive, begging for more. It is a much sharper, more focused experience than the S4 on all fronts.
The IS F has that special “X-Factor” I look for in a car, the culmination of a lot of big and little things that make it feel like more than “just a car.” If a car is something special, it should never let the driver forget it. The Lexus IS F rewards you for using its performance with addictive speed, sound and driving dynamics, but even when you can’t open the taps, the car still never feels like just another car. While cruising at low revs, when the gearbox is relaxed and the engine is putting away with a soft rumble, there is a sense from the sharp, heavy steering and the firm, tight chassis that the IS F is always ready to pounce at your command. From behind the wheel, the IS F lets you know it’s a wolf, whereas the Audi will make you think it’s a sheep until you ask it to run.
What’s more, the S4 I drove was modded. It had a loud muffler-delete exhaust and an open intake – you could hear the supercharger whine under hard throttle. Yet somehow, the experience of the S4 didn’t match up to the big show that the IS F puts on. It’s not about the volume of the S4’s straight exhaust, it’s the way the soundtrack plays into the driving experience. The Audi had a lot of sound, but it had that sound all the time, and frankly, without the mods it would’ve been dead quiet. Meanwhile, the Lexus is pretty quiet and well behaved… until it isn’t. The V8’s roar comes to life right as the excitement of the powerband is unleashed. You don’t know you’re locked in a cage with a beast until it is too late.
It’s not what you do, so much as how you do it. Compared to the IS F, the S4 just feels uninspired, mods or not.
(Side note: The IS F is wonderful for scaring your friends who don’t know much about cars.)
Condition of the cars
These cars have both weathered a few years on this Earth. The Audi had 86,000 miles on it and Lexus had 59,000 miles. Those aren’t low miles, but they aren’t high miles either. Each car was in the good, but used, condition you’d expect from a small dealership.
The interior of the S4 I drove was quite nice with leather, Alcantara, and carbon fiber trim. Despite having more miles, it seemed a little less weathered than the interior of the Lexus. That said, the other S4 they had on the lot was much rougher inside with 111,000 miles. I also noticed there was an electrical issue in the S4 I drove – the trunk just wouldn’t open, no matter how I tried. Whatever electrical mechanism opens that latch, it had failed. Not a good sign, though such problems are very typical in aged Audis.
The condition of the Lexus was solid overall. There was a little trim missing from the exterior door handle, and the interior had a few nicks and scuffs around the cabin. However, in true Toyota form, everything worked just as it should. The Audi may have a nicer interior on the surface, with more impressive materials and a more modern design, but in the Lexus everything seems durable. The buttons may be big and plastic, but you know they’re going to work at 200,000 miles the way they work at 59,000 miles. Having compared the two S4s on the lot, I cannot say the same for the Audi.
Now for the kicker. Lexus IS Fs have proven to be able to easily go 200-300,000 miles if they are well maintained, and they don’t have a habit of nickel and diming you along the way. Audi may not be as bad on running costs as BMW, but there will be headaches much more frequently. I actually felt the S4’s clutches slip a few times during high RPM shifts, and that is VERY concerning in a DSG car.
Look, these are both high-performance cars, and both are going to take some money to maintain properly. The Lexus is known for being a lot less of a headache than its German rivals, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be entirely cheap to run. There are a couple known issues to be aware of on the 08-09 IS Fs, such as the water pump, but they won’t have the constant little issues that the S4 will have. That’s definitely something to consider here.
Dollars and sense
At around $25,000, both of these cars may seem an amazing value compared to most newer options. They’re nicer, faster, and more aspirational.
The price of entry here is a given, but the price to stay in will be pretty different. As a general rule, the Lexus will be more reliable than the Audi, but you still have to put lots of oil in that big V8 and wider rubber on those rear wheels. Even if the IS F doesn’t eat away at you with stupid problems, it’s still going to take some commitment to maintain.
I urge anyone considering these cars or anything similar to ALWAYS have a pre-purchase inspection done on the car before you sign on any dotted line. Leave a deposit, and wait to hear from the mechanic before you fill out any actual forms. The condition of the car you buy means everything to your future running costs.
Admittedly the S4s I checked out were a little on the rough side, and I’m curious to drive a newer, cleaner model to compare. However, my main gripe, the fact that the car felt so normal on the road had nothing to do with its rough condition.
Don’t get me wrong here, I wouldn’t fault anyone for buying a B8 S4. It’s a wonderful overall package, and there’s a lot to love about it. I’m just a stickler for driving dynamics, and it comes up short against more focus options, like the IS F.
The IS F is fast and exhilarating, but it has also proven to be a true Lexus in the decade since it was released. It has the build quality that Lexus is so well known for, and that, for me, is a huge trump card in the world of high-performance cars. I mean, why would I want to risk spinning a rod-bearing in a BMW M3 or M5 when I could have an IS F with its killer V8?
What’s more, with proper maintenance, a 50,000 – 100,000 mile IS F is really just a teenager, and they aren’t really dropping in value that fast. Value-wise, and in terms of your asset retaining its value, an IS F is a much better idea than most cars you can buy for $25,000.
Obviously, the Lexus IS F totally won my heart here, and I’ve pretty much cast the idea of an S4 aside. Again, personal preference, but the S4 just didn’t do enough for me in the carnal sense.
The Lexus IS F is a very special car, the first option I’ve driven in my price range that I feel is just as special, or more special, than my 04 Subaru STi. If I’m going to part with my beloved Subaru, an IS F is a very worthy successor.
So if anything, I feel this round of test drives really helped me focus in on what exactly I want. The sharp insanity of the IS F made the otherwise decent S4 feel totally benign. It made me realize that mediocre just won’t do. So with that, I think I will take some time to pursue acquiring a Lexus IS F in the smartest way I can.
That’s what I love most about it, though. The IS F is smart in all the ways I need it to be (reliable, practical, etc), but then it moves a few notched back toward stupid (V8, RWD, low MPG), which makes it a lot more fun because being entirely sensible is excruciatingly boring.
MoM Score: 2010 Audi B8 S4 (Used)
Primary Function: Driving Experience: 1
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2) MPG(2): 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 1
Final Score: 7 /10
MoM Score: 2008 Lexus IS F (Used)
Primary Function: Driving Experience: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(1) MPG(1): 1.5
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9.5 /10