Axles of evil - M3 v C63 AMG v IS F

MW was probably ready for this. After all, it's been building ripper rear-drive compacts going back to the early '70s and the 2002tii, and no doubt wondering why others didn't get in on the act. Along with Mercedes, they should have been ready, of course, for the likes of Lexus to branch out from super-silent, super-soft luxury stuff into the realms of hardcore performance. Ready for the snorting IS F to start trampling all over the world's favourite German turf. Question is, can it?

The current compact kings of performance are the M3 and the C63 AMG, at least while Audi pauses a moment between the outgoing RS4 and the next. That gap has been filled neatly by the IS F because, make no mistake, this is far more than a warmed-over IS250. Four years in the making, fitted with a brawny 5.0-litre V8, big Brembo brakes and a version of the LS460's eight-speed auto, the IS F comes across as pure, rear-drive muscle-car exhilaration. Significantly, it's also the first car of this ilk to come out of Japan.

The similarities between the three are also significant. V8 power and rear-drive are givens, as are their four-door bodies - yes, you've probably heard the M3 has landed in Oz with a sedan - and their kerb weights fall within a 105kg envelope. Automatic transmissions deliver the goods (with conventional torque converters in the Mercedes and Lexus, and BMW's dual-clutch seven-speeder in the M3) and while all manufacturers have gone to town on suspensions, wheels, tyres and electronic driver aids, aero add-ons and visual bling elements are a little more restrained.

So we headed to Victoria's north east to pit two established players against a Japanese interloper. The area offers plenty away from the dullness of the Hume Freeway: there's Winton Motor Raceway, for example, where we stopped to give Leanne Tander a chance to don helmet and cut some laps. Benalla Airport's main runway was the venue for straight-line acceleration runs, and the region has a fabulous mixture of long, empty back roads between wheat fields stunted by the summer sun and Alpine passes twisting sinuously towards cooler altitudes. Any attributes, good or bad, displayed by any of these cars had nowhere to hide in these environments.

Before turning a wheel though, it's worth perusing the price lists. If Mercedes-Benz caused something of a pleasant surprise last year by introducing the 6.2-litre C63 at $139,500 (neatly undercutting the M3 Coupe by $17,500 along the way), then Lexus has gone a step further. It has landed the IS F at $129K, with none of the typical German shenanigans of expensive options. Apart from the delete-option sunroof, what you see is what you get. The C63's price has since risen to $144,365, and with the introduction of the four-door version, the M3 has dropped to $145,000, although you'll need to add $7300 for the dual-clutch 'box. Auto comes as standard (there's no manual option) in the Lexus and Benz. Interestingly, items standard on the M3 Coupe such as electronic damper control (EDC) and M Drive cost extra on the sedan at $4000 and $3500 respectively.

Despite the similarities of V8 powerplants, there's a wide disparity in capacity among the three. The M3's 4.0-litre unit may be the smallest, but it's also built to rev and manages 309kW at a heady 8300rpm - as good a reason as any why it was never going to get a conventional auto. The Lexus, with an extra litre of engine capacity from its LS460-derived (and Yamaha re-engineered) 5.0-litre V8, only just pips the Bimmer in the power stakes, with 311kW on tap, but it peaks 1700rpm lower down and, with 505Nm versus 400Nm, trounces it for torque. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, it's the 6.2-litre AMG mill that's the grunter, churning out 336kW in its C-Class application, and a 600Nm torque peak that's a full 50 percent up on the M3.

And yes, the C63 is quickest in straight-line acceleration, but there's not much between it and the M3. The big-hearted little Merc pounded across the 400 metre line in 13.24 seconds, barely a couple of tenths ahead of the BMW. It was a similar story to 100km/h (5.17sec versus 5.27), but what the numbers don't show is the ease with which the driver can extract the C63's full potential. Simply switch off the ESP, hold the brake pedal and give enough revs to brake traction, then hang on while the bellowing V8 hurtles you into the sunset with the crisp seven-speed auto shifting up perfectly on demand.

Try that in the M3 and you get nothing but snaking wheelspin; in ordinary circumstances, it's impossible to control when the automatic clutch will engage. Accessing the launch control program helps, but it's not an easy task. Using the redesigned, but still painfully counter-intuitive iDrive controller, the driver needs to select the S6 mode of gearbox control, and ensure ESP is off. Then you crank the gear-speed and hold the gearshift forward (neither of these steps are properly explained in the owner's manual), step on the gas and a full-noise launch happens automatically. If you're lucky, and the program doesn't become inaccessible to protect the gearbox and diff from abuse, it may give you a second go. In the meantime, any well-pedalled V8 Commodore will have left the M3 driver in its tyre smoke.

As in the C63, acceleration in the IS F is virtually a stomp and romp event, thanks mostly to that velvety eight-speed auto. And although the soundtrack is a little more subdued than the Merc's and lacks the M3's crisp metallic buzz, it still growls like a bear with an empty porridge bowl. Only problem is, it's a bit behind the play on outright performance. None of the three matched their manufacturer's claims, but the IS F's 0-100km/h time of 5.74 and standing 400 metres in 13.85 was furthest away.

Not that the Lexus ever feels slow on the road. It has big-hearted performance that matches its pumped bonnet and wheelarches, and while not short on bottom-end grunt, things really start to happen past about 4000rpm. There's a 'sport' button hidden annoyingly to the left of the steering column that increases throttle response, steering speed and stiffens the dampers, while accessing manual shifting for the transmission is as easy as tapping on the paddles, or moving the lever across to the right.

If muscle-car attitude equates to a lumpy ride, then the IS F delivers; a bit too much, in fact, because even with the suspension set to the more comfortable level, the rebound damping in the rear end pulls the body down hard over bigger bumps. It's not uncomfortable or jiggly over smaller stuff (indicating the lower-profile tyres aren't to blame) so in most circumstances the ride is certainly bearable. It's just that compared with the M3 with its amazingly supple ride, given the sharpness and precision of its handling and body control, anything else starts to look ham-fisted. The C63 is somewhere between the two and, with no driver-select suspension modes, manages to be firm although not uncomfortable. But you start to wonder whether BMW's damping experts practise witchcraft rather than normal engineering.

This impression is confirmed on the racetrack where the M3 easily overcame its power and torque inferiority to post quicker lap times than its more hairy-chested rivals. But it also continues to be a precision tool on the road. If the sedan has lost any torsional rigidity compared with the 20kg-lighter M3 coupe, you'll never pick it. The combination of rapid-action steering, a tremendously grippy rear end, sensibly linear torque delivery and perfectly controlled body movement make it a joy to drive. The dual-clutch manual gearbox reacts quickly to manual shifts, or smoothly and intuitively if left in drive. If anything, the manual variant's combination of sheer speed and refinement has only been enhanced by this very clever gearbox.

That's not to say a good auto is left in the M3's wake, as evidenced by the C63. The torque delivery of that monster V8 is dominating, and is the almost overwhelming aspect of the driving experience, but the seven-speed is never caught out. If you need to find a lower gear manually, it reacts relatively quickly; left to its own devices, it'll do a better-than-average job. Throttle inputs need to be judicious if the ESP is switched off, but apart from progressive rear-end slip under power, there are no surprises here. The C63 reacts with all the big-engined brutality it can muster, although tempered by particularly pleasant steering and just a smidge of the understeer displayed on the circuit.

The essence of the IS F is a little more difficult to bottle. Raw noise and performance are certainly there, and the sweet action of the eight-speed auto adds refinement that might otherwise be suspect given the meaty ride. It's less keen on manual downshifts, giving an audible beep if revs are two high, and a noticeable pause if they're not. The Lexus ESP can be switched off completely, or give another blast of the beeper when thresholds are reached, but the truth is that, on the road at least, those limits are pretty high. Eager turn-in is matched by ample traction on exit, power builds gratifyingly with revs and on the whole it's an undemanding, easy natured car to drive quickly.

In fact, one of the IS F's most admirable attributes is that while it packs plenty of punch, it still has loads of Lexus-like refinement and usability. The main driver interface is via a touch-screen that is simplicity itself to operate, and certainly preferable to BMW's hidden levels of menus, or Mercedes' slightly less complex COMAND system. Noise levels are lower than in the other two - even the V8 induction noise under full throttle seems distant.

The IS F even manages comparatively good fuel consumption (given the amount of track-work executed), averaging 15.5 litres/100km for the test, versus 17.2 for the M3, or 20.1L/100km in the C63.

And because these are sedans we assume somebody will use the back seat. It's a toss-up between the Mercedes and BMW for outright space and comfort, because either is only adequate in the rear. The IS F shares the IS250's lack of headroom and knee space, and in the front its wide seats and centre console mean it's cramped as well. Everything is pretty well presented, with a preponderance of weird, high-gloss, silvery carbonfibre trim. The M3 goes for more metallic silver inside (and the usual 3 Series problems with storage space for oddments) while the C63 has useful stowing space for phones and the like, and on our test car at least, sombre colours for the timber and leather.

Engines L-R: Benz C63 AMG; BMW M3; Lexus IS F
The good news is that there are now three compact powerhouse sedans, any of which offer bounteous levels of satisfaction, whether that be from the noise they make, sheer speeds achievable or just the joy of being behind the wheel. But we're here to rank them, and so the Lexus must still come third. Japan's first attempt at a V8 muscle car could have come off half-baked, but the IS F is a decent effort in terms of speed, excitement and value, all combined with the kind of drivetrain and NVH refinement long-term customers of the brand will surely expect. The important exceptions are ride quality, where it can't match the amazing M3 in particular, the IS F's inherent back-seat problems and the fact that the auto transmission could be a bit sharper.

The M3, even in sedan form, remains the consummate track racer for the road. But even that description sells the BMW short because it is now far easier to live with thanks to a sensible automatic mode from the dual-clutch gearbox that doesn't blunt the engine's eagerness, and the extraordinary ride quality. And yet, the layers of complication added by aspects like the launch control, choosing between different blends of chassis, transmission and ESP sharpness and the complexities of iDrive can be infuriating.

Plus it's still the most expensive choice by a fair margin.

The C63, on the other hand, asks little of its driver but delivers plenty. It has sledgehammer performance and sounds vicious when pushed hard, yet has just enough delicacy in the chassis to make any drive rewarding. All this comes from an automatic sedan that anyone can drive quietly if they want, even if the temptation is always there to shove the throttle hard and unleash the demons of hell. Compared with the M3 or even the IS F, the C63 seems uncomplicated and even brutal, but sometimes the simple things in life are best.

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!