Trying to make yourself stand out in a crowd is a difficult task. Trying to do that in a competitive crowd such as compact luxury car market can be labeled as ‘Mission Impossible’. Why? Because sooner or later, you’ll be compared to the demigod that is the BMW 3-Series. The 3-Series has been a perennial favorite by many automotive writers and buyers because of its fun-to-drive characteristics and the value of the BMW badge. Since the F30 generation, many believe that the 3-Series has softened a bit. This has allowed competitors such as Cadillac, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, and others to try and slip some of those buyers away. Lexus is one of the competitors hoping to give the 3-Series a run for its money by introducing a radical looking third-generation IS. The looks are one thing, but can this Lexus make a stand? I had an IS 350 F-Sport for a week to find out.
The IS makes a good first step in differentiating itself from everyone else. The overall shape looks to be an impressionist’s take on a compact luxury sedan. With sharp lines, the now familiar spindle grille, separation of the headlights and daytime running lights, and other details; the IS makes sure that it's the center of attention. One design element I think needs to be called out is the rear rocker panels coming together at an angle and flowing upward to create the leading edge for the taillights. A nice touch. The F-Sport package only ratchets up the attention of the IS by a factor of ten. Such design touches include new body kit, mesh grille insert, and a set of 18-inch wheels finished in graphite.
Lexus also worked on making the IS’ interior standout from the crowd as well. The interior layout is very reminiscent to the LF-A supercar with an angular center stack and a minimal amount of buttons, to the configurable gauge cluster a sliding bezel which can positioned three ways (left, middle, and right) to provide key information for the driver. Material quality is for the most part top notch with brushed metal accents and soft-surfaced plastics. A set of sport seats help keep you and your passenger locked in while driving somewhat enthusiastically. Personally I found the side bolstering to a bit too much, which meant I couldn’t fully get into the seat.
For your infotainment needs, the IS 350 F-Sport comes with the latest version of Lexus Enform. This new version features a new interface which brings the system into the modern era. You can also divide the screen into two or three parts to show off key information such as navigation, climate, and audio. Moving around the system is done with Lexus’ Remote Touch system. While I like the idea of using a joystick to control the system, the execution is another story. You have to be precise with your movement of the control, especially when you are pressing down to select a function. One slip and you’ll be in another section.
The IS’ powertrains carry over from the last generation model. The base IS 250 features a 2.5L V6, while the IS 350 comes with a 3.5L V6. The larger V6 produces 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic comes standard on the rear-drive IS 350, while the all-wheel variant sticks with a six-speed automatic. The 3.5L V6 is a very stout and smooth performer. Power seemed to be available throughout the rev range and getting the IS 350 moving from a stop was no problem. If you put the IS 350 F-Sport into Sport or Sport+, the V6 becomes Mr. Hyde. The engine provides a deeper growl and provides sharper acceleration. When I put the vehicle into Sport+, I was shocked how the V6 engine changed from a smooth operator to one that had the same characteristics of a turbocharged one. The eight-speed automatic has to be one of the best I have experienced as it provided quick and smooth shifts, no matter whether I was driving normally or like a maniac.
Fuel economy for the IS 350 F-Sport is rated at 19 City/28 Highway/22 Combined. My week saw an average of 21.8 MPG.
Being an F-Sport model, the IS gets a number of tweaks to the suspension and steering. Such tweaks include an adaptive variable suspension, variable gear ratio steering, system a set of summer performance tires, and new brake pads. When the IS 350 F-Sport is in normal mode, its pretty much like your standard Lexus vehicle. The suspension does a mostly good job of isolating bumps and imperfections. There will be a few bumps that make their way into the vehicle due to the stiffer setup the F-Sport is equipped with. Switch the vehicle into Sport+ and the suspension stiffens up and makes the IS 350 a race car. Toss the IS 350 F-Sport into a curve and the model hunkers down with nary a hint of body roll and the tires keeping the vehicle glued to the road. The steering is nicely weighted and provides excellent feel.
Lexus has a very credible competitor in compact luxury class with the IS. If you can spare your eyes from the looks, the IS 350 features a wonderful V6 and a impressive interior layout. The cherry on top is the F-Sport package which makes IS 350 a compelling driver’s car.
Sure the IS may not have the brand equity that some of its competitors may have. But Lexus has shown that you don’t have to go the Germans to get a fun sedan.
Disclaimer: Lexus Provided the IS 350, Insurance, and One Tank of Gas
Trim: 350 RWD
Engine: 3.5L 24-Valve DOHC VVT-i V6
Driveline: Eight-Speed Automatic, Rear Wheel Drive
Horsepower @ RPM: 306 @ 6,400
Torque @ RPM: 277 @ 4,800
Fuel Economy: City/Highway/Combined - 19/28/22
Curb Weight: 3,593 lbs
Location of Manufacture: Tahara, Aichi, Japan
Base Price: $39,465
As Tested Price: $48,977 (Includes $910.00 Destination Charge)
F-Sport Package - $3,620
Navigation System/Mark Levinson Premium Audio - $3,225
Blind-Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert - $600.00
Paint Protection Plan - $429.00
Variable Gear Ratio Steering - $400.00
Trunk Mat, Cargo New, Wheel Locks, and Rear Bumper Applique - $329.00