The cars we loved.
Lexus used to have something of an image problem. Well, not a real problem per se. See it had a solid reputation for building cars with robot like perfection. It like many Japanese (and now Korean) car companies they would target, copy and perfect cloned versions of market leaders. Often these refined copies were soulless and no more fun to drive than a riding mower – abet a very comfortable and well-built ones.
Lexus tried to add fun to its line up with the IS 200 and 300 in 1998. It tried too hard in some respects with ultimately gimmicky results by some accounts. It was as if Toyota was trying to build a four door Celica for tuner boys who found themselves suddenly needing two extra doors. The IS 200/300’s greatest legacy was its clear tail light lenses which spawned imitators for years to come.
While the original IS was never a failure, it was not 3 Series either. Lexus would sit on the sidelines and watch as Americans fell for its target car year after year. Now in its third generation, the IS would find itself looking once again to BMW for inspiration. In 2007 Lexus rolled out its new high performance “F Sport” line of cars. A year later, the IS F would start a relentless pursuit of the M3. While the F line was hard-core, a softer approach in the F Sport line came closer to the popular ideal of a sports sedan. While the 2014 IS 350 F Sport not a match for the M3 its more in line with BMW’s 335. The two cars have similar horsepower ratings around the 300 mark (the Lexus with about 5 more).
Fresh from its experience with the often heard of, but seldom seen LFA supercar, Lexus has filtered new vigor down to its F Sport line. While not as track ready as the all-out V8 powered IS F, the IS 350 F Sport has plenty of performance as the “entry-level” F Sport sedan. Lexus started with its looks inspired by recent LF-LC and LF-Gh concept cars. The front end looks like an Audi that melted in the sun. The big gaping mouth looks menacing, yet is functional. Other design touches like beefy fenders and 18 inch wheels signal that this Lexus is as much about performance as it is comfort.
Unlike the original IS, the 350 F Sport sports a more adult look. The streamlined silhouette is highlighted by the tidy rear diffuser and tail lights that resemble stretched snake eyes as they seem to fall off the rear quarter panels of the car.
While the previous generation IS 350 F Sport used a 3.5-liter V6, the new car uses the same engine with but with a new 8-speed transmission. The auto only with paddle mounted manual shift options helps the IS F Sport reach a EPA highway estimate of 28 mpg.
While never lacking in the interior department, this IS has more than its share of new technology.
Lexus first electrostatic climate control system is one of the technical highlights along with a laundry list of modern car gadgets. A Lane departure and blind spot warning systems round out the nagging safety measures while a touchscreen entertainment potentially makes the safety measures necessary. The stitched leather interior and fancy analogue clock are nice luxury touches, but the F Sport is first and foremost a luxury car wrapped in performance sedan clothes. While the interior is nice, it’s not perfect. The odd placement of cup holders for instance, cuts into passenger arm rest space. On the plus side the longer wheelbase adds more room for rear passengers, a longtime gripe among IS owners.
Despite it’s nearly 3700 pound heft, the rear wheel drive IS 350 F can hold its own against slightly lighter or more powerful cars like the Cadillac ATS and BMW 335. In fact the tuned exhaust and quick upshifts reminds one of BMW’s of just a few years ago when they were more sporting that they are now. With a new stiffer chassis and softer adaptive suspension, the IS 350 F Sport feels softer riding. The improved stiffness means that the IS finally gets that split fold down rear seat that nearly every other car owner has taken for granted.
The increased weight is countered somewhat with more responsive steering in an effort to make the car feel more lively. While the typical F buyer is not likely to push their cars too aggressively, Lexus had refined the IS 350 F Sport to the point of making it fun to drive while being every bit a Lexus. The over excited tail happy nature of previous IS F cars has been tamed to the point of having more usable performance without having to push limits.
It might be too early for BMW to start bench marking the IS 350 F Sport when planning the next 3 Series, but at the rate Lexus is going, it might not be so far-fetched an ideal.