Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Lexus IS350 F Sport RWD

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

In a paradigm shift within the industry, Lexus is changing their focus toward more sporting cars. Meanwhile, longtime stalwart of sporting virtues, BMW, is softening the majority of its lineup. The current BMW 3 Series, the F30, hasn't gone all Buick Century on us, yet the steering is indirect and distant. It will still handle a hairpin onramp without much protest, but there are whispers of softness in the suspension and the biting accuracy of older bimmers is missing. The standard run-flat tires don't help, but they don't tell the whole story, either.
All photos by Ben Aghajanian

Lexus' ads show they are marketing an edgier image, in addition to edgier products.

The IS, their 3 Series fighter, was redesigned last year. The F Sport line is their answer to BMW's M Sport (previously designated as just Sport, or with an 's' in the model name, i.e., 328is.) An eye-catching car, the IS features a gaping, hourglass-shaped spindle grille, while is now filtering through Lexus' lineup. Slashing cutlines flank the rear doors, quarter panels, and split the DRLs from the headlights. The taillights wrap around the back side of the car and terminate near the rear tires. The dark gray Lexus generated more questions from friends and passersby than anything I've driven in a long time.

When you step into the IS, you’ll find that even the interior is very different from competitors. The car features a dual-bulkhead cockpit, and you sit low and pretty far back from the base of the windshield, but not too far from the dash itself. The dashboard is an odd mix of shapes and controls, but well assembled with quality components. I recall reading or hearing someone compare the center stack to a 1990s Nakamichi tape deck at one point—I share their sentiment.

The IS350 is powered by Toyota's corporate V6, a 3.5L DOHC unit boasting 306hp and 277lb-ft of torque. From a cold start, the V6 sounds coarse—almost truck-like. Blame direct injection, perhaps. I was almost underwhelmed at first, not by a lack of power, but by the noise. The exhaust note during low-speed acceleration was uninspiring. It sounded like a Tacoma, not a sport sedan.

Once the engine warms up however, things change. The coarseness fades away. Give the IS some throttle, and as the revs build past 3,500 or 4,000 rpm, the V6 snarls and continues to pull, hard, past 6,000 rpm.

Even on the all-season rubber, the IS handled cornering with surprising accuracy, and minimal body roll. It felt more dialed-in than the late-model 3 Series that I've driven. It was rarely upset by bumps and road imperfections. In fact, the ride-handling balance may have been as impressive as the handling evaluated on its own. Despite the sharp cornering skills, the IS glides over bumps with much less harshness than expected. Steering is not ultra-communicative, but weighting is good, some road feel filters through, and I prefer it to BMW's EPS.

So the IS drives well. Really well. Better than a 3 Series. Yes, really. If that's all you care about, stop reading!

What's Inside
The IS has some very unusual interior features. First, the infotainment system differs from any other car I've driven. Lexus decided to use a haptic-touch, electronic “mouse” located to the right of the gearshift, for the primary multimedia controls. The radio/nav screen, set high up in the dash, is controlled with this mouse rather than by touch. The driver uses the mouse to make selections on the screen, with “stopping points,” accompanied by an audible chime, that change as the on-screen menus change. For example, if you have 6 preset radio stations along the left side of the screen, the mouse will have 6 “stopping points” vertically as it moves in its track. I'm guessing the philosophy was that it's less distracting to use while driving (a good thing) as opposed to looking at the screen, but I still found it odd and a little too different and challenging to use. In terms of sound quality, the Dolby 5.1 surround sound, 15-speaker Mark Levinson unit boasts 835 watts. It's certainly good, but I guess I was expecting more crispness from instrumentals like guitar and saxophone.

The rest of the interior is nicely finished. The heated and cooled front seats hold you in place while cornering, and are relatively comfortable and supportive. I was even able to sit in the backseat, impossible for 6+ footers in many small sport sedans—no doubt helped by the soft seatback surface. No hard plastic here. Taller drivers may wish for a bit more lower-back support, but overall the seats are good. (The best Toyota or Lexus seats I've experienced are in the 4Runner we tested last year. Several-hour drives caused minimal fatigue.)

The three-spoke leather steering wheel is thick and grippy, with power tilt and telescoping functions, and paddle shifters. The gauge cluster gives a nod to the Lexus LFA supercar, featuring a center-mounted, analog-style tachometer with inset digital speedometer that slides left or right to display vehicle information and media menus. I liked this approach more than the infotainment-mouse solution.

The center console is well-padded on the driver’s side and has cup holder cutouts at armrest level on the passenger side. This means the passenger either slides their seat further back or lays their arm in some drinks. Interior space can be limited in compact sport sedans, so it works, but it's not the best solution. There are water bottle cutouts, though, on the front doors, which are also nicely trimmed.

I had trouble falling in love with the Aisin-designed 8-speed automatic. (I guess it's hard to fall in love with most automatics, but I digress). Shifts were prompt, but it almost seemed like there was too much going on. To be fair, I've noticed this about other many-ratio transmissions, too. This could be a matter of personal preference, but when I get paddle shifters, I like them to function regardless of mode—manual, automatic, sport, etc. When the shift gate is in manual, though, they work quite well. In automatic, the paddles seem more like suggestions than commands. In the Hyundai Genesis I drove recently, they were functional in all drive modes.

Speaking of drive modes, you get four of them in the Lexus. There are tangible differences between Eco, Normal, and Sport, controlled by a dial between the shifter and console. Steering effort and transmission shift points are raised and lowered accordingly. I didn't use Sport+, as Sport was quite sharp and more than sufficient for street driving. Most of my transmission gripes go away when the car is in Sport mode. Additionally, the IS offers a Snow mode, which dials throttle response back, a boon to winter driveability in a rear-wheel-drive car.

The IS rang in at $48,725 as tested ($40,065 before options), with the F Sport package and Mark Levinson surround sound/nav package. This is below some competitors such as the aforementioned BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. A comparably equipped Cadillac ATS V6 (rwd) starts at $48,610. Features like the moonroof, and bright, crisp HID headlights are standard on the Lexus. Overall, a solid and complete-feeling package, perhaps more truly sporting than earlier Lexus offerings, and competitively priced. I look forward to driving the GS350 F Sport, on a hunch that it may be even better.

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.