2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD review: Lexus builds a great sport sedan value

The IS is also available with voice command, which hugely simplifies the task of entering an address: simply press the button, say, "Enter address," and then, after a pause, say the whole address in one go, street number, name, city, and state. It can take the IS a few moments to figure out what you said, but it always seemed to get my addresses on the first try. Voice command can also be used to operate other vehicle systems, such as Bluetooth hands-free calling, audio playback, and the climate control system, and can understand certain conversational phrases. For example, saying, "I'm hot," will drop the temperature of the automatic climate control system.

Our IS 350 F-Sport was equipped with the $3,225 Navigation package, which adds navigation with limited (compared with BMW's and Audi's) 3D building data, HD Radio traffic and weather, and other features. Interestingly, the map data for the navigation system is stored on a microSD card hidden low on the vehicle's center stack, which should make updating maps easy.

The navigation package also includes a 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson premium surround-sound audio upgrade which sounded "just OK" when listening to satellite radio, but phenomenal when listening to a proper digital audio source, such as one of the two USB ports for MP3 or iPod connectivity, the Bluetooth audio-streaming connection, or a physical compact disc. Other audio sources include HD Radio tuning and two analog audio inputs.

Navigation
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The IS' infotainment system is simpler than those of its larger sisters, but better for it. Josh Miller/CNET

Users who install the Lexus Enform app on a paired smartphone also gain access to Bing, Yelp, and Facebook Places destination search, iHeartRadio and Pandora audio streaming, and MovieTickets.com and OpenTable reservations. Lexus also includes a year of its Lexus Destination Assist concierge service, which allows users to request destinations via voice with the help of a human operator on their phone.

The navigation package also adds a rear camera to the safety tech mix. When reversing, the system overlays distance markers over the video feed, but sadly they're not dynamical trajectory lines that would move with the steering wheel.

There's not much more to the IS' safety tech offerings. $600 gets you blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and automatic dimming outside mirrors, but there's no adaptive cruise, forward collision warning, or lane keep technology. Not that an attentive sport sedan motorist needs such things.

My general feeling is that Lexus' infotainment tech is improved in the IS thanks to its smaller screen forcing the adoption of a less complex interface. However, it is still needlessly complicated. You'll get used to the Remote Touch Controller, but it'll be an annoying road. I also don't like having to install Lexus' Enform app on my phone to use apps that are already on my phone. Despite my complaints, it's got a lot of really good features, such as the voice command. You're getting better, Lexus, but you're not there yet.

On the road
The looks are iffy, the power train is promising, and the tech is, well, getting there. So how's the driving? Quite good.

I was pleased when the sedan also responded well to my input when the road got bendy. The F-Sport suspension felt up to the task of keeping the wheels glued to the road as the sedan rounded bends, and when it was in in its Sport mode I never really felt like the automatic gearbox got between me and the 277 promised pound-feet of torque.

It should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the IS 350 F-Sport RWD more than the AWD model that we were sent for testing. Here the all-wheel drive system seems more like a performance compromise in the name of increased safety than a proper performance upgrade. The proof is in the omission of certain go-faster bits that RWD drivers have access to, the most important for San Francisco's dry roads being the stickier wider summer tires. But I haven't seen a proper winter in a half-decade, so depending on your climate, this may be a small compromise that's worth making.

Suffice it to say, I was impressed more by the way that the IS 350 F-Sport blended sporty, street-legal performance with high levels of comfort and build quality. "Balanced" is the word that springs to mind as I reflect on the F-Sport and, while that may not be very sexy, it's extremely important when you have to live with a car on a daily basis.

What I like best about the IS 350 F-Sport is that, while it doesn't isolate the driver from engine noise and bumps in the road, it does a great job of toning down the drone of wheel and road noise and the worst jars and knocks of potholes and cracked pavement. It's a sport sedan that's sharp, but without rough boy-racer edges.

With an EPA-estimated 21 mpg combined, 19 mpg city, and 26 mpg highway, it's also reasonably efficient...on paper. However, not even the V-6's combination of direct and port injection and variable valve timing could save the IS from our staff's heavy accelerator feet. CNET's video team, helmed by Brian Cooley, had the first stab at the IS 350 AWD F-Sport and, when the vehicle was handed over to me, had only managed about 16 mpg for the first half of a tank of gas. To be fair, a video shoot is one of the worst conditions for fuel economy testing, basically consisting of lots of idling interspersed with hard driving that looks good for the camera.

Under my command, the IS was able to coax that average back up to a more reasonable 18 mpg returned over my standard mix of highway, commuter, and sporty driving. That's still lower than the EPA's guess, but not unreasonable given the conditions.

Elect to go with the RWD model and the EPA's numbers jump up to 22 combined, 19 city, and 28 highway mpg. Lexus also offers the smaller-displacement 2.5-liter V-6 engine in the IS 250, which nets you 24 combined, 21 city, and 30 highway mpg while returning 204 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. This is the engine that will likely be beneath the hood of most third-gen IS models that you'll see on the road.

Lexus IS F-Sport
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The 2014 IS isn't perfect, but it's still quite good. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum
I came away from my drive in the 2014 IS 350 F-Sport with a positive opinion of the sport sedan. It's not perfect, but it's damn good. We scored the sedan high for the functionality of its cabin tech, but knocked a few points off of the design score because of Remote Touch annoyances -- but not, as you may think, for weird styling, which doesn't factory heavily into our rating system.

My opinion only gets more positive when I look at the price tag. Our IS 350 AWD model starts at $41,700. With the addition of navigation and Mark Levinson audio, blind-spot monitoring, the F-Sport performance package, and an $895 destination charge, the price tag only jumps up to $49,600, which is just shy of the starting price of the BMW 335ix. The Bimmer is a fine sport sedan, but the Lexus is that and a fine value.

But I wouldn't even spend that much. At this point, you've heard me enumerate the efficiency, performance, and just plain cool reasons to go with the rear-wheel-drive version of the IS 350. I'd like to add, similarly equipped, that the 2014 Lexus IS 350 RWD F-Sport is $2,235 cheaper.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Lexus IS sedan
Trim IS 350 AWD F-Sport
Power train 3.5-liter V-6, combo direct and port injection, 6-speed automatic transmission, AWD
EPA fuel economy 19 city, 26 highway, 21 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 18 mpg
Navigation Optional, microSD card-based, HD Radio traffic and weather
Bluetooth phone support Yes, with voice command
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support 2x analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, 2x USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio, Lexus Enform app support
Audio system Optional 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson surround audio
Driver aids Optional Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, rear camera
Base price $41,700
Price as tested $49,600

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