I didn't like looking at the 2014 Lexus IS F-Sport, but I loved driving it

/ Updated: May 3, 2013 5:50 PM PDT

2014 Lexus IS F-Sport
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

After debuting at the 2013 Detroit auto show, the third generation of the Lexus IS sport sedan is mere weeks away from showing up at your local Lexus dealer. The new 2014 model is the latest in a series of redesigns as the automaker overhauls its lineup and reinvents itself with a new, sporty image.

The new IS is bigger, more powerful, and -- leading with the automaker's trademark "spindle grille" -- likely to split shoppers into two camps: those who love the aggressive look and those who think it's simply ugly.

I was given an opportunity to sample a few preproduction 2014 Lexus IS models at trim levels ranging from entry-point to fully loaded.

Design
I've already gone into detail with my thoughts on Lexus' application of its L-Finesse design language to the third-generation IS, so I won't bore you with repeating too many of those details. Check out the gallery below for that and plenty of pretty pictures of the IS' exterior and interior.

In a nutshell, the exterior design isn't bad, but the IS' new face seems a bit too visually busy, with lots of elements competing for attention, but not really working well together. From the front wheel wells and back, the rest of the IS' sculpting is actually quite good. I particularly like the rear quarter and the way the wraparound taillights integrate elements of and flow into the profile.

Specs and tech
Behind the Lexus' spindle grille, you'll find one of two engine options, two transmission options, and two drivetrain options.

The IS 250 is the entry point and is equipped with a 2.5-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine. Output is stated at 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. That engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift program accessible via the shift lever or steering-wheel-mounted paddles.

Drive mode selector
All IS models feature three drive modes: Eco, Normal, and Sport. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Fuel economy is estimated at 21 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 24 combined mpg.

The entry-level engine isn't wanting for power -- it's got good pickup for highway-speed passing maneuvers and decent midrange torque for competent city performance, but those wanting performance to match the aggressive looks will probably lean toward the more powerful IS 350.

The bigger engine bumps its V-6 displacement up to 3.5 liters, uses a combination of port injection and direct injection to improve performance across the board, and steps up to an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Output jumps up to 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque and the stated 0-60 time drops from the 250's 7.7 seconds to 5.6 seconds. Fuel economy also drops to 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 22 combined mpg.

The IS 250 and 350 feature standard rear-wheel drive, but can both be had with an optional full-time all-wheel-drive system that shares some of the available torque with the front wheels. However, selecting the all-wheel-drive system causes the IS 350's eight-speed transmission to be replaced with a six-speed unit and blocks some of the F-Sport package's optional performance and handling upgrades, so it would seem that Lexus considers the rear-drive variant the true performance model.

F-Sport package
F-Sport is Lexus' performance brand and the IS should be the sportiest of all Lexuses (or is it Lexi or Lexera? Apparently, even Lexus doesn't know how to pluralize its name.) So it's important that Lexus get the IS F-Sport right.

Available on the IS 250 and 350 in both RWD and AWD configurations, the F-Sport package focuses primarily on handling, aerodynamic, and styling upgrades. Starting from the ground and working up, the package adds 18-inch wheels shod in either summer or all-season tires. The brakes are fitted with upgraded, high-friction pads. The body features even more aggressive styling and the HID headlamps are upgraded to LED units.

F-Sport front end
The F-Sport package adds suspension and handling upgrades and more aggressive styling. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Step on the go pedal and you'll notice that the F-Sport's engine sound is more pronounced thanks to an intake resonator that pipes induction sound into the cabin at certain engine speeds.

Not all F-Sport packages are created equally, though. For IS 350 F-Sport models, the suspension is not just firmer and lower, but is upgraded with adaptive dampening tech that allows it to be firm when cornering, but supple when soaking up bumps. The drive mode selector also gains a Sport+ setting that firms up the adaptive suspension and power steering and adjusts the transmission shift points.

IS 350 F-Sport models with the rear-drive power train also have the option of adding Variable Gear Ratio Steering, which adapts the responsiveness of the electronic power steering depending on vehicle speeds. All-wheel-drive models don't get that option.

The IS 350 F-Sport that I tested boasted gorgeous and supportive Rioja Red sport seats and a dashboard inspired by the Lexus LFA supercar. The crown jewel of that dashboard is the digital F-Sport Adaptive Meter instrument cluster, which uses a combination of an 8-inch TFT LCD with a physical bezel defining the boundary of a virtual, central tachometer. At the press of a button, the whole thing slides to the right to reveal more screen space for auxiliary infotainment data. Check out the video below to see it in action.

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When asked about the fate of the IS-F, Lexus told me that the current model (based on the second-generation IS chassis) would continue to be sold in its current state for "for at least the [2014] model year."

Performance
Lexus' people tossed me the keyless transponder to a silver IS 350 F-Sport RWD and, after a push of the start button and a few moments fiddling with the Adaptive Meter, I was able to sample the performance.

Over the long, dull highway stretches leading toward the twistier paths, the IS was surprisingly quiet and well-behaved for a performance variant. Unlike, say, the Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S (another RWD performance model with Toyota's fingerprints all over it), the IS doesn't overwhelm its driver with road noise overload and constant buzzy steering-wheel vibrations. But the IS is twice the cost of the Toyobaru, so it had better be more comfortable.

But, I didn't rush toward the F-Sport for comfort, so 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 eight-speed gearbox got between me and the 277 promised pound-feet of torque.

I wasn't able to push the boundaries of the sedan's performance envelope on public roads during my drive time, even while stretching the legal limits on speed, but I'd like to spend more time with the IS 350 F-Sport on a closed course sometime soon.

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.

I was also able to take a spin in a more modestly equipped IS 250 and found that, when compared with the 350, the lack of power was immediately evident. However, what power the 2.5-liter offers is in a very usable part of the power band and the promise of better fuel efficiency might be enough to make many drivers consider the smaller engine. I'll give the nonadaptive suspension credit for offering good seat-of-the-pants feedback and grip. The F-Sport adaptive setup was better, but outright performance hardly seems like the aim of this 250 trim level.

I wasn't able to test an IS 250 F-Sport's upgraded, fixed suspension, and can't help but wonder where on the comfort-performance spectrum it sits between the base and adaptive configurations.

Safety and infotainment tech
Inside, every IS features a dashboard that feels well put together even at the entry level, but also has a very premium feel when equipped with optional upgrades. The general configuration of the center console, the design of the dashboard vents, and the styling of the steering wheel all remind me, again, of the LFA supercar. However, standard IS models not equipped with the F-Sport package feature conventional gauges with good old-fashioned needles.

The IS features two levels of dashboard tech, both of which are based around a standard 7-inch display at the top of the center stack. The display audio system gives basic access to audio sources, including standard Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, AM/FM radio with HD Radio tuning, satellite radio, and USB/iPod connectivity, and is operated with a control knob on the center console.

Step up to the Navigation package and hard-drive-based navigation with turn-by-turn directions gets added to the list of features, bringing with it a rear camera, voice command, traffic and weather information, and the Lexus Enform telematics and app suite that we've seen previously in the LS, ES, and GS sedans.

Remote Touch Interface
I'm not a huge fan of the Remote Touch system, but the haptic feedback is a nice touch. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The preproduction models that I was given access to featured preproduction dashboard interfaces, so I wasn't able to completely "check the tech" to borrow a phrase from CNET's Brian Cooley, but I expect that the operation will be similar to the way it is in the rest of Lexus' lineup. I also wasn't able to sample the optional 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson surround audio system, but the standard eight-speaker rig sounded pretty good to me.

Through various packages and line-item options, the IS can also be equipped with a full array of active driver aid technologies, including blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control and precollision warning systems, lane departure warning, automatic high-beam headlamps, and front and rear proximity sensors to aid with tight parking.

Pricing and availability
I may not have liked looking at the IS' new front end, but I did enjoy sitting in its driver's seat, particularly the supportive seats of the F-Sport model. The view from the sport bucket is of a well-designed dashboard that looks and feels premium. The Adaptive Meter dancing around in front of me and the firm, but not punishing, performance definitely helped to sell premium feel. Like many Lexus models that I've tested, I feel like the IS 350 F-Sport justifies its price tag with things that you can physically touch, which is a very good complement to the intangibles of performance and comfort.

Lexus IS F-Sport
Lexus does a good job of justifying the 2014 IS F-Sport's price with tangible value. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 2014 Lexus IS 250 will start at $35,950 and the IS 350 will carry a $39,465 price tag when the sedans hit dealerships later this year. All-wheel drive and F-Sport packaging will add to the bottom line. A fully optioned IS 350 F-Sport RWD like the one I was able to test will come in just below the $50,000 mark.

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2014 Lexus IS 250

Part Number: CNETLEXUSIS250

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