A few years ago, Lexus decided to shake its conservative (read:boring) image and set about ladling gratuitous amounts of "sportiness" onto its fleet of sedans. This manifested itself, visually, in massive gaping spindle grilles, LED-bedazzled headlamps, and hyperaggressive bodywork. Lexus' stodgiest models, the LS and ES, seemed to benefit most from the youthful injection; its large sport sedan, the GS, also emerged better than ever.
However, the Lexus IS was already a perfectly good sport sedan. The first- and second-generation models were reasonably sporty, quick both in a straight line and round a bend. It was a car that skewed younger than the rest of the automaker's demographic, loaded with practicality and surprisingly affordable when compared with the benchmark of BMW. The previous IS models were also handsomely (if not a bit conservatively) styled.
What happens when Lexus applies its youth serum to a vehicle that is already youthful? Well, you end up with the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport's front end, a styling mess that looks like it was penned by three different designers who'd never bothered to compare notes. The smallish LED projector headlamps compete with the L-shaped LED daytime running lights, which poke awkwardly at Lexus' signature spindle grille. Styling is subjective, but I don't think that I'm too far off base in saying that this third-generation IS is the ugliest car in its class.
Fortunately, you can't see the face from the driver's seat and everything beneath the sheet metal that I praised about the previous IS sedans is still present and accounted for in the third-generation model. I may not be a fan of the styling, but I loved driving the thing.
From the moment that I slipped into the well-bolstered sport seats, I knew that our example was sportier than the average 2014 IS. This example was equipped with the optional $3,180 F-Sport Package, which adds the aforementioned grippy (and heated) sport seats, LED front headlamps, 18-inch F-Sport wheels shod with all-season 224/40R18 tires, and more. (What? No summer tires?!)
Push the Start button and the IS 350's 3.5-liter V-6 engine fires to life with a subdued grunt, ready to deliver its 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque to either the front or all four wheels. Our example, an AWD model, still features some of the RWD model's rear-biased power delivery, sliding between a 50:50 and 30:70 front-to-rear torque split depending on the traction needs. The extra front-end grip could be just the thing that some drivers need for inclement weather and provided reasonably neutral, slightly understeer-y handling in the dry, but fans of sweet powerslides and sporty tail-wagging will definitely want to take a test drive in the RWD version first, which comes standard with stickier summer performance tires with wider 255/35R18 staggered rear rubber.
Between the wheels and the engine of our IS 350 AWD lives a six-speed automatic transmission. RWD IS 350 models are equipped with an eight-speed automatic, which is yet another reason to forgo the AWD system. Here's where I would normally lament the lack of a manual shift option, but that's never really been in the cards for a US-market IS of any generation, so I won't complain. Fortunately, the IS' autobox isn't a bad one, featuring manual shift and sport programs as well as paddle shifters that are very responsive to requests for gear changes.
Near the shift lever you'll find a control knob for the IS 350's Drive Mode selector, which allows the driver to switch to an Eco program with a counterclockwise twist or a Sport program by twisting clockwise. These two programs adjust the sedan's throttle response and engine performance for more fuel-efficient or more spirited driving, respectively. Pushing the knob like a button resets the drive mode back to normal.
IS 350 F-Sport models, like our example, also gain an Adaptive Variable Suspension that firms up for the Sport mode and an additional Sport S+ program that can be activated with a second clockwise twist of the Drive Selector that is even more aggressive. Rear-wheel-driven IS 350 F-Sport models also have the option to add Variable Gear Ratio Steering, which adjusts the amount of steering effort depending on the vehicle's speed, which is yet another reason to think about the RWD...you probably get the picture by now.
Cabin and tech
From behind the wheel, I found myself enjoying the IS 350 F-Sport's cabin. There are a few styling oddities here and there, such as the awkward shelflike protrusion that's created by the vents beneath the center display, but the aesthetic is largely understated despite drawing heavy inspiration from the LFA supercar, starting with the instrument cluster.
Where non-F-Sport models feature a simple dual analog gauge setup, the F-Sport features a single large digital tachometer. Surrounding the digital gauge is a physical bezel that adds a nice extra dimension to what would otherwise be a flat design, and flanking the gauge are digital readouts for coolant temperature and fuel levels. When in Normal or Eco drive modes, the tachometer has a black background, but shifting to Sport mode changes the background to white. You can also customize the tachometer needle's color, set the background to glow red at a certain engine rpm like a sort of shift light, and other things.
That would be cool by itself, but there's more. Tap a button on the steering wheel and the entire tachometer (physical bezel and all) slides a few inches to the right, revealing more screen space on the left side for displaying navigation directions, trip computer and fuel economy information, current audio source information, and other information.
The instrument cluster is powered by a TFT LCD that is surprisingly resistant to glare and remains acceptably visible and clear even in direct sunlight. As LCD instrument clusters go, this is one of the best that I've ever seen.
The instrument cluster isn't the only LCD in the IS 350's cabin; it's also got a color display in the center of the dashboard, where the primary interactions with the infotainment system take place. This system is largely identical to a system that we were able to test in the, , and models, but with a smaller 7-inch display that doesn't feature the split-screen configuration of the larger vehicles. The display is recessed deeply into the dashboard, which shelters it from the worst glare from the sun and puts it outside the reach of those who would think that it is a touch screen.
Rather than touch sensitivity, the IS' infotainment system is commanded with a center-console-mounted Remote Touch Controller. This weird little joystick fits perfectly at the driver's fingertips where it can used move a cursor around the display above. The Remote Touch uses absolute positioning -- which means that the upper corner of the stick's movement corresponds with the upper corner of the screen -- and features haptic force feedback. When the onscreen cursor moves over a virtual button, the Remote Touch's joystick snaps to the position where it can be pressed like a button to make selections.
I've used this system in about a dozen Lexus vehicles during my time at CNET and every time, I've been annoyed by it. It's not because of the learning curve; the controller is easy enough to use and the control scheme is extremely simple to pick up and, thankfully, Lexus' shallow menu system is simple enough to navigate.
The thing that always bothers me is the force feedback. For certain tasks, such as flinging the cursor into a corner to change the map mode or bumping between a few large virtual buttons for audio sources, this controller really shines. For fiddly tasks, such as entering an address with the onscreen keyboard or trying to pick one of the dozens of virtual buttons on the hopelessly cluttered Radio screen, the controller had a bad habit of snapping to the wrong virtual button and then blowing past the right one when I nudged the stick to correct.
Fortunately, the IS' smaller screen forces Lexus to adopt a simpler, more compact home menu than the ultrawide setup on other vehicles, and the lack of split screen to throw off the Remote Touch Controller's absolute positioning is a godsend.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Price as tested||$49,600|