Some clubs will let anyone join as long as they come to meetings and pay their dues. Then there’s the club that the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport is trying so desperately to be a part of: the Universal Brotherhood of Luxury Sport Sedans. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, this particular social circle demands a pound of flesh before it will considering opening its doors. Just ask Cadillac, which had to wait over a decade for the CTS sedan to give way to the ATS before premium buyers – the true gatekeepers of the UBLSS – grudgingly opened their wallets and wiffle-paddled the nimble buttocks of the domestic brand’s latest fun-to-drive effort.
The Lexus IS is also past its tenth year of anticipating mainstream acceptance from the cognoscenti that determine which sport sedans will be lauded and which will be ignored. The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport has been completely redesigned in a bid to curry favor with its target group of BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 buyers. While it’s an impressive bet from Lexus that hits many of the important targets necessary for UBLSS admission, as a whole it falls just short of reaching the pinnacle of perfection demanded by the segment.
No Longer Anonymous
While the first-generation Lexus IS presented clean lines the automaker’s second variation on the compact luxury sedan theme was far less distinctive, making it easy to ignore from a styling standpoint. The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport certainly goes for the jugular in order to shake the Japanese marque’s reputation as the purveyor of bland sheet metal. Witness its enormous, angular grille, which is filled with mesh for the F Sport model and matched with the car’s 18-inch rims, muscular front bumper, and general malevolent aura. You certainly wouldn’t be able to ignore the IS 350 F Sport if it pulled up at a light beside you – in fact, you might want to cross to the other side of the street to avoid it while taking your morning constitutional.
Bigger, Yes, Better, Maybe
The passenger compartment of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport also gets in on the shoulder-chip act, although in more subtle fashion. A larger interior than was found in 2013 houses leather sport seats up front that are as comfortable as they are grippy, and although those sitting in the rear won’t benefit from the same level of bolstering they will have less to complain about thanks to a 1.6-inch increase on legroom over the departed model. More prominent is the car’s gauge cluster, which consists of a single circular bezel that houses a digital tachometer and speed readout, and which moves mechanically side-to-side in order to access various vehicle menus. The tach also changes color in harmony with the various driving modes selectable by pilots.
All is not right in Lexus land, however, as the interior features a couple of design miss-steps that subtract from the IS 350 F Sport’s overall experience. For whatever reason, both the gauge cluster and the LCD screen at the top of the center stack are framed by flat, black plastic that cheapens the car’s dashboard significantly. I was also nonplussed by the Lexus Remote Touch feature, which makes use of a jumpy mouse mounted on the console to interact with the vehicle’s dated graphical interface. A company with the resources of Lexus needn’t be on the trailing edge of infotainment and navigation logic, but it is, and it shows.
Plenty, But Not Enough, Power
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport doesn’t stray from last year’s top-spec V-6 playbook. This mean’s there’s still a 3.5-liter lump up front producing a respectable 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of twist, but rear-wheel drive versions of the car (such as the one I sampled) are now outfitted with a new eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is optional, and it forces the substitution of a six-speed autobox in place of the more advanced eight-speed unit. There is no manual transmission available with the F Sport, and the paddle-shifted manumatic feature provided by the vehicle isn’t nearly as responsive as is required for truly spirited driving.
‘Respectable’ is a polite way to avoid mentioning the fact that while the IS 350 F Sport’s output might be sufficient for a car in its class, it’s not at the forefront of performance when compared to direct competitors like the BMW 335i, which features conservative on-paper power betrayed by sizzling real-world benchmarking. Even the new 2015 Mercedes-Benz C400 – which, despite its renewed focus on classic luxury over pure driving dynamics, has been grandfathered into the club – is much quicker in a straight line.
Comfortable, But Where’s The Razor’s Edge?
With the F Sport’s drive mode set to ‘Sport+,’ its most focused set of parameters, the Lexus never quite delivers a driving experience that could be legitimately labeled ‘enthusiast-oriented.’ To be sure, the vehicle’s adaptive suspension system is stiffer and more responsive in Sport+ as compared to Normal, and throttle response and shift logic – aided and abetted by the new eight-speed automatic’s g-sensitive programming – are more aggressive than what one would get in the base IS 350. However, when driven in anger there’s never the sensation of being completely connected to the road, with feedback through the steering muted and chassis communication equally dialed-down.
This is not to say that the Lexus is in any way unpleasant to drive. In fact, it approaches the previously-mentioned C-Class when it comes to dynamics, but it can’t match the willing dance partner that is the BMW 3 Series (even in its underpowered 320i guise), nor the call-and-response handling of the Cadillac ATS. The IS 350 F Sport hasn’t yet achieved the level of tuning required to truly take its place amongst the first tier of entry-level sport luxury options.
Still On The Outside Looking In
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport is in a tough spot, as at its near-$44,000 price point there are a number of alluring options that outshine the model in terms of fun, style, and overall execution. Lexus has built a good car that must do battle with several great cars in the hopes of increasing its market share, and that’s an uphill slog for a car that hasn’t been given the tools to make it on performance alone. Perhaps the greatest summation of the F Sport is the fact that – like many other Lexus products – it lacks true personality. Its sheen of competence ensures that no one will be upset behind the wheel, but it also promises that you’ll never get develop any more than a cordial relationship with the car. Ultimately, in a world where passion is a key selling point for luxury sport sedans, that’s a serious hurdle for the IS 350 F Sport to overcome.