The best-selling Lexus ES sedan and RX crossover SUV are about as exciting as a bowl of dry Cheerios, but the brand is not completely boring. Some of its other models, such as the LX off-roader and RC sport coupe, are fully capable of raising a driver’s pulse when driven as intended. And, the ultra-limited production LFA coupe, crafted in carbon fiber solely to showcase exactly what Lexus can accomplish, was a world-class supercar.
In addition to dropping jaws, the exotic LFA also served as a preview of a new Lexus design direction, a fresh styling philosophy that looks best on the Lexus IS sport sedan – that’s right, I just said “Lexus IS” and “sport sedan” in the same sentence. Here’s the qualifier, though. You can only describe the IS 350 as a sport sedan, as the IS 250 (the popular lease special) is equipped with a regrettably underpowered 2.5-liter V6 engine mustering a meager 204 horsepower.
If nothing else, the 2015 Lexus IS 350 makes an unforgettable visual statement the moment you lay eyes on it.
Lexus is in a state of transition. It has some older models in the lineup, like the RX, and it has some newer models on dealer lots, such as the IS. Designed from the contact patches up to wear the latest in Lexus fashion, the IS sedan looks dramatic and balanced in appearance, unmistakable for anything else on the road. By contrast, slapping the automaker’s new signature spindle grille onto the aged Lexus RX makes that SUV look like a bratty little kid holding his breath to get his way.
Love or hate this look, it is crystal clear that future Lexus models will ooze character and personality. The best thing about the styling is that you’ll never mistake a Lexus IS for a comparatively commonplace Audi, BMW, or Mercedes. My IS 350 F Sport test car takes the already distinctive design treatment to the next level, its exaggerated front styling adding visual menace commensurate with the hardware changes that make the car even more fun to drive.
Personally, I prefer the more conservative appearance of the standard IS 350 equipped with the five-spoke 18-inch wheels and summer performance tires. Plus, because of the extra grip afforded by that rubber, this less outlandish version of the IS is almost as much fun to drive as the F Sport variant.
Lexus also deviates from current design convention when it comes to the IS model’s sporty and purposeful cabin. There are buttons, and knobs, and real gauges with actual needles. Boldly architectural in style, the dashboard puts a secondary emphasis on the infotainment system’s screen. You can’t touch it. There’s no haptic feedback this or swipe-and-scroll that. Lexus appears to understand that an iPad belongs on your nightstand, not as the centerpiece of a control panel.
Better yet, interaction with the screen is executed using a Remote Touch Interface (RTI) controller that works just like a computer mouse. You’ve used one of those before, right? That means you’re already a pro at knowing how to navigate through the system’s various screens and functions.
Add the F Sport Package to a Lexus IS, and you’ll get sport-bolstered front seats and special “performance” trim on the dashboard and door panels. The seats are wrapped in NuLuxe, the name Lexus gives its synthetic leather upholstery. I have no problem with this approach: NuLuxe does a great job of imitating leather, and the seats are ventilated in order to wick sweat away on a hot day.
Front comfort levels are high, and the driving position is perfection. Getting in and out isn’t necessarily easy, though, and the more fit and limber you are the more agreeable this aspect of the car will be. Snug is the word best describing the rear seat, despite the fact that the softly padded front seatbacks are dished to maximize knee- and leg room. On a positive note, though, rear occupants sit up high with impressive levels of thigh support and a good view out.
Cargo space measures 13.8 cubic-feet, which is on par with other entry-level luxury sport sedans. To maximize interior storage space, Lexus stores the car’s thick owner’s manual here, and you’ll want to make sure it is secure before tossing the IS 350 down a twisty road. If you’ve got little kids, note that a compact folding stroller fits lengthwise in the trunk, conserving remaining space.
By now you already know that I like the approach Lexus takes with this car’s technology interface. Primary audio and climate functions employ familiar knobs and buttons aside from the touch-sensing temperature sliders, while navigation and secondary functions are accessed through the infotainment system. Better yet, those secondary functions require no more than a glance at the high-mounted screen to execute, a safety benefit in that it limits driver distraction.
Having experienced the latest version of the automaker’s infotainment technology in the new Lexus NX crossover, I beg and plead for the company to cancel the rollout of its next-generation RTI setup, which uses an incredibly distracting and aggravating touchpad instead of the IS model’s intuitive mouse-style arrangement.
Standard equipment includes SmartAccess passive entry for the doors, real-time traffic and weather data, and HD Radio. Apple iPhone users will enjoy iTunes song-tagging capability and Siri Eyes Free voice control when an iPhone is paired with the standard Bluetooth connection. For the first year, Lexus also supplies its Enform Remote mobile app, which allows owners to access vehicle information via smartphone, as well as Safety Connect service that includes an automatic collision notification system designed to alert authorities following a crash in which the airbags have deployed.
Options include a navigation system with advanced natural voice recognition, an enhanced Bluetooth connection, and Enform App Suite technology. A Mark Levinson surround-sound audio system is also available, equipping the car with 15 speakers and 835 watts of power.
Extra-cost safety features include a reversing camera, a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, a lane departure warning system, and automatic high-beam headlights. A Pre-Collision System (PCS) is also available, paired with an adaptive cruise control system. With this option, and when a threat of a collision exists, the PCS applies full braking as soon as the driver hits the pedal, and, if the driver fails to respond to a threat, the PCS can automatically activate the brakes in the moments prior to impact in order to reduce velocity as much as is possible before a crash.
Feeling more robust than its official horsepower and torque numbers might indicate, the IS 350’s 3.5-liter V6 engine generates 306 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 277 pound-feet of torque at 4800 rpm. Rated by the EPA to return 22 mpg in combined driving, my IS 350 F Sport test car delivered an average of just 19.6 mpg, reflective of just how much fun I had while driving it.
A performance-tuned, eight-speed automatic transmission channels motive force to the IS 350’s rear wheels, and if a driver employs the standard paddle shifters, Lexus claims the car will accelerate to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds on the way to a top speed of 143 mph. Let the transmission makes its own decisions about shifting, and it will take G-forces into account, holding a lower gear throughout a corner for lively acceleration onto the next straightaway.
Get the F Sport version of the IS 350, and the car receives an adaptive variable suspension that automatically adjusts to vehicle speed, road surface conditions, the chosen Drive Mode Select setting, and your driving style. Using a control knob on the car’s center console, the driver calibrates the car’s mechanicals to the Drive Model Select system’s Eco, Normal, Sport, or Sport+ settings.
As an option, the IS 350 F Sport can be upgraded with variable gear-ratio steering that makes it easier to maneuver the car at low speeds and helps the IS 350 feel more secure and stable at high speeds. All-wheel drive is also available, putting between 50 percent and 70 percent of the engine’s output to the rear wheels, depending on driving conditions.
The VDIM system is present to help preserve your life when you decide to drive too fast for conditions, or on a road you don’t know very well. If you strongly believe in exercising a performance car only on familiar roads, only when traffic levels are light, and only when weather and pavement conditions are safe, then the VDIM system is like having a cold glass of water tossed into your face by a hot date.
While flogging the IS 350 F Sport down Malibu, California’s Latigo Canyon Road in Sport+ mode, the VDIM system interjected too often and too severely, making the car as enjoyable as an annual physical exam. After consulting the owner’s manual and making appropriate adjustments, I successfully transformed the IS 350 F Sport into a legitimate automotive athlete, one possessing unexpected levels of poise, balance, and grip. The result was deliciously thrilling – in part because the electronic safety net was now full of holes.
Drive the IS 350 F Sport hard, and the brakes prove indefatigable. Around town, though, they are sticky, grabby, and it is hard to bring the car to a smooth, clean stop. The steering is excellent, but when threading S-curves I discovered that my right elbow kept banging into the center console lid, which became a regular source of distraction and irritation.
Aside from the car’s robust V6 engine, suspension tuning is where Lexus utterly nails the IS 350 F Sport’s driving dynamics. The blend of handling and ride quality is best described as sublime, and the car is remarkably quiet, the greatest aural intrusion a welcome one that communicates road texture.
With greater attention to the details, the IS 350 could easily become the most entertaining car in its class. As it stands, however imperfect, this Lexus is undeniably competitive with what Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz are selling.
Iconoclastic among sport sedans, the Lexus IS appeals to me in part because it is different from what everyone else is driving. As a resident of Southern California, where the freeways are swimming in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes painted black, white, or shades of gray, the IS 350’s relative rarity is refreshing.
The Lexus also make its driver feel smart for choosing the entry-luxury sport sedan that is more likely to prove reliable and hold its value over time. Plus, the IS earns a 5-star crash protection rating from the NHTSA, though the real test is whether or not this Lexus can get a “Good” rating in all crashworthiness assessments conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). To date, the IIHS has not conducted its full battery of tests on the IS.
Beyond factors of exclusivity and practicality, the IS 350 is a genuine smile generator. The problem is that even when the car is placed in the Sport+ driving mode, safety systems step in to spoil the fun too frequently and with too much severity. That means a driver must relinquish a degree of safety in order to access maximum performance, and I’m simply not on board with that compromise.