– Head-turning new exterior
– Great fun with ESP off
– Fairly comfortable ride
– Above-average cabin noise
– No fun with ESP on
– Some hard cabin plastics
Lexus is on a path of reinvention. It started last year with the capable new GS midsize sedan, although they haven’t delivered any other car that you could get excited about since then. Well, until the all-new IS sedan that is.
Now based on a slightly-shorter version of the GS platform, it shows in the long wheelbase and the short overhangs. The styling is aggressively anti-Lexus, even if it does have that new corporate grille now. There’s more swooshes on it than a Nike factory, and it now looks unique enough to turn lots of heads on the street. Even those weird headlights give it character. Its biggest rival, the BMW 335i, went completely unnoticed even when it was new last year. Frankly, the standard IS looks good enough that you don’t have to spring for the overdone F-Sport version.
Moving inside, the cabin looks great in an art-deco kind of way, with superb leather and soft-touch materials along the dash-top and upper door trimmings. There’s some unfortunate cost-cutting though, with a hard-plastic centre console and lower panels, We’d be fine with this, except that the BMW 3-Series offers much more premium-trimmed surfaces, reminding you that you spent more than any Lexus IS 350 owner did.
Interior space has definitely improved, thanks to the longer wheelbase. The front seats are well-bolstered, although the centre console is a bit tall, reducing elbow room. While offering a little less rear legroom than the BMW, it is still spacious enough in the back for average-sized adults, making it more practical than the cramped Cadillac ATS. The exposed cup-holders are placed in the most awkward of locations on the centre-armrest, which is already cluttered with two knobs to control various gadgets. There’s cup-holders for rear passengers too, and the boot is good-sized for a car in its class, although the goose-neck hinges do take up a lot of space. It even offers split-folding rear seatbacks, something they couldn’t make the GS 350 do.
There’s no compromises on gadgetry though, with a central colour screen controlled via a Lexus-specific “joy-mouse” thingy. The screen isn’t as big as the one in the GS though, but it still integrates everything from navigation to stereo functions. We couldn’t be bothered to use it most of the time, as there were shortcut buttons for basic stereo and a/c functions to save time. The CD/MP3 stereo is excellent, with USB/AUX ports and Bluetooth streaming support. Even the dual-zone a/c with rear vents is great in July weather. Other features include smart keyless start, HID or optional LED headlights, a small sunroof, a full set of airbags, and optional adaptive cruise control.
The engine is taken straight out of the GS 350, a 3.5-litre V6 unit that pumps out 312 hp at 6400 rpm and 375 Nm of torque at 4800 rpm. Mated to a smart-enough 8-speed automatic, the motor’s performance was wholly disappointing, with a nice soundtrack but an obvious lack of torque, netting us a 0-100 kph time of 7.5 seconds in July weather. Another IS 350 we drove, an F Sport version, was equally underwhelming. But then we realised that both these cars had less than 200 km on the clock, and we got a time of 6.5 seconds with a GS 350 last year. The motors probably just need time to break in. Fuel economy was good though, with the trip computer reading 10.9 litres/100 km during our time.
As a luxury sedan, the IS 350 is compromised in some respects. It is silent at 100 kph, but as speeds go beyond 120 kph, the wind and road noise grow exponentially. But what we did like is the ride quality, a bit on the firm side, but pretty compliant, soaking up the harsher road imperfections with ease, while not feeling floaty at all over “wavy” surfaces. The F-Sport version gets adaptive suspension, but it makes the ride only slightly smoother.
Driving the F-Sport with enthusiasm turned out to be a disappointment at the launch event. With this regular IS 350, we had more time to play with, and it was just as unsatisfying. The problem is that, as impressively-flat as the IS 350’s body control is, the stability control kicks in way too early, even in the sportiest modes, so that the car is artificially slowed down on curves long before the tyres start squealing with any zeal. In contrast, BMW’s traction control allows for some mild sideways fun in “sport” mode. Heck, so does its cousin, the Toyota 86. So we went the extra step and simply turned off the electronic nannies.
With ESP off, the car suddenly underwent a remarkable transformation. Throwing the car into sharp corners, instead of understeer we got full-on oversteer. And what a chassis this is, because we were easily able to catch the slide and bring it back in line without spinning out, even when we threw it into some “S” curves, sliding the tail out right and left while being in total control. The brakes don’t have much bite if pressed on lightly, but stop strongly if the pedal is pounded on. The steering is weighted, but offers only mild feedback, although it’s still sharp enough to manage rally-style weight-shifting and have the kind of fun that only a balanced rear-wheel-drive car can offer. We could almost forgive the fact that it comes with a stupid foot-operated parking brake.
So we started out with the notion that the IS 350 is just as dull as a front-biased Audi A4, and ended our drive thinking of this car as a four-door Toyota 86! It’s rather odd that Lexus chose to neuter this car with such a restrictive ESP system that you have to go commando and drive without an electronic safety net if you want to have some fun. In a way, it keeps the hipster buyers safe, while rewarding true enthusiasts who possess a bit of skill. We’d even say to save your money and skip the F-Sport, because it offers very little extra beyond what the regular IS 350 does. All in all, it’s not the most impressive luxury car, but it’s a proper sports sedan underneath.
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