The previous-generation Lexus IS 300 was a compromised but attractive sedan, easily the carmaker’s sportiest offering for the better part of a decade, if we were to overlook the overpriced (and overrated?) LFA. It was going to be a tough act to follow in terms of styling, although it was a given that the replacement also needed to address the issue of interior space. After the rather good GS sedan, every model in the Lexus range got a “spindle” grille and now looks like clones of each other, so their designers had to do something drastic to make the new IS be more than just a GS-lite. So they did.
The weird new styling looks, well, weird in photos, but it actually looks pretty unique in person, at least in some colours. We especially like it in graphite, with matching 18-inch F-Sport wheels. All IS 250 and IS 350 models gets 18-inch wheels except for the base model’s 17-inchers, but the F-Sport gets a different design to go with that F-Sport-specific front bumper.
The F-Sport package can only be had with the IS 350 model, powered by a 312 hp 3.5-litre V6 with direct-injection, rear-wheel-drive and an 8-speed automatic with paddle-shifters. The F-Sport’s interior gets minor trim enhancements, but the IS 350 has a rather interesting interior to begin with. The odd shapes are complemented with upscale leather trim, well-bolstered seats and a clean centre-console topped with Lexus’ trademark multimedia screen controlled by a joystick-mouse thingy. There’s obvious cost-cutting though, such as the hard plastics in all below-the-waist areas as well as the glovebox cover, while the front cup-holders are exposed cut-outs. We’d be fine with it, except that the BMW 3-Series raised the bar by making its higher price felt with much more soft-touch surfaces as well as a cover for the cup-holders.
The space issue of the previous model has been addressed well here. The IS 350 only loses 50 mm in wheelbase to the midsize GS 350 on which it is based, so it offers almost as much legroom. Though not terribly voluminous, it’s finally adequate for most adults. The boot under that gooseneck-hinged lid is sizeable, in contrast to the limited storage spaces between the front seats.
Getting back to the engine, its the same motor that Lexus fanboys here have been clamouring for since 2006. Finally making its GCC debut, it seemingly hasn’t changed much since 2006 either, in an age where everybody else is turbocharged. So we never felt like we were accelerating that hard with the pedal to the metal. Not even a smooth 8-speed automatic can imitate the crazy torque that the BMW 335i’s 3.0-litre turbo-6 can create, even if they match up as equals on the specs sheets.
The IS 350 now has electric power steering, just like in the latest BMWs. And just like in the latest BMWs, it feels a bit artificial in its responses. Still, the fact that it still offers some feedback is commendable, with enough sharpness and heft.
The handling is good, to say the least. There’s no untoward body roll, and the car manages quick directional transitions well, but on some of the smaller roundabouts we played with it on, the ESP cleanly kicked in and smoothly caused the car to understeer, well before we reached the actual grip limits of the tyres. Surely the car can manage more. Also, the brakes don’t have much bite if pressed on lightly, but stop strongly if the pedal is pounded on. It also rides fairly well with the help of adaptive suspension, although wind noise was too prominent at 130 kph for a luxury car.
The IS 350 F-Sport is a credible sports sedan, but didn’t particularly stand out to us in any department, aside from the exterior styling. You’ll save money springing for one of these reliable cars instead of a BMW 335i, but you’re not getting a bargain BMW either. Perhaps our test-drive around Dubai was too short during the launch event, and perhaps the test cars were too fresh to extract their full potential in one sitting, but even then, we suspect this car will still be a hit with its target audience — twenty-something hipsters whose primary interest has more to do with art, music and fashion rather than cars, judging by the promotional materials. But don’t fall for the marketing. It’s a nice enough car for enthusiasts as well.