On the Road Review: Lexus IS 350 AWD Sport Sedan

In office pools and barroom discussions around America, drivers brag about their sports sedans, argue about the merits of handling acumen, turbo-horsepower and swift acceleration, and insult the rivals of their professed brand of choice.

For decades, Lexus has been absent from these discussions. Lacking the sporting personality and marketing panache of the likes of the Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Cadillac ATS or Mercedes C-class, Lexus has now decided (realized?) that it needs some serious sporting cajones if it hopes to flesh out sales in the various niche markets that surround sportier entries in these luxury class segments.

Critics need look no further than the BMW 3-series to discover the riches available to successful marketers in sportier luxury cars. BMW has created a wealth of consumer interest and driver loyalty via the development of the M-series cars that started from the compact 3-series. Lexus wants, no needs, this sort of fandom if it hopes to enjoy the sales and market respect generated by BMW’s M-cars.

Previous attempts at “sporty” Lexus cars — namely the GS series sedans — was met with mediocre results. True Lexus buyers loved the GS cars, but converts from other brands were few; the GS cars just weren’t sporty enough. With a new commander in charge of Toyota and Lexus, this performance emphasis, or lack thereof, is starting to change.

And while this IS 350 sedan will not make drivers forget the BMW M3 or M4 cars, it is a strong signal that there is some life at Lexus and that with some more effort (money) Lexus too can build hot-rod cars that don’t eschew the luxury values and solid quality that Lexus stands for.

First, the IS 350 is an attractive sedan, with subtle hints of Audi evident in trim lines and body contours. LED lighting all around, elegant sport wheels and tight proportions give the IS the clues that this is not another Camry clone, thank goodness. Viewers may take some time to adapt to the hourglass front grille, apparently now a Lexus identifier across the lineup, yet the look is perfectly acceptable here and the IS garners lots of attention on the street. Two points to Lexus.

Under the hood, IS buyers get two choices. A 2.5-liter 204-hp V-6 is standard; our Deep Sea Mica sample arrived with the optional 3.5-liter 306-hp V-6. Backed by a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and full-time all-wheel drive with select mode options for ECO, sport, normal and snow, the IS has covered one of the bases necessary to beat the Germans. The V-6 is swift, eager and reasonably frugal; our weeklong fuel economy exceeded the EPA estimates of 19/26 mpg even while driven with the usual vigor. One note to consider: the Lexus’s V-6 engine produces less torque than the comparable turbo-motors of its competitors — only 277-pound/feet.

Under the sleek body are the components that enthusiast drivers think are necessary; double wishbone suspension up front, multi-link independent pieces at the rear. Aided by electronic traction and braking systems, the IS is poised to produce the handling acumen that the Germans possess.

However, some of the poise is missing in reality. While the Lexus corners hard and sticks in the turns, the overall ride lacks the supple composure of the more refined and balanced BMW, Audi and Cadillac rivals. Firmness suffices for composure, and that is not a trade-off that the market accepts anymore.

Steering feel, which initially is very good because the Lexus’s wheel is nicely weighted and produces the heft that lets you imagine that you have precision and control, is not that exact in real time. Again, the Lexus is down a point or two to the Germans, a step behind in chassis sophistication and performance. For 98 percent of drivers 98 percent of the time, they won’t know the difference. But press the Lexus or drive enthusiastically against one of its primary rivals, and you’ll be staring at taillights.

With dimensions, weights, and measurements right on top of the compact Audi, BMW and Cadillac offerings, the Lexus is more expensive initially, but offers more hardware in the long run and undercuts its rivals as you start checking option boxes. Base pricing begins at $36,550. Add the larger V-6 engine as well as the AWD setup and the price climbs to $41,700. As shown here, with all of the bells and whistles — cold weather package with headlight washers, 18-inch wheels, luxury and technology packages, plus navigation and audio packages and parking assist, the sticker rises to $50,165.

At this price, the IS has a leather interior, with attractive stitching accents across the dash panel and the seats. A thick rim leather steering wheel power tilts and telescopes, while the deep-dish sport seats provide ample support while also proving difficult to slip out of when exiting. There is a nice complement of conventional buttons and knobs supplemented by the Lexus version of I-drive, the console mouse controller that lets you scroll through various menus and info screens in the high-mounted, easy-to-see color navigation-screen. There is a bit more hard-plastic than necessary, or appropriate, for this price point spread across the center console and instrument panel, which detracts from the overall luxury impression inside. The console also places the beverage slots at your right elbow — an awkward location in a narrow cabin that offers lots of legroom but is otherwise quite cozy.

Overall, the cockpit’s controls are easier to use than the Cadillac’s CUE arrangement (dreadful) as well as some of the less intuitive arrangements in other rivals. With the power roof and heated leather, the IS 350 seems to represent good value. Shoppers should remember that there is also a two-door convertible version of the IS, with a retractable hardtop.

Nice styling, good content and value-rich pricing give the IS points on the comparison scale and present buyers with some zest when shopping against other sports sedans. The Lexus loses a couple of points in the driving dynamics, an opportunity for Lexus to improve. As said elsewhere, the Lexus IS is likeable; it needs more driving swagger to make enthusiast drivers lust for it.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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