A few weeks ago, I recounted the five hundred or so miles I put on one of Lexus’ new IS250 sedans and the pleasure I took in accumulating those miles. I felt it was a fantastic car in search of a better engine. Well, Lexus heard, apparently, and felt fit to provide me with a week-long sample of the larger-engined IS350 F-Sport to see if that cured my (admittedly few) complaints.
And did it – the 3.5-liter V6 employed here and, sans direct injection, across much of the rest of the Toyota universe, is a much better match for the IS’ eager new chassis. With a delightful intake howl (but sadly, little in the way of exhaust note) the 2GR-FSE spins out 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft with a strong midrange and a smooth rip to its 6600 rpm redline. Rear-wheel drive 350s also benefit from an 8-speed automatic plucked from the last-generation IS-F, whereas IS250s and both AWD models make do with a 6-speed. The 8-speed certainly offers plenty of choice and smooth full-throttle upshifts, although it does lack the sharpness of some of the better dual-clutch units, and sometimes chose to lock me out of paddle-requested downshifts in S/S+ modes, despite being nowhere close to infringing on the redline.
Further differentiating itself from the 250 I drove a while back, this 350 featured the F-Sport package, which bundles unique suspension tuning (and, on the 350 version, adaptive dampers with two settings), unique gunmetal 18” wheels, a more gaping front maw and projector LED headlights, lovely heated sport seats, and the coolest TFT instrument cluster this side of an LFA. Of course, Lexus is quick to draw the LFA comparison in its IS literature, as they should – they have every right to be proud of their cluster. A motorized center bezel allows you to either center the tachometer in front of you or move it over to add peripheral stereo, nav and trip computer info – it’s an awfully neat party trick to pull out for your passengers.
That F-Sport package runs just a shade under four grand at $3,970, but compared to something like a 335i’s available M-Sport package – which will run you $3,100 but lacks the adaptive suspension and paddle shifters of the F-Sport, requiring you to part with another $1,500 to achieve parity – it looks like a good value, especially since the BMW will lack the Lexus’ neat-o gauge cluster at any price.
Lexus has managed to strike a real sweet spot with this car that endears me to it; the cabin is beautifully built and fits like a glove, striking up a “cockpit” feel that is too often missing in modern cars. The handling is more than competent, perhaps just a notch shy of “engaging”, the steering quick and accurate, and it provides a serene and quiet highway ride, aside from a hint of tire roar from the summer rubber. The stereo’s even damn good in its own right, though it must be said, the Levinson system in the GS is better. If you manage to restrain yourself with the options (personally, navigation would be first on the chopping block for me, but few new luxury car buyers would agree) you can even keep the sticker around $45k; a relative bargain when a similarly equipped 335i would be pushing well north of $50k.
So, it’s a very good car then, one that will certainly provide BMW and Cadillac with some restless nights concerning their own compact sports sedans, both in this form and the inevitable IS-F variant, which should bow sometime soon.
2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport RWD
Base price: $40,375
Price as tested: $48,462
Options on test car: F-Sport Package w/ Summer Tires ($3,620), Variable Gear Ratio Steering ($400), Navigation System w/ Mark Levinson Stereo ($3,225), Blind Spot Monitor w/ Rear Cross-Traffic Alert ($600), Preferred Accessory Package ($242)
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission – 306 hp / 277 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 19.1 mpg mixed, 26.8 mpg highway-only
Lexus provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.