They say you can never judge a book by its cover; it’s not until you dive in that you understand the storyline, the emotion, and the true character. But the new 2014 IS 350 F Sport tempts your preconceived notions and urges you to put them to the test.
I drove the previous generation Lexus IS 250 to last year’s auto show in Detroit to test the driving comfort and performance of one of the brand’s most successful midsize sedans. Stylistically, it was sound and, while it didn’t stand out as a big departure from the ordinary, it did offer a pleasing appearance and plenty of performance potential, as the beautifully aggressive IS F demonstrates. But that car was also comes with a significant jump in price and performance.
Still, the 250 (referring to 2.5L) offered acceptable power from the 204-hp V6. It was a quick four-door with excellent mileage, a comfortable ride and a spacious cabin. The two-tone leather seats were sharp and comfortable, but overall it didn’t stand out as a driver’s car, which it appeared to be from the outside.
Considering its mid-$40,000 base price, it also left much to be desired in terms of content and materials. The plain dash, equipped with a digital clock that looked like it belonged on a nightstand, also featured a low-rent stereo, plastic-laden stereo that looked too cheap even for a Toyota, much less a Lexus. Oh, and it didn’t have a display. Or a nav system. In this price range, and considering the level of competition, it was unacceptable. Needless to say, I was left wanting more. So when Executive Editor Lee Bailie and I arrived at the auto show at the COBO Center in downtown Detroit, by a twist of fate, one of my assignments was the Lexus Press Event. The LF-LC Concept would be making an appearance at the show, and rumours of the LF-CC Concept that debuted in Paris were that it would be there to serve as the basis for the next IS. Things were getting exciting.
The LF-LC and LF-CC represent a dramatic realization of the company’s guiding principles — bold, aggressive designs that ooze luxury and stature. The front fascia appears to be something out of a Dark Knight comic, and the sharp LED headlights and swooping lines give Lexus a mystique the company appeared to be graduating toward, but until now hadn’t found it.
After hearing Lexus Group VP and GM Mark Templin explain the company’s direction with the two concepts, it was time to see how many of those ideas made their way into the 2014 IS. When it drove onto the show floor, it was clear that many made the cut.
The 2014 IS is an improvement of its predecessor in every way. Completely overhauled inside and out, the new IS is available in 2.5L (IS 250) and 3.5L (350) capacities, both in AWD or RWD configurations. The multi-link rear suspension was also taken from the larger GS for added stability and a more forgiving ride. New for this year is the F Sport Package, which doesn’t affect engine performance, but adds adaptive variable suspension and variable gear-ratio steering (IS 350 only), 18-inch wheels, an F Sport “spindle” grill and aero package, all of which makes this IS truly stand out.
At the top of the IS family is the 350, the best example of what the lineup has to offer from a driver’s perspective.
For starters, any qualms about the interior layout and accessory list have been completely quashed. The IS 350 F Sport package is a fully-loaded arsenal that takes the driver-oriented layout of the LFA supercar and places many of those key features directly into the IS.
The seats wrap around like something you’d pick up from your local race shop; they offer excellent lumbar support and side bolsters that keep you unquestionably planted in any style of driving. Perhaps most importantly, the seating position has also been optimized — an obvious issue with the previous generation. Drivers have a lower and sportier setup thanks to a lengthened telescoping wheel, so no more leg or arm room sacrifices for proper positioning. Rear seating is equally comfortable, with decent headroom for six-footers (or under) and ample foot space.
The entire console has also been scrapped, making use of its supercar sibling’s design and even some of those technology additions. In the F Sport’s instrument cluster lies the LFA display, which magically shifts the main gauge to the right of the cluster for additional info, perfect for showing off your cool new ride to friends, and reminding you that this IS is packed with plenty of new gadgetry.
Left of that is also a welcome addition to the IS: a standard seven-inch infotainment display that is easy to access, and full of useful information. From fuel economy per 10 minutes to live weather updates, satellite radio, or split screen navigation and audio, the interface is well-thought out and easy to use, even for the less tech-savvy. Bluetooth phone and audio and a 16-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound stereo provide a living-room quality experience on the road, all easily controlled using a new centre console dial. It makes for an informative drive that allows you to keep your attention where it needs to be: on the road.
Behind the wheel of the IS 350, the F Sport in particular, it’s hard not to feel like you want to explore everything this car has to offer. The materials, comfort and 3.5L RWD V6 just beg you to unravel its true character. The F Sport can be set to ECO, Normal, Sport/Sport S and Sport S+ modes, all of which make active use of the eight-speed electronically controlled transmission, available only on the IS 350 RWD.
The IS 350 puts itself squarely in the marks of BMW’s 3 Series and Audi’s A4 and, with 306 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, it is on par with each. But numbers only account for so much.
In Sport S+ mode, the car moves with strength and poise, the exhaust has a throaty but unobtrusive tone that sounds like a powerful sports sedan should. Paddle gear changes are direct, and the Super ECT transmission rev matches for easy downshifts. At speed the handling is excellent, thanks to the upgraded variable suspension, while the variable steering is precise and stable, tightening at speed for added confidence and control. In the city it becomes quick and nimble for quick and easy turning.
Switch the traction control off and the rear wheels still take a bit of effort to get loose, and despite the various driving modes, the electronic throttle response stays the same regardless of setting. For some this might detract from the purity of rear-wheel drive, but it provides excellent stability and driving confidence while still providing the dynamic benefits. Still, a mode-adjustable throttle would be a welcome addition.
When the car was officially unveiled, the response was unequivocally positive. The eye-catching front fascia and LED lights inset on the apron are paired excellently with one of the most well-designed rear taillight sections I have seen in a while. Inside the styling is more of the same, with excellent functionality and comfort that easily looks and feels as the price suggests. And while its looks may provide the initial attraction, the real beauty of the IS 350 F Sport lies within.