The IS’s decidedly Japanese styling, which I’m personally quite fond of but many TTAC authors detest, is an instant turn-off for luxury car buyers who prefer subdued Teutonic touches. The Lexus IS is a look-at-me car, especially with $595 Ultrasonic Blue Mica and F Sport bodywork.
The third-gen Lexus IS is also bizarrely packaged. Driver’s ingress is made nearly intolerable by a small aperture. The doorframe lusts after your right hip; the center tunnel is waiting to aggressively greet your right knee. Entering the IS is like crawling under your kitchen table. Sure, you’ll fit once you’re under there, but adult frames aren’t designed for such maneuvers.
More obvious, now that you’re primed to ignite the 3.5-liter, 306-horsepower naturally aspirated V6, is the array of buttons and switches and controllers and contraptions that encompass the cabin’s frontal lobe. Few are where you’d expect them to be. Many do not operate in the conventional fashion to which you’ve grown accustomed.
Buyers could be put off by the 2017 Lexus IS350’s design, by its awkward access, by its unusual ergonomics, or by all three factors. If so, they’re missing out on an exceptionally balanced driver’s car.
It’s not as though the IS350 F Sport’s design won’t appeal to anyone besides yours truly — I’m not the only one who loves the look of this car. Distinctive Lexus cues arguably work best on the company’s rear-wheel-drive architectures. That rising line that disappears at the rear wheel and then appears again beneath the taillight adds character. The headlights and vast spindle grille tell a story of surprise.
This much is certain: the Lexus IS350 doesn’t look like anything else on the road.
The IS’s odd packaging also pays dividends in certain areas. The large 13.8-cubic-foot trunk is enhanced by a squared off shape that’s capable of cargo hauling above its dimensional class. The rear seat, while not expansive, is comfortable enough for two adults and entirely sufficient for children — the same can’t be said for all IS competitors. And once you’ve managed to wriggle your way into the driver’s seat, you’ll be charmed. The seat in this F Sport model is among the very best I’ve sat in this year.
As for the bewildering interior array, at least it’s representative of a broad feature count. Blind spot monitoring and sunshade controls are to the left of the steering wheel. The signal stalk is of the return-to-center variety. Steering wheel controls include, on the right side, far from the BSM button, tiny buttons for lane departure warning and adaptive cruise. Regular cruise control functions are controlled by a short stalk below the upshift paddle. On the center stack, driver and passenger temperatures are selected on touch-sensitive sliders, between which reside 11 climate buttons and one extra button Lexus installed for a function this car lacks. Hazard lights sit immediately to the south, above the audio controls. Bless’em, there are even volume and tuning knobs. The duo is mated to six more minute buttons for audio.
Farther down the stack are large square buttons for seat heating and cooling as well as the heated steering wheel. Alongside the gated shifter is Lexus’ mouse, by no means the easiest means of operating the widescreen infotainment cluster even when aided by four shortcut buttons (including an enter button for your thumb) and a forward/back rocker. Drive modes are selected alongside your right thigh with a rotary knob, an ESC-off button, and a separate Snow mode button. Sunroof controls, up above, serve as bookends to four light switches.
Mode swings don’t change the 2017 Lexus IS350 F-Sport from a dog with a Valium to a dog with a bone. Eco to Normal to Sport S to Sport S+ is a progressive wave. Indeed, progressive is the key word in Lexus’ IS vernacular. It describes the way the engine responds to throttle inputs, unlike so many of today’s smaller turbocharged engines. Progressive: yes, that’s the way the IS350 F-Sport’s steering weight builds up, appropriately so, when a corner tightens and your inputs become more urgent. Brake feel is spot on. The six-speed automatic’s shifts are inconspicuous when they ought to be, but hastier and ever more crisply defined the more you require them to be.
The 2017 Lexus IS350 is not a multiple personality kind of a car. A flick of a software-altering switch doesn’t result in an ES-aping IS350 that exchanges its identity for an LFA-copying IS350. You, the IS350 F Sport driver, are the switch. This Lexus is responsive, it places the onus on you, keen driver that you are.As a result, in many ways the 2017 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD could come across as a car that’s a decade late to the party. The engine game, for instance, has moved on. Drivers in 2017 don’t want to build revs — pfft, don’t be so silly — they want a great slug of torque just off idle. Drivers today want their sporty cars to shout, “Sporty!” with suspensions that refuse to suspend — not Lexus ISs that reveal their suspensions’ athleticism in various team-building exercises. Drivers today don’t want handling — they want grip.
Despite low-profile tires — 225/40R18 fronts, 255/35R18 rears on Bridgestone Turanzas — the IS350 F Sport rides remarkably well. Upping the ante with the drive mode selector won’t result in adaptive dampers that sorely diminish ride comfort, either, nor does it induce unnatural weighting in the steering. The IS350 persists as an IS350, just in slightly larger or lesser quantities.That means the 306-horsepower V6 always pleases but does not wow. The all-wheel-drive IS350’s six-speed automatic (RWD models get an eight-speed) never awes but never disappoints. Cornering prowess is notable because of the IS350’s ability to cosset, not necessarily because of outright roadholding mastery. There’s a level of interactivity, but never so much feel that a typical Lexus client will be overwhelmed by the incoming communiqués.
While evidently not a dynamic masterpiece, the 2017 Lexus IS350 AWD F Sport is consistently composed and appealingly balanced. That’s increasingly a lost art.
The Lexus IS350 operates in an arena where top-tier German competitors have made gouging an art form. Don’t be fooled by their base prices. While IS350s begin at $42,365, similar to a $41,245 BMW 330i, the price comparison is deceiving. The 330i is now a 2.0T affair. IS350-comparable power in a 3 Series requires spending $49,945 on a (quicker-than-IS350) 340i.
But to build a 340i equipped like this luxuriously equipped IS350 AWD F Sport (all-wheel drive, sporting extras, heated steering wheel, Mark Levinson audio, power rear sunshade, ventilated front seats, full suite of active safety kit) would require more than $60,000 in BMW’s configurator.
The Genesis G70 apparently doesn’t represent the dawn of the value-minded entry-luxury sports sedan.Ch-Ch-Changes
But does the IS350 AWD F Sport tell the entire Lexus IS story? Unfortunately not. The personality swings that don’t occur in this particular car do, in fact, appear across the IS range. The entry-level IS Turbo’s 2.0T, for instance, is poorly linked to an uncooperative eight-speed automatic. The IS300’s 3.5-liter V6, for example, is de-powered but consumes just as much fuel as the IS350’s 3.5-liter.
Only in its maximum iteration does Lexus allow the IS’s personality to shine through. It’s never wise to assume that the behavior one encounters in a Chevrolet Silverado with a 6.2-liter V8 and 22-inch wheels will be similar to those of a 5.3-liter truck on 18s with 9.5 additional inches of wheelbase. Likewise, in the Lexus IS’s case, don’t assume this particular IS350 AWD F Sport’s balanced response to the sports sedan questions of our time will be answered the same way by less costly IS variants.Under Pressure
Regardless of how enjoyable the 2017 Lexus IS350 is to drive, regardless of the maladies you’re willing to overlook, there are compelling reasons to look elsewhere.
The BMW 3 Series remains an obvious choice, and won’t soon lose that status. Plus, the 3er’s bigger engines are mighty. Not unlike the Lexus, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class provides an appealing blend of comfort and athleticism, and it does so with a more conventionally attractive and more obviously luxurious interior, albeit with a cheap, tacked-on, imitation iPad. The Audi A4 meshes most of the segment’s best attributes and does so with few faults, but it doesn’t offer the man-machine connection of the Lexus. There are other, less obvious alternatives from Infiniti, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Acura, and Cadillac, as well.
Of the roughly 211,000 U.S. buyers who purchased or leased a vehicle in the Lexus IS’s segment during the first eight months of 2017, 194,000 chose one of those other cars, not the Lexus IS. Did those 194,000 buyers make a mistake? Not invariably, but there are surely thousands who, unable to look past a few eccentricities, don’t know what they’re missing.
[Images: © Timothy Cain]