A revisit to our favourite sport sedan | After putting the IS350 on an award pedestal last year, we've revisited all of its competitors.
In 2013, the all-new Lexus IS won our hearts when we dubbed it the best sports sedan we had driven all year. This was, of course, after testing the sweet-spot of the IS lineup; the rear-wheel-drive IS350 with the 8-speed transmission. It lacked a sunroof and a navigation system but had one hell of a soul. This year, we decided to change things up. I spent a week with the 2015 Lexus IS350 F-Sport AWD in Ultra White, a model we think most Canadians will prefer to the rear-drive sibling.
The first thing you notice about an F-Sport-equipped Lexus IS is the styling. Especially in white, the lines are particularly bold and stand out from the crowd. This IS350 is unique from the sea of 3-series‘ and C-Class’ on the roads, and is a fresh change. The F-Sport tweaks consist of a bunch of louvres and intakes on the front end that all send air to both the brakes as well as the engine. The lights and grille are very obviously from the current Lexus family, which has gone from producing some bland cars for the older generation to making some of the most aggressively-styled cars on the road today. Of all the cars in its class, the IS is my favourite design.
Competitors of the IS350 are making use of forced induction. The BMW 335i, Volvo S60, and Audi S4 are all either turbocharged, supercharged, or both. I predict the next Lexus IS250 will have a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder, but both IS models currently have V6s. The IS350 F-Sport is currently the most powerful car in the IS line, and it’s powered by Toyota‘s perfected 3.5L V6. It pumps out 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Rear-drive models come with an 8-speed transmission, but this all-wheel-drive F-Sport makes do with a 6-speed unit – no manual is available. When in the right gear, power is literally instantaneous, and the car makes a wonderful noise as it accelerates. I made some use of the Sport and Sport+ modes, and the IS350 is surprisingly responsive.
In Normal or Eco modes, the IS does feel a bit heavy, but not in a manner that makes it feel bogged down at all. It’s more of a comfortable weight; not unlike that of the GS350 F-Sport. The 6-speed automatic does affect fuel economy a bit. On the model I drove last year with two extra gears, I observed an average of 8.3L/100km. With the same power, extra weight, and two fewer cogs, I expected slightly worse economy from the F-Sport AWD, and I wasn’t wrong. In combined driving over my test week, I achieved 10.0L/100km on premium fuel. Highway cruising alone, the IS350 can return numbers in the 8.5L/100km range without much difficulty.
There’s a series of packages that are available throughout the IS line. My test car was equipped with the F-Sport 3 package, which slots directly below the top-trim Executive Package. Starting with the 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system, the car also comes with heated and ventilated leather seats, a voice-activated navigation system, dynamic radar cruise control, forward collision warning system, sunroof, and the Lexus LFA-style TFT instrument cluster. Additionally, all of the F-Sport appearance goodies such as the shift knob, steering wheel, scuff plates, and unique bumpers are all on board.
I like the Mark Levinson stereo, but I found there’s a bit too much bass. The treble and midrange notes are absolutely dead-on and the music system reproduces all of these notes perfectly. The Lexus corporate RTI (Remote Touch Interface) is also in play here; it’s one of the easiest non-touchscreen interfaces in the industry right now. It’s been around for a couple years now, but it’s still essentially flawless. I do hope that in the next-generation unit, the passenger will be allowed to input destinations into the navigation system.
Being a Lexus, the IS350 isn’t all performance either. It’s very evident that extreme importance has been placed in making sure the car has exquisite attention to detail. The level of precision in this car is just astonishing. Things like how the power windows slow down in the last inch of travel as to not make any noise when closing, or how robust the volume knob for the stereo feels. These factors aren’t to be taken lightly, especially when so many so-called premium vehicles now have cost-cut interiors. The F-Sport seats (a beautiful shade of red on my tester) are very comfortable and offer the perfect amount of support for my 6’1/175 frame. This car fits me like a finely-tailored suit.
I may be a huge fan of the styling of the new IS, but I’ve noticed a bit of a generation gap here. I took the car to a local enthusiast car show, and was surprised to find myself parked between two other IS350s; one 2014 non-F-Sport, and one previous-generation model. It appeared as though not everyone was as smitten with the styling as myself and my colleagues; some people find the lines too overdone. I also wish that Lexus would offer the 8-speed transmission with the all-wheel-drive. It’s worth mentioning that the 8-speed unit is sourced from the dearly-departed Lexus IS-F. With a six-speed unit, the IS finds itself trailing competitors such as the BMW 335i and Audi S4, as the other cars are capable of superior fuel economy despite very similar power numbers.
After putting the IS350 on an award pedestal last year, we’ve revisited all of its competitors. The Audi S4 is still the king in terms of drivability, but the Lexus offers something the other car doesn’t. At $53,000 as-tested, there’s a level of passion rolled into to this sedan; it’s immediately noticeable from the sliding instrument cluster and continues as the accelerator is planted down. It’s a wonderful choice, and an outstanding car in every sense of the word.