Who makes the best compact sport sedan? Well, BMW has owned that segment for years, but it would be hard to argue against Lexus now making the best looking sport sedan with its new IS series.
Lexus created the IS to be a BMW 3 Series (now renamed the 4 Series) fighter, but Lexus is better at creating a luxury feel than BMW. The difference is BMW always leans toward total performance and Lexus leans more toward luxury in any of its makes.
Ah, but the tested bright metallic red (Matador Red) IS350 AWD has plenty of power to go with its outward styling pizzazz. Lexus pops a 3.5-liter V6 with variable valve timing under its well sculpted hood and that throbbing engine pumps out 306 horsepower. Boom! It’ll kick you in the seat of the pants and with paddle shifters on the steering wheel you can control your own seat kicking!
There’s a seamless shifting 6-speed automatic that you can control manually with those paddle shifters, but a key here is the svelte nature of the IS350. The sport sedan weighs 3,737 lbs., but rides on a 110.2-inch wheelbase. So while it feels nimble, it’s long enough to provide a mostly fine, yet sporty ride.
Sure, take it on our crumbling cement streets or over railroad tracks and that stiff sport suspension will give you a little shake. But that’s the nature of the beast. Lexus puts a double wishbone front suspension on the IS and a multi-link system in back.
Handling? Precise, is the key word, along with fluid. The car steers easily and smoothly, but you can snap off corners or apexes of turns crisply and the car stays completely flat as you power through a sharp turn. A BWM gives you that same handlingl, but usually with heavier steering feedback. Whichever you like is certainly a matter of personal preference.
Yet what drivers will want most, use most and talk about most, is how the power is put down to the road. This is an AWD model, but a rear-drive version also is available. I liked the instant oomph you get in the IS, especially when it’s dialed into Sport mode. The Drive Mode Select knob on the console always starts the car in Normal mode, but you can go Eco (unlikely if you’re buying this car) or Sport, just by turning the knob left or right, respectively. With Sport, the power is instantaneous. I mention this repeatedly because on so many cars, even sporty models, there is a slight hesitation in acceleration. That’s OK on most cars, but not when you’re paying $50 grand for a sport sedan, so bravo to Lexus on this one.
Naturally the AWD gives you good grip on damp or slushy streets, so when you get aggressive with the accelerator there’s no wheel spin. The test car’s F Sport package ($3,180) includes an adaptive suspension system to help you firm up, or soften, the ride as road conditions change.
Braking is excellent from big disc brakes at all four corners, and the F Sport package upgrades to R-rated 18-inch tires, up from 17-inchers, and gives the car 5-spoke wheels.
That augments the car’s sporty look, but really Lexus designers have done an excellent job with the curvy, fluid lines of the IS. I especially like how the accent lines flow along the sedan’s rocker panels and up to the tail, giving the car a distinctive, flowing profile. I’m not crazy about giant grilles, as Audi has tried to make fashionable, but this pointed four-corner Lexus grille flows well into the hood and front fenders, again giving it a fast, sculpted look, with the tail wrapping up the styling neatly. Lexus ads say it has brought “Sexy Back,” but Ferrari and Lamborghini may argue if it has ever been gone.
The F Sport package also upgrades the front bumpers and grille and includes LED headlights, plus adds F Sport badging, if that trips your trigger.
Inside is where Lexus packs on the luxury, eschewing the bland all black Germanic look that BWM has favored for years. Plus this interior is whisper quiet.
While the seats are perforated black leather, there’s gray stitching and pewter-look trim by the air vents, clock and shifter top, plus fake carbon fiber trim on the passenger side’s dash and the doors around the window buttons. The console and stack also have a black gloss finish.
Adding a little fun to the instrument cluster is its adaptability. The driver can press a button on the steering wheel hub and reconfigure the round center tach/speedometer so it slides to the right and exposes other callouts. I preferred the center view layout, but you do have two choices here.
Another clever, yet subtle, feature is the lighting of the ring around that main gauge. In normal mode the tach/speedo is ringed in black, but press the Sport mode and the ring turns white. Press Eco and a green Eco emblem lights up. I like all this, but my practical side wonders what it will cost when that gauge sticks in one position and you want to fix it so it’ll slide back and forth again. I suppose if you pay $50 grand for a car such repairs are not a worry.
The dash itself is well laid out, everything being simple to see and read.
There’s push-button start, a navigation screen atop the dash, but set back a ways so it is both easy to see and not distracting while you drive. Mid-dash there is air vents and a clock. Below that are the audio screen and climate controls. The buttons are sort of small though and the radio volume and tuning knobs are on the petit side too. Then there are six flat, almost recessed buttons to select the radio, CD, etc. They are teeny tiny and tough to use with a gloved hand.
A Mark Levinson premium audio system was added to the test car for $3,225 and sounds great. It includes 15 speakers and 835 watts of power, so naturally it’ll rock loud enough to wake the neighbors. The upgrade also adds real-time traffic and weather updates to the navigation system, a benefit if you travel much or drive interstates around major cities.
That upgrade also adds a backup camera for safety, and the test car added a $600 blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert so you don’t back into someone or pull over on a car in your blind spot.
One other addition was a dynamic cruise control system for $500. It also alerts you if you’re approaching slower cars or a stopped car too rapidly to aid in avoiding a rear-end collision.
I like the sporty well contoured seats that give you excellent lateral support. The intent is that if you’re pushing the car a bit you don’t slide sideways in turns. I enjoyed the feeling, but my wife found it too confining, especially on her back and shoulders. She’s a couple inches shorter than me, so be aware if you’re a short driver or passenger.
Seats are powered and the driver’s has a power lumbar support. Both have three-level seat heat. Two adults will fit in the rear seat too and the rear seatback is split and folds down.
My only serious interior complaint is that there is precious little room to enter or exit the IS when the seats and steering column, a manual tilt/telescope number with all the usual radio, phone and such buttons on the hub, is adjusted for shorter drivers. I was constantly contorting to slip under the wheel and into the bucket seats. This car screams for a flat-bottomed steering wheel to ease entry and exit.
Overhead is a sunroof, but sadly Lexus scrimps on the sun visors. They do not slide, nor have extenders. Gas mileage also is moderate, but this is a sporty model, so you know you’ll be putting in premium petrol and using it rather quickly. I got 21 mpg and the EPA rates the IS350 at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.
Pricing? The test car starts at $41,700, but heavily optioned and with a $895 delivery fee it hit $50,164. The base rear-drive IS250, with a sufficient 206-horse 2.5-liter V6, starts at $35,950. Bumping that to AWD raises the price to $38,485. A rear-drive IS350 begins at $39,465.
So there’s a wide range of models and pricing, depending on your wallet and speed needs. A BMW might win the battle on the racetrack, but the Lexus wins the beauty and luxury categories, and is no speed slouch either.
FAST Stats: 2014 Lexus IS350 AWD
Hits: Great-looking sport sedan, excellent power and precise handling. Stylish and quiet interior with sporty, supportive leather seats, good looking dash, plus blind-spot warning system and backup camera.
Misses: Stiff sport sedan ride, tiny radio and media buttons, visors don’t slide or have extenders, very tight entry and exit when short driver puts seat fairly far forward. This car screams for a flat-bottomed steering wheel.
Made in: Japan
Engine: 3.5-liter VVT V6, 306 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Weight: 3,737 lbs.
Wheelbase: 110.2 in.
Cargo: 14.0 cu.ft.
Base Price: $41,700
Dealer’s Price: $38,781
Blind-spot monitor w/rear cross traffic alert & auto-dimming mirrors, $600
F Sport package (F Sport bumper & spindle grille, LED headlights, 18-inch F Sport Split 5-spoke wheels, R-rated 18-inch tires, TFT instrument cluster, heated front F Sport seats, perforated leather steering wheel & shift knob, silver performance trim, black headliner, adaptive variable suspension & Sport model), $3,180
Dynamic radar cruise control w/pre-collision system, $500
Cargo net, $64
Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio (5.1 surround w/15 speakers, 835 watts, navigation, backup camera, remote touch interface, Lexus Enform with App suite, Destination Assist & eDestination, Lexus Insider, voice command, HD radio w/real-time traffic, weather), $3,225
Test vehicle: $50,164
Sources: Lexus, http://www.autos.yahoo.com
Photos: Courtesy of Lexus