Every luxury car brand has its own USP that sets itself apart from its rivals. BMW is known for sportiness, while Mercedes-Benz is known for comfort. As for Lexus? It isn’t as straightforward as it seems. You have comfortable and quiet luxury cars like the ES and RX, but on the other side of the spectrum, you also have a sports sedan like this Lexus IS 350 F Sport. While this isn’t a completely new vehicle from the ground up, it represents a new chapter on how the brand will standardize the signature driving dynamics of its vehicles. With that said, what can we expect from the future of Lexus?
As mentioned, the Lexus IS 350 F Sport isn’t an all-new model. Rather, it’s a heavy refresh of the current third-generation IS that debuted in 2014. Still, Lexus managed to massage every single detail of the IS to make it look imposing and authoritative, especially in this F Sport model. As a matter of fact, it’s currently one of my favorites in the compact luxury sports sedan segment in terms of looks. Whereas BMW’s large kidney grilles look controversial and out of place, the IS’ even larger spindle grille looks well integrated into the car’s overall design theme. The IS’ signature kink that runs from its rocket panels to its rear doors is still there, but it’s more subtle now compared to the previous model.
Perhaps my favorite design detail of the IS is its rear end. Thanks to its wide shoulders and full-width LED taillights, the rear end of the IS looks distinct and easily recognizable on the road. And with this F Sport model’s 19-inch wheels, sportier front and rear bumpers, and mesh pattern for the spindle grille, the IS just looks so good in a sea of conservatively-designed German competitors.
If there’s one aspect where it’s clearly evident that this IS isn’t an all-new model, that would be its interior design. Aesthetically speaking, it looks very distinct, especially in this F Sport model’s optional red interior scheme, though there are other colors to choose from if red isn’t to your liking. In terms of materials, it’s very plush and well-trimmed, but lower down the dash, there are more scratchy hard plastics compared to its German rivals, which now use the soft-touch stuff even below the upper parts of the dash and doors. Still, most of what made Lexus interiors extremely ergonomic are present, such as the supremely on-point driving position, relaxing sports seats, and easy-to-use controls, except for its Lexus Remote Touch Interface.
Features and Infotainment
That Lexus Remote Touch infotainment system is the only aspect of the interior that doesn’t feel ergonomically designed. While I don’t think it’s as bad as how others perceived it, it’s still far too convoluted to use compared to the industry’s benchmark, which is BMW’s iDrive. The menus aren’t logically laid out, and using the laptop-style touchpad isn’t doing it any favors, either. The cursor easily bounces beyond where you intend it to be, which is a nightmare if you’re on the move. To address this, Lexus moved the screen forward for this heavily-refreshed IS, and you can now operate it as a touch screen. Thankfully, there’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which means you don’t need to completely depend on the car’s native operating system altogether.
And then there’s also the signature party trick of the Lexus IS 350 F Sport, which is its digital gauges with a physical moving bezel. The screen is small by today’s standards, and because of that, its flexibility is no different from that of Toyota’s 7-inch digital gauges in the Corolla Altis or RAV4. Still, there’s no denying the novelty factor of that round mechanical bezel that’s inherited from the LFA supercar.
Space and Practicality
Space is also another aspect where the Lexus IS 350 F Sport is starting to feel its age. Those at the front won’t have issues, but those seated at the rear seats will find themselves asking for more space. My 5′ 11″ height is already touching the car’s roof, while legroom is tight for my size. Yes, I do still fit, but I am left with just a tiny amount of legroom. There’s also a large center tunnel that makes the middle seat almost unusable. Plus, there are no rear USB ports and/or dedicated climate controls, though you do have rear aircon vents.
And then moving towards its trunk space, the IS 350 F Sport’s 450-liter capacity is average for the class. The Audi A4 offers 10 liters more, while the BMW 3 Series‘ trunk is larger by 30 liters. Still, with a 60:40 split-folding rear seat, the trunk is practical enough for the target market of these cars.
Fitted under the hood of the Lexus IS 350 F Sport is a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine that produces 312 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 380 Nm of torque from 4,800 to 4,900 rpm. This is sent to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic. Oh, and because this is the F Sport model, it comes with a limited-slip differential (LSD), fatter rear tires, and adaptive suspension.
These ingredients make for a sports sedan that embodies what the brand calls its Lexus Driving Signature. If this sounds a lot like some sort of marketing speak, that’s because it is, but at least they do walk their talk. The steering is precise and sharp, and it does offer a decent amount of feel. It’s not as much of a precision machine as a BMW 3 Series, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun to drive. It still is, but it just so happens that the Bimmer feels more agile from a handling perspective.
The good thing about this new engineering direction for Lexus, however, is how they manage to make the IS feel sporty yet at the same time, have that typical Lexus supple ride quality that you would find in the ES or RX. The BMW 3 Series feels firm, but in the IS 350 F Sport, the ride is always creamy smooth–even if the sports sedan is in its stiffest suspension setting when in Sport mode. And despite the suspension having an excellent ride for the class, its body roll is minimal, with the IS exhibiting excellent body control when pushed through corners.
And then we definitely have to talk about its naturally-aspirated V6 engine. It sounds so good, especially since it doesn’t come with any form of forced induction ruining the engine’s audible quality. The power delivery is very linear, as expected in a non-turbo engine, though below 3,000 rpm, the engine doesn’t feel as punchy. I guess we’ve been spoiled with the low-end grunt of the turbo engines from its German rivals.
The accompanying eight-speed automatic is also pretty good, with the transmission kicking down to the appropriate gear when in automatic mode. In manual mode, the transmission can even rev match, though it’s worth pointing out that there’s a tiny delay before the transmission responds to your inputs through the paddle shifters. The ZF eight-speed that’s fitted in every rear-wheel drive (RWD) BMW is still the benchmark, but this car’s transmission is still pretty good nonetheless.
Unfortunately, since the IS isn’t an all-new vehicle, its age can be felt when it comes to refinement. Compared to its German rivals, the IS 350 F Sport exhibits a bit more road noise, especially at triple-digit speeds. It’s not unrefined per se, but you tend to hear more of the outside world when driving the IS compared to the 3 Series. And then because this car is still using a big displacement non-turbo engine, its fuel economy isn’t as good as its turbocharged German rivals. This car was averaging at around 9.3 to 10.3 km/l, though we do think it’s a small price to pay for a car that sounds this good and offers this much performance.
The IS 350 F Sport serves as a canvas for every up-and-coming Lexus vehicle. If this IS that’s infused with the brand’s so-called Lexus Driving Signature is anything to go by, then we’re definitely looking forward to what Lexus has in store for its future. The magic of the IS is despite being a true luxury sports sedan, it still manages to fuse in the qualities that Lexus has been known for, which is its comfortable ride. That’s a USP that is hard to achieve, especially since sportiness and comfort often don’t mix.
More importantly, is the Lexus IS 350 F Sport a better sports sedan compared to the BMW 3 Series? That depends on what you’re looking for. We think that the BMW 3 Series is still the sportier of the two, but the IS is the more comfortable sports sedan. In addition, with the benefits of the Japan Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) bringing down the prices of most of the Lexus range, the IS manages to be feature-packed whilst being still competitively priced. If what you’re looking for is the best value in the compact luxury sedan segment, the Lexus IS serves as a convincing purchase.
Pricing and Rating
Exterior Design: ★★★★★
Interior Design: ★★★★☆
Space and Practicality: ★★★☆☆
Fuel Efficiency: ★★★☆☆
Value For Money: ★★★★☆
Overall: 4.3 out of 5
*Pricing is correct and accurate as of this article’s time of writing.