2014 Lexus IS350 – First Drive

The new IS emerges from a total makeover looking for a fight, but does it put the ‘fun’ into F-Sport?

By Shahzad Sheikh

2014 Lexus IS350

The first pictures I’d seen of the of the new car, released from the Detroit Auto show earlier this year, seemed to suggest an overdrawn Lexus IS with a protruding conk verging on vulgar. Considering that the IS traditionally takes the title of the best looking of all the Lexus saloons, that was slightly alarming.

This is an all-new junior-level saloon for Lexus, and in the past has been something of an against-the-grain hit in our region (which favours larger luxury cars over the small ones), so is a crucial new contender for the brand. Based on the down-sized version of the new GS platform, this is also meant to represent a slight shift in the brand values towards emotion and desire (more of that another time) so its task is doubly important.

2014 Lexus IS350

Exterior

My first actual physical sight of the new IS was on a Yokohama street, stood at a traffic light ahead of us as a we strode up to the test venue where we’d be getting a brief first drive of the all-new junior Lexus four-door. It was in black, and the front ticks under the headlights stood out in stark contrast.

The massive spindle grille, sprawled across the front like an electric razor’s blade flowed easily with the proportions. The whole demeanour was of a coiled athlete, its muscular hind raised up in anticipation. The parallel road markings lent the scene a Manga-esque frozen-in-time dynamism. Appropriately enough it whooshed passed, streaking through the drizzle.

2014 Lexus IS350

Having travelled all the way to Japan it seemed only fitting to dedicate some time to just staring at the striking new IS. One thing to note is that, like the GS, however striking the regular car’s face is (and it is) the F-Sport with its extra scoops and scowl is better. That’s definitely the one to get.

Eventually it became clear that this is one of those cars that is so much better to behold in the metal than in images – even my pictures won’t manage to convey the taut potency, the rakish stance, the neatly balanced silhouette and the elongated wheelbase freeing up more much-needed rear legroom. And just note the sharp curve sliced off the rear taillamps flowing down and along the underside as if to caress the bulging rear wheelarches. It’s like it’s feeling up its own backside!

2014 Lexus IS350

It’s quite colour sensitive. Sadly most sold here will be in regulation white (pearl white even), but the strong dark colours are the ones to get – some of which are exclusive to the F-Sport. My favourite was definitely the Exceed Blue.

Interior

Moving inside it’s all good. The current IS, whilst still a handsome chap, was distinctly dated and feeling a little last-century inside and, dare I say, a little too Toyota. This new car brings things bang up to date. It has a multi-tiered dashboard with a combination of surfaces and textures, all of which feel suitable upmarket. Some might say the overall clash of styles is a bit fussy, but it’s far from confusing and all works very well indeed from behind the wheel.

2014 Lexus IS350

Singling out for praise, I like the positioning and on-the-go usability of the knob for the Normal/Sports/Sports-Plus modes, the Lexus ‘mouse’ works fine for me, and the touch-slide temperature control interface is the best I’ve seen in any car so far – incredibly responsive and intuitive. What I don’t like is that after initially being led to believe you’ll be getting the monster widescreen centre monitor from the new GS, the screen turns out to be regular-sized edition with a lot of redundant blank space around it. Huh?

There are two variants of instrument panel – the more conservative screen you see in these interior pictures of the ‘Luxury’ model version, and the LFA-style sliding single dial which you get with the F-Sport and again – that is the one you want. That car also gets carbon-effect interior trim.

2014 Lexus IS350

The seating position was good, everything is suitably adjustable, visibility is not a problem, and best of all, the rear space is now so much better – my six-foot frame can actually travel in the back in reasonable comfort, whereas I’d struggle in the old IS.

Powertrain

Along with an IS250, we’re finally going to get the IS350 in our region replacing the old IS300. This is fundamentally a carried over 3.5-litre V6 with 306bhp and 277lb ft of torque all mated to a brand new 8-speed automatic with paddle shifts for manual control, sending torque to the rear wheels. Acceleration from 0-100kph is about on par with a Cadillac ATS at 5.6 seconds with a top speed of 230kph.

2014 Lexus IS350

Driving

My disclaimer here is that whilst I drove the IS350 F-Sport over a fair distance, it was mostly motorway miles and even when we got to a brilliant tight and twisty road snaking its way up Mount Hakone, the fact that hordes of Japanese weekenders were also heading up the hills of this breathtakingly tropical locale, meant there were few opportunities to really drive the car hard.

Having said that, on the motorway, performance was more than adequate, refinement and quietness were befitting of Lexus’ excellent reputation in these matters, and ride comfort – despite the overly sportiness of the F-Sport was remarkably good. It’s no LS, but it is calm and well-damped, no doubt partly due to the fact that even the F-Sport was shod with wheels (and spectacular ones at that) no bigger than 18-inches.

2014 Lexus IS350

The active cruise and safety systems worked well, braking was good with strong initial bite but decent adjustability, and you could be in a pretty serene cruiser of a larger ilk quite frankly. Turn up the fantastic Mark Levinson stereo, easily Bluetooth to your phone, follow the informative sat-nav and all’s right with the world.

There’s just one problem. This car competes with the BMW 3-Series and the new Cadillac ATS. The Three is hoontastic hilarious in 335i guise, whilst the ATS is an uncharacteristically composed and precise corner carver that inspires confident arm-twirling antics. In short, they’re both bloody brilliant. And they’re both incredibly good fun to drive.

2014 Lexus IS350

So where does that leave the IS? Well it wasn’t until we got up to Hakone that we could see if there was any hint of the right stuff in this precisely engineered and built compact luxury sports saloon. Clearing a few gaps in the traffic on the damp and uneven surfaces, it was dialled up to Sports Plus and full manual was called into action – fingers poised on the paddles. This new transmission is much quicker and more responsive than the ‘can’t be bothered’ previous iteration.

The steering feel and weight improves dramatically and the IS seems to physically tense in anticipation, throw it a challenge and it finally rises impressively to the occasion.

2014 Lexus IS350

Brake hard – good grip. Turn-in – sharp response. Wait for it. No don’t. Steering sending through some good vibes. So floor it then! Traction light is flickering somewhere. No loss of power, no judder, no slap on the wrist or wagging finger. Grip is good, road holding is impressive, body control is barely taxed. Attitude is neutral to oversteery. Huge amount of confidence though – great reassurance from the chassis and helm.

Another gap. Okay. Let’s do it again. Brake – not as hard this time. Yank the wheel in – good bite! Bury the throttle even earlier – no drama, a suggestion of rear lateral movement, no slide apparent though.

2014 Lexus IS350

 

Could do with more low down grunt in second. Stronger bottom-end torque would go down (or rather up!) quite nicely right now, but then we are climbing. Still, there’s enough to keep the momentum brisk. A few more corners and I’m convinced. That was no fluke then.

Verdict

Is this a sports car? Is it a BMW-beater? An ATS-attacker? Time and a twin-test or two will tell. For now, I’m making the most of the rare gaps and (this is the clincher) I’m enjoying it. We arrive at our destination too soon. Photo-opportunities beckon, but so does more of the great road. Protocol needs to be respected though. I’ve taken enough liberties today. But those final few clicks up the hill confirmed one thing – there’s a soul here after all and it wants recognition.

2014 Lexus IS350

It wants pricing too, and we don’t have that yet. Hopefully we’ll get news soon. But to be in with a shout its needs to stay well clear of the exorbitantly expensive BMW’s pricing (AED240k), and closer – if not less – than the ATS at AED175,000. At the price it will have to engage in brutal fisticuffs with the cool Caddy. If they go lower, it might just be a no-brainer. Time will tell, but it’s definitely one for the short list.

[UPDATE – 25 June 2013] We’ve now got the full price list, and the IS350 range is rather more than we expected:

IS250 Premier – AED150k (US$41k)
IS250 Prestige – AED175k (US$48k)
IS350 Prestige – AED190k (US$52k)
IS350 Platinum – AED210k (US$57k)
IS350 F-Sport Prestige – AED210k (US$57k)
IS350 F-Sport Platinum – AED230k (US$63k)

Specs
2014 Lexus IS350
How much? (see above)
Engine: 3.5-litre V6, 306bhp @ 6400rpm, 277lb ft @ 4800rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
Fuel Economy: 12.3L/100km
Performance: 0-100kph 5.6 seconds, Top speed 230kph
Weight: 1680kg

Let us know what you think of the new Lexus IS below

3 responses to “2014 Lexus IS350 – First Drive”

  1. Afaq Shahid says:

    Amazing photos. Can you please tell a bit about your setup and settings?

  2. Mohamed Humaid says:

    A twin test I hear you say?! Only a triplet will do these strong contenders a fair job I say!

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