The Lexus brand has always been one of luxury. Its vehicles, whether the more sporty IS, executive GS, or luxobarge LS (these being the mainstay of the company’s line up for close on 15 years) exist to take on the best of Europe with a persistent attention to quality.
But, when the new IS was launched last year, Lexus was keen to point out that this model would adopt an even sportier attitude than in previous generations.
The obvious attack here is on the BMW 3 Series, which has always maintained the perfect balance of being a comfortable yet exciting driver’s car, with space for the kids – the sports sedan. The Mercedes-Benz C-class and Audi A4 have, in the last decade or so, become more serious challengers to the BM.
But, the IS has remained rooted in that warm and cosy brand philosophy of comfort, convenience, reliability and luxury – although with a certain level of sportiness drivers might like on the odd occasion…
So, in its pursuit of 3 Series domination, has Lexus ruined the IS? The simple answer is no. That’s because the Japanese car maker made the clever move of repositioning the IS in the range while almost concurrently introducing the ES – which is priced at similar levels, but fulfils the more luxurious role. This has freed up the IS to concentrate on its new role of appealing to those who place much more emphasis on a sporty drive.
In appealing to the sportier driver, Lexus has ditched the smart and somewhat conservative appearance of models prior and given the new IS a radical façade that is absolutely sexy from the rear and sides, but takes some getting used to from the front.
Nevertheless, what about that drive? What has Lexus endowed the new IS with? Under the bonnet is a sonorous 3,5-litre V6 that produces 228 kW at 6 400 r/min and 375 Nm torque at 4 800 r/min. The engine is coupled to an eight-speed (yes, eight) automatic transmission. Lexus claims that it’ll sprint to 100 km/h in 5,9 seconds and top out at 225 km/h while consuming 9,7 l/100 km in combined cycle driving.
The F-Sport is fitted with large 18-inch boots (225 wide in front and 255 at the rear) and double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension – which should provide for sharp, stable handling and a comfy ride.
There is a host of electronic wizardry to set up the car’s ride, steering, gearbox and throttle characteristics. Sport mode sharpens the throttle response and keeps the gearbox on high-alert, while Sport+ further firms up the suspension and quickens steering response.
Does all this result in the sportiness Lexus was aiming for? Yes and no. That glorious, throaty engine pulls with alacrity – the car’s quick, but doesn’t feel quite as fast as the numbers suggest. While it’s exciting to drive in most circumstances, pushing it to its limits exposes a numbness that, frankly, ruins the experience … there’s not enough communication from the suspension, nor the steering, to give you the confidence to push any harder, whether in Sport or Sport+ modes.
That, though, doesn’t mean the car is ruined. As a sporty drive, any new or previous Lexus owner will be more than satisfied. So you could say that the company has achieved its goal. But it’s also done something quite remarkable – that level of comfort expected of a Lexus has not been lost.
With all the systems left in their normal (or Eco) modes the IS 350 is a quiet, comfortable, soothing drive. So soothing, it will climb a hill in sixth and potter around with a whisper in eighth gear the rest of the time – the most noise you’ll hear coming from those fat tyres on rough roads. This gives the driver and passenger time to bask in the sumptuous, confortable, beautifully designed interior (interior space has also noticeably increased all round) while enjoying some of the toys Lexus has packed into the IS.
Those fantastic, eight-way electrically adjustable seats have a heating and ventilation function, from which you can lounge back and watch a DVD on the seven-inch multimedia screen with eight-speaker surround sound. You can also integrate your iPod and Bluetooth devices and make use of the two USB ports. Satellite navigation is standard as is a multi-function reversing camera and voice control, but most of the time you’d control the systems via Lexus’s second-generation Remote Touch Interface control device. This operates in a similar manner to a computer mouse and works a treat.
Simply put, the IS 350 F-Sport is packed to the hilt with electronic indulgence – you can even customise the dials and vehicle information displays within the instrument binnacle, while setting the climate control temperatures is accomplished by sliding ones finger along an electrostatic bar. This part of the centre console, though, was the only disappointing, cheap-feeling touch-point in a vehicle that is otherwise of sublime quality.
And, at R571 500, you’d expect that it would be packed with both technology and that all-important Lexus luxury. It also features a host of safety features that includes 10 airbags; anti-lock brakes; electronic brakeforce distribution; traction and stability control; as well as tyre pressure monitors. That price also includes a four-year/100 000 km warranty and the Lexus Distance Plan Complete maintenance package.
As an ultimate driver’s sports saloon, the IS 350 F-Sport comes close to the likes of the BMW 3 Series benchmark, but doesn’t quite overtake it. However, at its heart, it is still a Lexus in the traditional sense; the company’s been able to combine these new and old qualities with aplomb. As a package, anybody who buys the IS 350 will love it.