The Lexus IS 350 is without doubt one of the most complete packages for a car in its class.
The current-generation Lexus IS range has been around since 2005, however Australian buyers had to do without the IS 350 until late last year.
Lexus has taken the familiar 3.5-litre V6 engine found across the Toyota range and managed to fine-tune its performance figures to 233kW of power and 378Nm of torque. That results in a very quick 0-100km/h acceleration time of 5.6 seconds.
Best of all, prices for the Lexus IS 350 start from just $64,800 and if you were to compare that to German offerings with similar performance, you'd be adding at least another $10,000 to the price tag.
So what’s the catch? Well, not much. The one you’d go for is the Lexus IS 350 F Sport (tested here), which has a list price of $71,800, but even that is still significantly cheaper than the BMW 335i ($108,200) and Mercedes-Benz C 350 diesel ($94,400). Unlike its German rivals, it’s pretty much option-less, as in, it comes with everything standard bar a moonroof.
Despite my utmost admiration and love for the IS F, I haven’t been the biggest fan of the IS 250. Although more than good enough for the majority, it's never been my cup of tea. So when it came to picking up the Lexus IS 350, I wasn’t really expecting much.
It was with that mindset that I drove out of Lexus’s Brisbane dealership in Indooroopilly without much enthusiasm. A quick left and a right turn led me to a free stretch of road so that I could feed the V6 a bit of juice. It’s often the case that if you get in to a new car with a preconceived notion, that tends to carry through. In the case of the Lexus IS 350 though, it only took five minutes for me to change my mind and I was happier than a pig in… well, mud.
There is something very special and unique about certain cars, some people call it soul, others call it character. The Japanese have been unduly criticised for lacking both. Fortunately for the Lexus IS 350, it oozes it without even trying.
Power delivery from the 3.5-litre V6 is instant, extreme and without hesitation. The second you touch that accelerator pedal the engine roars to life, pushing you back into the seat. Although a very different tune to the IS F, the mechanical nature of the exhaust note is very much Japanese at heart - it’s as if someone is orchestrating the soundtrack being emitted in real time.
As with the IS F, the IS 350’s rear end is wild and always wanting to play. Lexus’s traction control does a good job of keeping it in line, but turn it off and you’ll quickly realise just how balanced the IS chassis really is.
The reason I’d highly recommend the IS 350 F Sport is due to the variant’s unique suspension package, which includes changes to the front and rear suspension (coil springs shortened by 10mm), wheel/tyre package (18-inch diameter alloy wheels and 40-aspect ratio tyres) and electric power-assisted rack and pinion steering (steering-gear ratio of 13:6:1, compared with 13:5:1 for the other IS 250/350 model grades).
All of that means sportier handling, better cornering ability and much more fun for those of us who enjoy going around corners for the sake of it. To be fair, the steering feel is similar to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan but not as heavy as the BMW 335i. Where the BMWs give you ample feedback and tighten around bends, Lexus and Mercedes have gone for a slightly more comfortable (lighter) steering feel.
If you’re coming from a BMW, you’ll instantly notice the different steering feel and may require some time to adjust, but otherwise it's a non-issue.
The six-speed gearbox is a generation behind the seven-speed found in the new C-Class but on par with the six-speed in the BMWs. Either way, it does an excellent job of extracting all the power and torque from the V6. Equipped with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the IS 350 can go from being a docile daily commuter to a proper sports cars almost instantly. While the IS F is always a sports car and feels like one at all times, the IS 350 F Sport is a true middle ground for those who want a sports car, but not 24/7.
The 5.6 second 0-100km/h time should give you an idea of just how quick this is (in comparison, the $129,000 IS F does it in 4.8 seconds). Its more expensive direct rival is surprisingly slower, with the BMW 335i doing the same dash in 5.8 seconds.
The F Sport is equipped with comfortable F-style bucket seats that hold you in around corners but also provide genuinely good back support for those long journeys.
The rear seats are as expected for a Lexus: comfortable and plush. You wouldn’t want to have more than two adults in the back seat for prolonged periods of time though.
If you heed my advice and go for the F Sport, you’ll also get IS F-style steering wheel, scuff plates, gear knob and sports pedals. If you ever happen to look up, you’ll also notice the black roof lining.
Something I would have liked to see improved further on the IS 350 was the centre instrument cluster. Although Lexus has done a minor rework of the interior, there is still a sense that this car was designed back in 2005. In comparison with its direct German rivals, the IS falls short in this regard.
From the outside, the 2011 Lexus IS 350's look is enhanced with assertively designed upper and lower grilles (wider), recessed fog lamps as well as restyled headlamps. LED daytime running lamps also help modernise the revamped model. The rear end is updated with larger exhaust tips and darker taillights.
Overall, the facelifted design leaves a more masculine look than before, which is particularly pronounced in the IS 350 F Sport as it gains unique shadow chrome alloy wheels.
During the course of week, our Lexus IS 350 test car was put through its paces in peak hour traffic, around the twisty roads of Mount Glorious and driven on some poorly surfaced roads. It managed all tasks with ease, never complaining in the process. It’s an all around perfect daily sedan with heaps of potential for enthusiastic driving when the time comes.
Much like all Lexus models, the IS 350 comes with the best in safety technology. In the IS 350’s case, that means eight SRS airbags and Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM). If you decide to go for the Sport Luxury variant, you’ll also get Active Cruise Control (which will follow the car in front at the same speed) and Pre-Collision Safety System (Pre-Collision Brake).
As much as it pains me to say it, the Lexus IS 350 almost negates the need for an IS F. Sure, the IS F is fantastic in all regards (and the V8's soundtrack is second to none), but unless you plan on tracking your IS F (or you want to out-do your neighbour’s BMW M3), the IS 350 is as fast and sporty as you’ll ever need for day to day driving.
You can indeed test drive it against the Germans, but remember the price difference is substantial. The current Lexus IS range has been around for some time, but given the recent facelift, it’s more than likely to remain the same shape for at least a few more years. If you’ve ever wanted a proper and practical luxury sports sedan for well and truly under 100k, the Lexus IS 350 is the ideal choice.
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