Well, the Japanese luxury brand’s IS sedan line hasn’t had a refresh since late 2016, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth a serious look. Especially if price, quality and comfort are your top priorities, and you like the polarising exterior design headlined by that huge spindle grille, Nike-swoosh daytime running lights and broad-shouldered profile.
We’re looking at the IS350, using the most powerful engine on offer, in mid-level F Sport spec, finished in Graphite Black and fitted with an optional sunroof. List price, $76,880 before on-road costs. The IS range is priced between $59,340 and $83,500.
While the company’s NX and RX crossover SUVs are now Lexus’s breadwinners, the IS remains important. This model is the third generation since 2000, and is expected to run until 2020. Australian sales sit well over 40,000 units, and top a million globally.
One thing Lexus has always done well is pack a million-and-one features into its cars as standard. It was doing this before the German brands came to the party and stopped making everything short of a steering wheel an optional extra, and continues to.
The F Sport gets features like: big padded leather seats with heating and ventilation, and driver’s side memory; a potent and crisp 15-speaker/835W audio system made by Mark Levinson; satellite navigation with SUNA updates; auto LED headlights; and rain-sensing wipers.
The cabin is classic Lexus, with key touchpoints along the transmission tunnel and doors covered in soft leather, rather fetching silver accents, an electric steering column, and racy steel pedals.
We also love the LFA-inspired instruments behind the steering wheel, where the motorised round centrepiece moves elegantly across to reveal enlarged display screens, plus the interesting vertically oriented touchbars to control cabin temperature. Just run your index finger up and down to adjust. Even the analogue clock is nice, if that’s your thing.
On the downside, the coupe-like silhouette means the front head room is pretty tight for anyone north of 190cm at the best of times, and not helped much by the $2500 optional sunroof.
The second-row seating is deeply bucketed – an almost 2+2 arrangement – with limited head room. The hump in the seatback and the huge tailshaft tunnel do limit its pitch as a proper five-seater, though in fairness the German and Italian rivals really aren’t any better. The boot is a modest 480L – again, not bad for the class. A space-saver spare lives under the floor.
Infotainment is operated via a 10.3-inch screen controlled by a rectangular device called the Remote Touch Controller. It’s a bit like a computer mouse with more restricted movement, controlling a cursor that scrolls over various menus and submenus.
Compared to BMW’s iDrive rotary dial, or a conventional touchscreen, it remains a bit fiddly, though you can adjust the levels of sensitivity. Lexus hasn’t fitted the IS with its new trackpad system with haptic feedback, which in some ways is even trickier to operate.
It also locks off numerous functions while the car is moving – passengers might find this annoying – and the place to rest your hand when using the controller is right in line with the cupholders. Using the system and carrying a cappuccino shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
In typical Toyota Group fashion, there’s also no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto phone mirroring, nor is there a Qi-standard wireless phone charger. We’re sure the 2020 model will offer more of this sort of thing.
You’re pretty well covered from an active-safety perspective, in addition to the 10 airbags. You get a pedestrian-friendly pop-up bonnet, radar-guided active cruise control, autonomous emergency braking (active between 30km/h and 180km/h) that also detects pedestrians, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-departure alert with steering assist.
This latter function nudges you between lines, though it’s not as effortless and clever as the latest Mercedes or BMW pilot systems (which are newer-generation), if that’s your thing. We’d also like to see the next iteration get a big, clear 360-degree camera system.
Like the Germans, the Lexus is rear-wheel drive, which traditionally means greater dynamism in exchange for inferior practicality. The suspension set-up is double wishbones at the front and multi-link at the rear. Despite the sporty bent, the IS is a little lardy – about 200kg heavier than a BMW 330i, which about matches it for price and pace.
At each corner there are active dampers linked to the drive-select system and actuated by oil moving through the valves at different rates, meaning it’ll lower the force over rougher roads and make the car feel stiffer in sportier settings to improve body control. The system’s ECU link also increases front damper force under emergency braking to prevent diving.
There’s not a great deal of variance between the settings, to be frank. At low speeds around town, one might find it a touch fidgety, but it’s nothing on the sportier Germans, while as speeds pick up it becomes much smoother. Noise suppression is also excellent, thanks to ample acoustic tech and insulation.
The F Sport variant naturally has a slightly more performance-oriented bent, though its wheels are still a sensible 18 inches, with tyres that are 30mm wider at the rear with a smaller aspect ratio (255/35 versus 225/40). That’s a decent amount of sidewall to cushion you.
The IS350 also gets a variable gear-ratio steering system, meaning not only are resistance levels changed by cycling through the driving mode dial (Comfort to Sport), but it can also change its ratio depending on vehicle speed and steering input. This makes it light around town and heavier, and more responsive, when you’re having a crack.
At the same time, it’s not as communicative and ideally weighted as the best performance sedans out there. Like the body control and ride comfort, it’s a decent enough effort at dynamism, but lacks an iota of engagement and polish. The whole car is sporty-ish, not sporty.
The engine is a bit of a throwback. The 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 makes 232kW of power and 380Nm of torque, the latter figure being no different to a 2.0-litre VW Golf R. This peak torque figure also arrives way up the rev band at 4800rpm.
The good thing is the engine loves to be revved freely. Modern downsized turbos give you everything just off idle, which makes them feel muscular, but detracts from driver enjoyment in some ways. A lusty old atmo six-pot like this just demands heavy throttle. The 0–100km/h time of 5.9 seconds is not too bad, and it sounds gruff doing it.
At the same time, driving hard takes the already iffy fuel-economy figure on the combined cycle of 9.5L/100km and adds at least 25 per cent. Matched to the engine is an eight-speed auto with paddles, which changes mapping with each driving mode, and chooses the smoothness route over the crisp, direct shotgun-fast route that a double-clutch unit might. Suits the car…
For those after something more modern and greener, there’s the circa $6000 cheaper IS300 F Sport with its 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine (0–100km/h in a claimed seven seconds), which makes its peak power earlier and its peak torque between 1650 and 4400rpm. It’s the pick in many ways – perhaps all ways bar the emotional aspect.
The 334x30mm front ventilated discs and 310x18mm rear ventilated discs pull the 1700kg car in well enough, though the stability control is very cautious (play it safe) and the foot-operated parking brake is nowhere near as ergonomic as an electric unit, and precludes the use of an Auto Hold function.
From an after-sales perspective, Lexus gives you a four-year/100,000km warranty and roadside assist, and will either give you a loan car or car to your home/office and pick up the car, then return it once they’re done. It’s always up there among the best for customer satisfaction.
To summarise, this writer still has a soft spot for the Lexus IS, despite its age and the fact that against our metrics it's not a class-topper. This is especially true in F Sport guise. It looks interesting, the atmo V6 is lovely, the NVH is excellent, the interior is plush, and it’ll go forever.
It’s not as objectively brimming with tech as a ’Benz C-Class or as dynamically adept as the BMW 3 Series, but at least its maker stands for something. There are reasons to buy one, put it that way, though we'd maybe just pocket the extra cash and grab the IS300 turbo-four version instead.
Photos by Joel Strickland. More in the gallery section.