There are a few highly capable cars in the current Sports Sedan segment and the Lexus IS 350 F Sport is a bone fide member of that club.
I’m pushing the Lexus IS350 across some very twisty roads in Eastern Tasmania, and the car’s grip and stability is extraordinary. Pushing on even harder through an endless series of s-bends, and nothing changes, it’s still super glued to the tarmac.
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Folks, this is no ordinary sports sedan and the Lexus engineers deserve high praise – the IS 350 F Sport makes good and proper use of an exceptionally well-balanced chassis and drivetrain.
While it’s been a long time coming, it’s been worth the wait, as the saying goes. That said Lexus Australia has been lobbying Japan for the IS 350 for years. The problem came down to the numbers. Back when Australia first requested the car in 2005, those all-important sales numbers didn’t stack up. They do now. Australia is an important Lexus market and only the fourth to get the IS 350 model range behind the United States, Canada and Japan.
Moreover you can’t go to war with the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz and their exhaustive range of models and variants, without sufficient inventory of high-tech ammunition – in this case, more models that measure up to the likes of BMW’s talented BMW 3 Series stable.
It’s a lucrative market if you can grab enough of it and that’s something Lexus aims to do with the introduction of the IS 350, and I reckon they might be on to something with this car.
If 400 kilometres behind the wheel of the F Sport tells me anything, it’s that this is a car, which can go head-to-head with BMW’s 335i and equivalent offerings from Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
The glaring point of difference is of course price, and true to Lexus form, the IS 350 with an entry-level price of just $64,800 is some $20,000 to 30,000 less than its closest German counterparts.
The IS 350 also plays a vital role for Lexus in Australia, as it bridges the gap between the IS 250 and the IS F.
Mind you, that’s a big gap if you happen to be a bit of an enthusiast driver. The IS line was always billed as a sports sedan, but the ‘250’ never really delivered on that promise and those buyers have had to shop elsewhere, up until now, that is.
It's not that the Lexus IS 250 is slow; it’s just not quite as responsive as many had hoped for, although it ticks all the right boxes when it comes to luxury, comfort and even handling. Hardly surprising that, given it’s the same chassis as the IS 350 and the much-heralded IS F is built on.
Naoki Fujisawa, Assistant Chief Engineer, agreed, when he said,
“In 2005, the current generation IS debuted with its L-Finesse styling and advanced safety features. However, its chassis was always destined for greater things.Lexus has already proven the chassis composure of IS in the form of the IS F. However, for many customers IS F is one step too far, and this is where IS 350 fits in: neatly between IS 250 and IS F.”
With IS 350, buyers have the choice of three grades, Prestige, F Sport and Sports Luxury. If you enjoy your time behind the wheel and are any sort of motoring enthusiast, then allow me to recommend no other than the F Sport, for a few choice reasons, one being the superb suspension tune.
Next up on the list, you get extra bolstered sports seats, similar, if not identical to those deployed in the IS F. Not only do these pews hold your frame bolt upright while pulling a lateral ‘G’ or two in a hairpin, but also they are supremely comfortable and trimmed in luxurious semi-aniline perforated leather.
Other F Sport features include; special black roof lining and silver-blue centre console, along with IS F style scuff plates, sports pedals and gear knob, as part of the revised interior/exterior upgrades on the entire IS model range.
There are no such shortcomings with the all-new IS 350, despite the absence of any forced induction. Under the bonnet sits a Quad Cam V6 developing 233 kW and 378 Nm. That’s good enough to outpace anything in the class. Try 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds and on to a top speed of 270km/h.
There’s also a mountain of torque available too in each and every gear ratio, and that includes sixth, which pulls strongly at speed.
Plant your right foot and leave it there for a bit, and I sincerely doubt you will need certified clarification of those numbers listed above. This is a proper ‘fast car’ that also happens to do corners as well as it does straight-line sprints.
It’s uncanny how much pace the F Sport can carry into tight bends, and there are simply no bad side effects. At one stage, during a particularly tight section on the limit, I felt a hint of understeer, but pushed on regardless, as the traction control simply worked it’s magic with seemingly no loss of power.
It’s not just the chassis you need to thank Fujisawa for, the 18-inch rims shod with split size 225/40 and 255/40 series rubber, offer gecko-like grip and beg you to push on harder.
And don’t think for one minute that such extreme grip and stability has come at the expense of ride quality. If anything, Fujisawa and his team have dialed in more compliance into the IS chassis, making for a cushioned ride over poorly maintained surfaces.
As quick as this thing is, the 3.5-litre V6 powertrain is exactly what you would expect from Lexus; silky smooth with an effortless power delivery while at the same time being highly-responsive to the slightest driver input.
Similar praise can be showered on the electric power-assisted steering set-up. Initially though, on day one of the drive program, when I wasn’t quite as committed, I thought the feedback through the steering wheel felt a little remote and somewhat typical of most electric power assist units. On day two though, when the pace got decidedly quicker, I can’t think of single bend (and we dissected hundreds), when I felt the steering feedback and the level of assistance wasn’t near perfect for this kind of spirited driving.
The same goes for the F Sport’s brake package, taken directly from the fast charging Lexus GS 460. You’ll need plenty of fast laps at Philip Island before you'll induce any kind of brake fade with these stoppers.
We tried hard on several occasions to generate enough heat in the rotors to weaken the brakes with literally scores of hard pedal applications, but the stopping power was every bit as good as it was during middle of the drive program.
If I had any criticism of the IS350 F Sport, it would be the rather slow up-shifts when using the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. A quicker shifting unit would make the world of difference to what clearly is an outstanding performance vehicle.
One of the questions I asked Fujisawa, when he was riding shotgun with us, was which cars he benchmarked when tuning the F Sport? I expected him to say none other than the 335i. In fact, it was the IS F that was used to create this IS 350 F Sport variant and something that is blatantly obvious to anyone who has driven the car with some intent.
For those readers that were concerned about rear legroom in the IS line, I must apologise that I didn’t get a chance to explore this area in any detail with the IS 350, except to say that several of the press cars carried 3-4 adult passengers over several hundred kilometres and I’m not aware of any gripes about that or the overall load space in the boot, which in our case, which easily consumed 5 overnight bags and some camera gear.
For those that need to ask about Lexus and standard features on board the IS 350, highlights include; satellite navigation, heated seats, reversing camera, HID headlamps with Daylight Running Lamps and metallic paint.
While the Lexus IS 350 represents unassailable value over all similarly powered German rivals, so to does the IS 350 F Sport at $71,800. This is not just a good effort, this is an exceptional sports sedan at a bargain basement price.
CarAdvice will post a more complete review and road test of the IS 350 model range in the near future.