Alright people, here we go...
I kicked off my test driving car research months ago when I test drove the BMW 335i and the Cadillac ATS. With all of the back and forth trash talk/praise with the new IS350, I thought it was only natural that this would be the next one on my list to check out.
There were only less than a handful of IS350 F-Sports in the entire city with the features that I wanted to check out specifically (Mark Levinson system and Variable Gear Ratio Steering were a must). I spent around 35 minutes in a Matador Red Mica F-Sport RWD with Black NuLuxe with Matte Black trim.The price was in the high $47k's which was incentivized $750 down from the low $48k's.
F Sport Package with Exclusive Adaptive Variable Suspension
Mark Levinson Sound System
Variable Gear Steering Ratio
Blind Spot Monitoring
-This was my second experience driving a Lexus and my first time driving an IS. Lexus gets a lot of cred from me specifically on how they've decided to design this car. It's aggressive and strange--without being downright hard on the eyes. Unlike some cars that have difficulty matching their sporty intentions going from the exterior to the interior, the IS350 manages to carry its unorthodox and sporty appearance through into the cabin. The cockpit-like cabin is a snug, quite high, mechanical-like, and even a bit busy, however, I think works for the most part. Lexus wants to make sure you realize that this car is meant to be driven and driven hard. It's a bold design that not everyone will like, but it is the quality and the craftsmanship and the consistency that I took note of the most.
-After Tina (from Lexus Sales/Leasing) took us off the lot and introduced me to some of the features of the car while I sat shotgun, I was finally able to get in the car and start driving. We spent a good 5 minutes just talking about the LFA instrument cluster, which is incredibly cool and is definitely a bragworthy component of an already technologically interesting car. The gauges are highly customizable and detailed--all of the controls in general are very easy to understand and use (probably moreso than Cadillac CUE). I also became a huge fan of the digital readout of the speedometer. Some people have complaints about the size of the main menu in the car, but I thought nothing of it. I thought it was just fine to me. I probably would've preferred that it was another 1.5" closer to the driver, but the size itself seemed standard.
-There were a few small touches that I liked. I liked the keyless entry access on the door handles that only requires a touch of the handle for unlocking instead of the press of a button, which is now becoming standard for cars in this class (The Q50 and BMW also has this feature). I also liked the fold down 60/40 rear seats and the large trunk opening (even though the trunk hinges go into the trunk space as opposed to being tucked away). I also liked the bright front daytime running lights despite their controversial design. I liked the signature F-Sport high bolstered seats. Even though the seating material isn't the kind of leather material that we're used to seeing in this segment, I never gave it a second look. I thought they looked good and felt comfortable and supportive. I also appreciated that the F-Sport badging on the exterior is very subtle and minimal.
-I took the car out of an open parking lot while Tina led me through a lot of different areas of the more "curvy" areas in Tucson and it didn't take long to see why Car and Driver picked the IS350 over the 335i M Sport and the ATS 3.6. WOW, what a machine! For my money--from a performance standpoint, the IS350 F-Sport is probably the most impressive car I've driven. Not from a blistering speed standpoint, but from the way it's able to do every thing so well. Whether in a straight line or in a curve, the IS350 is able to adapt to whatever speed, turn, or slope you throw at it. The adaptive suspension and steering in the IS350 provides excellent and precise handling and control of the car. Wherever you point it, it just goes there with no fuss out of the transmission or the tires whatsoever.
-The perforated steering wheel also gives a really good amount of control and grip on the wheel and is actually pleasing to the touch. The brakes are outstanding as well and the turning radius is tight and sharp. There's more than adequate road feel through the car and downshift rev-matching mating with the eight-speed transmission feels spot-on, especially while in DS+ mode. I almost never felt like the car was in the wrong gear. It made manual shifting with paddle shifters just that more enjoyable.
-As some of you might know, I like my music in my car. The Mark Levinson 15-speaker, 800+ watt system doesn't provide a whole lot of customizable settings or level adjustments other than the basics. However what it does provide is a really deep, crisp, and controlled sound. It took the hardest bass and treble of the songs I brought with me on my personal audio test CD that I always carry with me to test drives! ( ). It definitely handled itself better than the current system in my G37. I also was able to integrate my iPod with the IS350 with no issues whatsoever.
-I'm not sure if this is a Pro or not, but I do appreciate that the IS350 has a Snow mode and an Eco mode. Sure, this is becoming more of a standard on most performance cars, but I think having this can go a long way in having a way to better deal with various different driving situations, especially for a RWD car. Of course the IS350 also has a Drive Sport mode and F-Sport exclusive Drive Sport+ mode as well. The latter of which obviously provides the most amount of fun without ever feeling too overwhelming or harsh. It's just plan fun.
-Some of the issues with the car stems from how Lexus has decided to differentiate the F-Sport from the other trims in the IS350. For example, if you want the F-Sport, you have to give up the option of memory seating, ventilated seats, rain-sensing wipers, and lane departure warning--Better look elsewhere if you want the F-Sport. So unfortunate! Even on the non F-Sports, there is no heads-up display feature or around view monitor technologies.
-I really wish this car had memory seating/steering wheel positioning because the roof line of this car can be very tight and make entry/exit a little bit of a nuisance. It's a smaller car than the G37 for sure, but at least if there was a memory function, I'd be able to get myself into the car without bumping my knees into the wheel or doing the funky chicken trying to get into the car from where I last had it positioned for my driving style. This is such a huge selling point for me as I've really gotten used to how much of an advantage this can be for those that like their steering wheels low and close while driving or may need some additional leg room when they're sitting.
-Another nitpick I had is how little storage space the IS350 has. The center console is quite narrow and since it shares the same horizontal space as the cupholders, there's not a whole lot of space to put anything in there other than your iPod or maybe a few pens or napkins or something.
-Again, as with the GS350, the mouse controlled infotainment menu system is a large learning curve and a half. Being able to navigate the menus entirely via the mouse while driving is not the most intuitive in the world, but it's not that the system is necessarily bad. In comparison to the Q50, it does seem to be less intuitive and a bit more cluttered than InTouch. I didn't mess around with it as much as I wanted this time but I'm sure it'll take several months to truly master the settings and controls without running off the road trying to fidget around with it. At least most of all of the important features are easily controlled through physical buttons on the console or the steering wheel or through voice-navigation. I just wish Lexus would replace the mouse with at least a knob like everyone else. This could heavily cut down on acclimation time.
-This is a personal preference nitpick of mine, but I've never been a fan of carbon fiber trim. This car doesn't provide the option of any other kind of trim such as wood or aluminum, which is a shame. So, I can't say whether or not the silver carbon fiber trim just didn't look good or it was of poor quality (it may be a combination of both), but either way it's never been my cup of tea. It's not by any means a dealbreaker for me, but I would personally prefer a clean aluminum trim over this and probably even a soft ash wood grain over the aluminum if it were offered.
So, I break it down like this:
Looks: 8/10 (Say what you will about this car--this is a head turner for sure. Good or bad, the car invokes a reaction and unique style that will keep it easy to tell apart in the parking lots. The interior might be less premium-feeling and too mechanical for some, but I find it as an interesting middleground that wants to focus on sportiness without feeling too stale.)
Performance: 10/10 (For this segment, this car is tons of fun. It's not the greatest at any one thing, but it's soo good at everything. It really handles like a sports car with personality. With its well balanced chassis, smooth 8-speed transmission, quick shifting in DS+ mode, and precise steering, it's probably the most well rounded performer of a car I've ever driven.)
Personal Practicality and Appeal: 7.75/10 (The Lexus nameplate and prestige alone will help sell this car but I have a feeling it'll be all over the road in a few years. The dimensions of the car are a little bit tighter than the G37, particularly in headroom and front space, but it still works for me. There are some ergonomic nitpicks here and there and the fuel economy could be better. However, it's light and tossable, and has a nice trunk.)
Options/Tech: 6.75/10 (I'm really digging all the Lexus apps, the audio system is great, the controls are responses are quick and simple, and the customizable digital instrument cluster is a huge selling point. However, there are a lot of small things that this car is still missing that's holding it back. I'm still not a fan of the mouse controller to navigate the menu options.)
(I gave the Cadillac ATS a 7.5/10 and the BMW 335i M Sport a 8.6/10)
Bottom Line: The Lexus IS surprised the heck out of me. Unlike the BMW 335i, this car has found the better balance of a solid chassis, dead-on steering, power, and road feel. I like its interior styling, the exterior look, and the technology itself is responsive and interesting yet flawed. Where I think it really falls short in (and this is the only reason why it doesn't beat the 335i) is providing the additional luxury and technology features and options that the higher competition offers. It also loses a few points due to having mediocre fuel economy and limited storage.
I understand that Lexus wants the F-Sport to be primarily for those looking for performance over luxury, but there are several other cars out there (like the 335i and the Q50) that are offering the mix of both albeit at a premium. The Lexus IS350 is a true performance sedan, but not a driver's sedan. If Lexus can find a way to mitigate some of these additional Luxury and Technology features into the F-Sport model at least with the option, Lexus will truly have a complete car on their hands.