Mountain Wheels: The Lexus IS 350 — not quite sporty, but getting there
May 24, 2014
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
MSRP: $41,700; as tested, $47,480
Powertrain: 306-HP 3.5-liter V6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA mpg figures: 21 combined; 19 city, 26 highway
The efforts by Lexus to spice up its brand's offerings have recently gone into warp drive with news of the new and ridiculously sporty RC racer and even the futuristic NX crossover.
In the meantime, last year's re-launch of the popular IS line — the smaller and more sport-oriented end of the multivariate Lexus sedan spectrum — did indeed produce a vehicle that's absorbed a healthy dose of the brand's angular aspirations, handed down from the absolutely insane LF-A supercar.
In practical terms, that means that the all-wheel-drive IS 350 I drove indeed gained a bit of interior room and added the cheese-grater/wind-tunnel mess of angles to its nose, but it's retained a 3.5-liter V6 engine for 306 available-when-you-really-need-it horsepower. Rear-seat room is now much improved with 3.6 extra inches of wheelbase, as well, versus the extremely cramped spaces in ISes of old; getting access to those pleasantly comfortable seats is still a bit of a head-dodging effort, given the sharp roof lines.
Probably the biggest deal, literally, is a center console between the two front seats that's so unbelievably tall and gigantic that you'll think you're sitting in a first-generation Hummer. I suspect that a relatively wide range of Americans simply won't fit into that very sports-car-styled space, and those who do will spend a lot of time with their knees whacked up against an admittedly pillowy, leathery wall of … well, wall.
Even with the larger of two engine choices, IS is not overtly sporty, despite paddle shifters to help you more actively engage the six-speed transmission. I found the steering heavy and the ride acceptably sprung. It's not a screamer in workaday circumstances, but you'll be impressed if you get a chance to lay into the pedal as the IS blurts off the gear changes and really gets going in a style reminiscent of the higher-powered IS-F edition.
As I remember from the product presentation a year ago, Lexus engineers used a glue-and-laser body-bonding process to improve overall rigidity, as well as sway bars and a rear suspension swapped over from the upmarket GS.
The story apparently changes just a bit in the rear-wheel-drive rendition of the IS, which gets the complicated eight-speed automatic transmission from that crazy IS-F. And an upgrade to the F-Sport edition adds 18-inch wheels and an adaptive suspension to give it all a little more of that "fun to drive" character, which was just a little missing in the version I drove.
You might be awestruck by the IS and its impressive, spindle-shaped grille and the pronounced aerodynamic lip, or you might appreciate the exaggerated, sweeping lines that run from the rear door and into the rear panels. Or the offset side mirrors that still look like Shrek's ears.
Interior design is, as you'll find in our current age of overachieving autos, a mixed bag of influences and surfaces. IS adapts an odd, rounded shelf for a dash, and there's that ridiculously oversized center channel.
Oddly, my relatively well- outfitted IS 350's luxury and technology package, in a flat-black panel, looks like 1980s component sound equipment, not unlike the setup inside a Nissan GT-R supercar (plus odd, touch-sensitive sliders for temperature controls). A spinning selector knob didn't really reveal much on-screen functionality, but incredibly random pictures of bands will, however, pop up on XM Radio and even be pulled from your CDs and MP3s.
Another knob will move the car between a low-response Eco mode and a higher-revving, red-instrument-themed Sport mode, but might not be worth an entire knob of its own. Even the pushbutton starter is way up high on the dash, an odd choice; a smartphone-sized indentation on the center console is, however, a nice touch.