From isn't to IS
Track Day: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
More aggressive than its predecessors in every way, the 2014 IS has mostly dropped its bland Toyota design cues for sexier sheet metal and interior styling, much of it à la the otherworldly LFA supercar. (Pricing for the new IS will be similar to current-gen models, which means those LFA styling cues come at a small fraction of the price — what a bargain!) The functional front brake-cooling ducts, integrated ducktail spoiler out back and wheels evocative of the LFA are notable attention grabbers. In person, the infamous Lexus spindle grill comes off as downright gnarly (good gnarly). The gauge cluster, also inspired by the LFA, features a trick moving center ring that can hide irrelevant information when drivers want to focus on only revs and speed. Aesthetically, the top-end, 300+ horsepower V6-motivated IS 350 F Sport… well, we’ll be damned if that sucker ain’t a little menacing. In fact, we caught a Tesla Model S driver rubbernecking to get a better look at our ride.
Inside, the sport driver’s seat wraps ribcage and ass areas with Facehugger firmness (though less parasitic). Engineers tilted the 2014 IS’s LFA-esque, multi-function steering wheel down and raised the driver seat’s hip point for an optimal driving position. Rear seat legroom is increased thanks to an extended wheelbase, which also helps stability at speed. Still, mostly because of its size, the IS isn’t on top of our road trip dream car list; besides, anyone on board would just be whining for a chance to drive. And while the 250 is available with all-wheel-drive, we drove only rear-drive models because they’re easier to drift. Err… so we’re told.
We’d love to have taken a couple shots at speed, but we were too busy trying to carve “I Love You, Mom” into our forearms with our fingernails to hold a camera steady.
Our afternoon with the IS 350 F Sport at the Driveway Austin track was spent unleashing our inner boy racer at triple-digit speeds, driving the IS back to back with a BMW 335i and a Mercedes C350 Sport. The winding, elevation-varied track features two straighter sections made for flat-out pedal/metal interaction. Rear-drive IS 350s feature an eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission, and in Sport+ mode (F Sport only) Lexus’s “G-force Artificial Intelligence” holds gears longer and delays downshifts based on braking and cornering G-forces. It works so well we blasphemed and all but ignored the wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The adaptive Variable Gear Ratio Steering didn’t feel artificial; the noticeably shorter turn-to-turn was an ally when tackling twisties, and generally beefy steering feel was what really sold us on the new Lexus. The IS borrows some of its steering and suspension parts from another favorite Lexus of ours, the GS, and the Adaptive Variable Suspension handily controlled roll and pitch. It was clear we weren’t in a go-kart, but when pushed, the IS didn’t exactly wallow from side to side, either. While racing around the track, we left the AVS dial in Sport+ (umm… duh) and were rewarded with super-sporting, Lexus-like luxury. The IS stayed comfortably planted on the straights and maintained an even keel through hairpins, reminiscent of an Olympic speed skater in a smoking jacket (which is a thing).
While our capacity for
hooning controlled, sporty driving is beyond adequate, we were treated to hot laps around the track as passengers with Lexus Performance Manager Yoshiaki Ito-san at the wheel to witness how the car felt when it was really pushing the limit. We’d love to have taken a couple shots of the track at speed, but we were too busy genuflecting and trying to carve “I Love You, Mom” into our forearms with our fingernails to hold a camera steady, especially after Ito-san turned around (at 100 MPH) to grin widely and ask the rear seat occupants how they were enjoying themselves. (Joke’s on him — we packed extra boxer shorts.) Needless to say, at the hands of a master, those laps — with four adults in the car — were far faster than any of our solo missions, and proved that, regardless of payload, the F Sport’s excellent handling coupled with surprisingly quick V6 acceleration makes blasting from apex to apex as direct and beautifully violent as an Olympic javelin sticking its mark.
While it’s got a couple hundred pounds over the 335i, the IS 350 F Sport’s tauter, heavier and downright impressive steering feel was a boon when pushing the car.
As we mentioned, there was some mainstay motoring metal accompanying us during our track time, and we drove each before and after sampling the Lexus wares. The relatively numb Benz C350 Sport was a Stuttgart Slowpoke on the track, which, for an untuned luxo-mobile, didn’t surprise us any. The Benchmark-from-Bavaria BMW 3-series, however, lived up to its torquey and quick nature, and was its well-known, point-and-shoot self during cornering. The Lexus won points in the fun category; at speed, the Bimmer felt uncomfortably large compared to the IS, which had a higher tossability factor due in large part to its wonderful steering quality. Still, we achieved nearly identical top-end numbers in the BMW, which is naturally a hoot to crank around bends, quick as a cheetah, and is a cinch to stop.
Piloting the Lexus at speed felt very intuitive: it seemed to suck to the asphalt and steer like a tight racer (which is what the F Sport is purpose-built to do). In comparison, the BMW, while firmly planted, did more gliding over the track and through corners, like it was a sporty luxury car cruising down the highway. While it’s got a couple hundred pounds over the 335i, the IS 350 F Sport’s tauter, heavier and downright impressive steering feel was a boon when pushing the car; the well-bolstered seats, which both the Benz and Bimmer lacked, glued us in place; and the beefy brakes stopped all hustle with no fuss.
To make this a fair comparison, the IS 350 F Sport should have been pitted against a 3-Series slotted somewhere between the 335i and the M3 — the Lexus may have had a tougher time keeping up with an M Sport-optioned 335i, for instance. It’s also important to note that though we were drawn to the IS for many reasons, we’re still describing it in terms of the 3-Series. So. It may not topple the sport sedan king. Regardless, the 2014 IS is one Lexus we wouldn’t be ashamed to hustle down the Autobahn.