Octane
By Amos Kwon
on 3.17.14

How many times have you pined for a gleaming BMW (with required Sport Package, of course) as it quickly and precisely tears past your fairly respectable family sedan? After flipping it the bird, partly out of anger and mostly out of envy, you know in your heart of hearts that you want one. The Ultimate Driving Machine. It’s not just you and your BMW ad that say so. Across countless comparos, the iconic 3-Series has been the ruler of all; when you hear the words “sports sedan”, the BMW 3-Series really is the first car that comes to mind. They’re first and foremost drivers’ cars. Silky smooth inline-six engines, great suspension, wicked good brakes and carefully calculated front-to-rear weight ratios all go into the delicious recipe. Am I biased? Hell, I own a BMW 3-Series that’s several years older than my daughter, so yes, I am. But here’s the truth, without spin: I still love tearing up the neighborhood on my spirited trip to the grocery store to get baby wipes. It’s a fantastic car, hands down.

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And then there’s Lexus, what amounts to the staple ride of middle-aged women everywhere. Great cars, for sure, and they nailed their target market (figuratively) by delivering solidly built machines of quiet comfort and unparalleled reliability. Sure, the luxury arm of Toyota has made efforts towards a modicum of sportiness in the past, but those efforts have seemed like putting a dash of Tabasco sauce on a slice of white sandwich bread hoping to jazz things up a bit. The first two generations of IS cars were good, not great. They at least showed that Lexus was interested in becoming interesting. The IS-F tried its hand at BMW M panache and power but never quite achieved what it had set out to do.

Then came the stupendous LFA supercar. If you’ve driven one or ridden in one, as I have been fortunate enough to, you realize what automotive wonderment Lexus has created. It’s a car of uncompromising technology and performance — the kind of beast that will make you shout for joy as you soil yourself.

BMW has spent the past several years making its cars more luxurious and better appointed for its upmarket customers. Just look at the change through just three generations of the 3-Series: a current 2013 F30 335i makes an older 2003 E46 330i look like a reject from Budget Rent-a-Car. While BMW was upping the luxury, Lexus was moving in the opposite direction, not by making their cars any less luxurious, but instead placing a stronger emphasis — maybe even a bull’s-eye target — on sportiness. What followed was nothing short of a rebranding of Lexus. Their design language was made sportier and edgier, sure, but their driving experience also become something altogether different, especially for the IS. The new spindle grille, controversial as it may have been, signified the start of change at Lexus. When it finally made its way to the new IS350 F Sport, the grille was bigger, angrier and led the charge for a wholly new IS that the critics took notice of, and loved.

Since the 3-Series is BMW’s cash cow, they’ve sought to cater more to the masses than to the enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Lexus has enticed the same driving-focused customers BMW is losing.

The BMW 335i, in contrast, even with the more performance-oriented M Sport Package, lacks the same driving excitement, chassis greatness and steering feel precision of the two earlier generation 3-Series cars. Complaints among Bimmerphiles are rampant, not because the car isn’t good, but because it’s not BMW-good when it comes to pushed-hard driving feel. It’s like finding out that your mom’s secret pasta-carbonara recipe has been adulterated by some noob who thinks pancetta can be replaced by Oscar Meyer bacon. It’s not technically bad, but it’s downright wrong.

This is where the Lexus does it right. The “Sport” in IS350 F Sport really does mean sport. You can drive it all day and feel comfortable, but when you want to let it all hang out, the car performs superbly. The steering is precise, requiring the right amount of effort as you drive it harder. Body roll is imperceptible; you can take it around a turn where the pavement isn’t perfect, and the chassis still feels unflappable. It’s not what you expect from the brand, and you’re surprised at how incredibly composed the car is — all this without feeling “German”.

It doesn’t compromise the luxury aspect of the brand, either. Panel gaps are tight and the construction of the IS is solid. Plus, the interior is well appointed and comfortably sporty. It’s not quite as posh as the BMW in appearance, but the material quality, driving position and overall cabin feel are excellent. All of this success, especially in the area of handling, is a shock to the system, albeit a very good one that’s been a long time coming.

What happened here? The kind of driving excellence from BMW we’ve come to know over the decades isn’t completely lost. But since the 3-Series is BMW’s cash cow, it seems they’ve sought to cater more to the masses than to the enthusiasts, while Lexus is looking to draw those same driving-focused customers that BMW just might be losing. The timing, at least for Lexus, is uncanny. No doubt their IS350 will prove to be a top-seller in the sports sedan segment.

What all of this translates to for the car world is a greater competitiveness that should lead to better products. We’re seeing it not just from the Far East but from our own home turf (Cadillac ATS and CTS), in response to what BMW has delivered for decades. Sure, it takes more than just one great model to establish a potent kingdom in the car world, but for now the BMW 3 has to get off the gilded chair and let the new kid have the scepter of power.

CHEERS, JEERS? We’d love to hear from you. Email the author at akwon@gearpatrol.com and let him know what you think. It’s what warms our oil pans. Thanks for reading.

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