The Lexus IS used to be so cool. It was the car that gave us Altezza lights, which spread like a virus across every even vaguely performance-oriented car in early 2000s high school parking lots. The IS was the little fun Lexus everyone wanted to emulate. But after driving the latest one, I’m not sure who it’s for anymore, and I don’t think Lexus even knows.
[Full disclosure: Lexus wanted me to drive their new IS 350 so badly that they left one in F Sport trim at my house with a full tank of gas for a week.]
The IS is Lexus’ line of compact luxury cars. They built up a reputation as a solid drivers’ car with its much-copied-by-JC-Whitney, Supra-engined first generation sedan, a car that offered ample power from a nice inline six-cylinder engine and decent handling. Oh, and those swoon-worthy lights. While it never unseated the BMW 3 Series, it was a cool and interesting-looking rear-drive sedan that remains popular for tuners.
But as Lexus became more associated with Mom’s runabout crossover and less with sport compacts, the IS’s sporty reputation has fallen away somewhat.
The current-generation IS launched in 2013. And this version, the IS 350 F Sport, is trying to be a angry little sports sedan with its aggressive looks and a solid 3.5-liter V6 pumping out 308 horsepower and 277 ft-lb of torque to the correct, rear wheels.
Yet it’s let down by an unenthusiastic eight-speed automatic transmission and a weirdly un-rear-wheel-drive-like tendency to understeer.
The F Sport package is mostly programming, suspension and looks. Certain visual cues, like an F Sport cross-hatch grille, five-spoke 18-inch wheels, heated and ventilated sport seats and a revised instrument cluster give it away even before the numerous F Sport badges do. An F Sport-specific Adaptive Variable Suspension and Sport Plus mode can make it more responsive than its base-model counterparts.
No manual transmission is available, although you can get an all-wheel-drive version if you live in colder climates or prefer to hoon your Lexus on the dirt for some reason. (Which we’re all for.)
Eventually, you get tired of seeing the same German cars over and over again. Office parking lots are chock full of bros who bought a BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class or Audi A4 the second they got their first promotion. It’s nice to have another take on the genre.
For that, the IS is Lexus’ second most popular car in the United States after the less interesting grandma-spec ES, according to Toyota’s September 2017 sales data.
But most importantly, we here at Jalopnik love a good sport compact. They’re practical! They’re fun! Better yet, this is one of the few small rear-wheel-drive sedans left nowadays, and for that, the IS gets points for merely existing.
The biggest pluses of this car really do mirror the reasons why people keep coming back to Lexus even though competing marques’ cars are more innovative, more exciting or more useful: it’s the comfortable choice. (Presumably the maintenance-free one, too.)
The IS 350's 3.5-liter, 24-valve, dual overhead cam 2GR-FSE V6 engine has been around for a while, but it is smooth. Thankfully, Lexus’ little sport sedan hasn’t hopped onto the turbo bandwagon yet, instead relying on smoother variable valve timing to deliver more power in higher revs. It’s adequate for the 3,737-lb car, and doesn’t have the annoying lag of some of the similarly powerful turbocharged engines in its class. It’s not the cool inline-six the first IS had, but it is nice to drive a real naturally aspirated six nonetheless.
Like other Lexuses I’ve driven lately, you can easily drop into the front seats and not want to get up. The ten-way adjustable power driver’s seat is nicely supportive, with ample bolstering and a lumbar support that can move up and down to match the height of the driver. They’re just a good shape, and the red leather that came on our test car was especially sharp looking.
Lexus may be dead set on being the comfortable, safe choice for drivers who don’t want to buy the 47th BMW 3 Series in the marketing department alone, but they made one crucial mistake with our tester’s interior. The little open bin that most have under the main dashboard components was gone.
In its place was a plate noting—too largely—the car’s optional Mark Levinson 5.1 surround sound system. It’s a 15-speaker, 835-watt system that was added as part of a $2,835 technology upgrade package to our tester, and while I’m not an audiophile in the slightest, it just sounded okay to me. Nothing ground-breaking. Certainly not worth taking up the space of my junk, key and phone hole in the car to advertise. It’s bizarre to see a car without that ubiquitous dashboard cubby nowadays, but here it was.
What do they expect me to do for this junk, use the caverous black hole known as the central console? Or occupy a cupholder with it when I need caffeine like I need air and food? Ha! This is America! Our cupholders are sacred.
Lexus has a bad habit of making truly baffling interior choices for all the things that fit around its seats, and the IS is no different. It has the single twitchiest joystick-style controller I’ve ever tested in a car for its central infotainment screen, which looks outdated even though this is a current model year 2017 car.
A lack of overt feedback in the knob means that it’s difficult to control even when parked, and forget trying to fix settings while driving. Fortunately, all of the major air conditioner controls were buttons, so that was at least one thing you didn’t have to go into the menus for.
The gauge pod has a clever looking bezel in the middle for the tachometer and digital speedometer that physically moves over to open up menus to the side. While cute and fun to watch move around, it’s behind a piece of clear plastic that’s seems to catch glare no matter how you’re turned.
The IS is fine, if not a bit bland, in regular city driving. You’ll sink comfortably into the big seats and be fine. The less aggressive Eco or Normal drive modes will do an okay job of smoothing out the bumps on the road. You will get stuck in traffic, and start to wonder what’s behind that big block-off plate that’s somehow more important than offering a wallet space.
What’s not so fine is the IS 35o F Sport’s gas mileage. Around town, I was seeing 15 and 16 miles per gallon in fuel consumption despite its EPA city rating of 19. I only saw over 20 miles per gallon on a longer freeway drive, although it’s miraculously rated for 28 mpg there. Combined is supposed to be 22 mpg, but how?
I know both our photographer Kurt Bradley and I tend to be lead-foots, but there’s usually less of a discrepancy between the EPA’s listed numbers for fuel economy and what we see in the car. The IS 350 simply ate gas without delivering the fun-factor to justify it.
Don’t be fooled by the tempting looking paddles behind the steering wheel. This is a plain vanilla automatic eight-speed transmission. Pulling a paddle takes a moment to respond. Why hasn’t a dual-clutch transmission at least made its way into the IS 350 F Sport yet?
Sport and Sport Plus modes make the suspension firmer and more responsive, but the car was always just a bit understeery, with all 3,737 lbs making themselves known in turns. Perhaps this is just the factory settings that are meant to be safe for the masses, but it was surprisingly bland to drive the IS 350 F Sport aggressively.
It’s hard for me to figure out what exactly Lexus wants this car to be. It certainly looks like it should be fun to drive—especially in the sleek black paint that came on our tester—but it falls short, offering a humdrum driving experience mated to a wholly uninvolving slushbox. And again, Lexus leads in customer service and reliability, so it will score points there.
Yet it’s not practical enough to be a comfort-focused commuter sled, with puzzling interior choices and abysmal gas mileage for a small car. It’s still not quite the performer that a BMW 3 Series is, and with newcomers like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Jaguar XE and Genesis G70, this market is more crowded than ever.
I guess this is the safe choice if you want a solid dealership network and reliable mechanicals, but in the IS 350 F Sport’s case, safety comes at the expense of meh.
The IS 350 F Sport starts at an MSRP of $41,370, with our tester loaded up to $49,530 in options. Its F Sport package has nowhere near the performance chops of the old V8-powered IS F and is more show than go.
Overall, it’s less expensive than the comparable BMW 340i and more powerful than any of the Mercedes C class or Audi A4 sedans. Yet certain features—notably, the availability of a dual-clutch or manual transmission that would be more fun to drive—are missing from the Lexus.
It’s an option if you want something different in a rear-wheel-drive compact luxury sedan, but it’s not the most fun one for your money.
Some cars do very well at blending comfort, practicality and fun, but the IS 350 F Sport isn’t quite one of them. Lexus is putting out some truly interesting cars like the LC 500 nowadays in an attempt to shake the boring off, but that hasn’t trickled back down to the humble IS just yet.
The 2017 car is just a refreshed version of a car that’s been on the market four years now, though, so with Lexus’ noticeable push to be less boring, I can’t wait to see what they come out with for the next generation. But for now, the current IS 350 F Sport misses the mark.