2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD Review

Can Lexus build a Bimmer beater?

2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD Review

The folks at Lexus are no longer content building bulletproof but boring luxury cars; they want to offer customers more passionate products. To meet this goal they’ve made their enthusiast-focused F Sport trim level available on six vehicle lines. These upgraded models target buyers who want more style and enhanced driving dynamics. Vehicles ranging from the RX crossover to the CT hybrid, all the way up to the company’s LS flagship are available in F Sport trim.

FAST FACTS

1. The 2014 Lexus IS 350 is powered by a 3.5L V6 that pumps out 306 horsepower with 277 lb-ft of torque.

2. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard on rear-wheel-drive versions of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport; models with all-wheel drive have to make do with a six-speed gearbox.

3. Base price for an IS 350 F Sport with all-wheel drive is a little more than $45,775 including an $895 delivery fee.

4. All F Sport versions of the IS feature a slick instrument cluster that’s nearly identical to the one in the Lexus LFA supercar.

Arguably the most interesting of those half-dozen models is the brand’s IS sport sedan, which was just redesigned for the 2014 model year. And most intriguing of all is the IS 350, which features the larger, more powerful of two available engines.

TOUGH CROWD

No matter how good the reinvigorated IS actually is it’s competing in one tough segment. The BMW 3 Series, while softer than ever in its latest inCARnation is still the sports-sedan gold standard. But the Bavarian flag-bearer is far from Lexus’ only problem.

The IS has to wrangle with other impressive products including Cadillac’s shockingly good ATS, not to mention the newly minted Infiniti Q50 as well as Audi’s ever-sophisticated A4. Is Lexus entering a machine-gun shootout armed with little more than a spork or is the IS 350 F Sport ready for battle? A quick glance at the spec-sheet reveals it does in fact have the goods to compete, at least on paper.

CHECKIN’ THE SPECS

As the name suggests, it’s powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine. It churns out 306 horsepower with 277 lb-ft of torque. While that works well, it’s slightly less muscular than some similarly sized engines offered in competing products. For instance, the ATS has a 3.6-liter unit that delivers 321 ponies, while the Q50 pumps out 328 courtesy of a 3.7-liter V6.

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Rear-wheel-drive IS 350 F Sport models feature an advanced eight-speed automatic transmission. Versions with all-wheel drive make do with a six-speed gearbox. A manual is no longer offered on any IS model, which is a shame but hardly a surprise. Almost nobody bought them.
 
Still, it’s hard to argue with the automatic’s performance. Rear-drive models should be able to blast from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. All-wheel-drive versions are one tenth of a second slower; likewise they’re slightly less efficient.

Fuel economy clocks in at 19 mpg city and 28 highway for rear-drive IS 350s, which results in a combined score of 22 MPG. All-wheel drive models ought to deliver 19 around town and 26 on the interstate, making for an average of 21.

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F SPORT UPGRADES

Beyond regular versions of the IS, F Sport 350s benefit from a handful of upgrades; some of which are standard, others of course are optional, but they’re all pretty significant. First, cars get an adaptive variable suspension with several useful settings. The system is controlled by a knob mounted on the center console, which allows the driver to select from up to four different modes: Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport S+. Each setting is pretty self explanatory, with Eco delivering the best fuel economy and Sport S+ the most engaging drive.

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One optional feature of note is Variable Gear-Ratio Steering (VGRS), which is available exclusively on rear-wheel-drive versions of the IS 350 F Sport. This technology is supposed to reduce steering effort at low speeds without sacrificing high-velocity responsiveness or road feel.

Aside from optional extras one of the IS F Sport’s coolest standard items is the LFA-inspired instrument cluster. It’s comprised of a digital display screen and a sliding bezel. The circular center section moves left and right depending on what information is being shown. At first glance this seems like a gimmick but after fooling around with it the gauges do look pretty cool.

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Aside from all of this the car also gets a number of exterior styling changes including unique wheels, a bolder-looking mesh grille and larger openings in the front bumper to help cut down on brake fade. Inside, F Sport versions of the IS offer passengers specially bolstered front seats, a steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather as well as unique trim.

Of course it’s also worth noting that the F Sport package is available on IS 250 models, but they’re significantly less powerful and much less interesting than the 350.

SEE ALSO: Lexus IS20 Review

PUTTING THE SPORT IN F SPORT

Whipping an all-wheel-drive IS 350 F Sport around an autocross course quickly revealed that Lexus has engineered a car that’s both able and agile. It’s an all-around capable machine that feels balanced and poised… and that’s just in “Normal” mode.

Switch the car over to Sport S+ and everything becomes sharper and more direct. The suspension stiffens up, culling body roll. Additionally the throttle responds noticeably faster and gear-changes are quicker. In cars equipped with VGRS the steering feel gets heightened as well.

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Though far from explosive, the car builds revs rapidly. Power is delivered in a very linear fashion, which is appreciated because some of the turbocharged competition can feel a bit lumpy. All-wheel drive keeps unwanted wheel-spin at bay and ensures there’s always plenty of traction, no matter the weather.

Surprisingly for a Lexus product, the IS 350 F Sport’s engine makes quite a bit of racket, though only when you really punch it. At full song, the powerplant sounds terrific, with an unexpectedly throaty growl.

PRICING

The base price of a bare-bones IS 250 is $36,845, including $895 in destination and delivery fees. An all-wheel drive F Sport model with the smaller engine should sticker for $42,415.

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Higher performing rear-drive IS 350s start at just over 40 grand, again including those pesky fees. Adding the F Sport package increases pricing to about $44,000. Opting for the all-wheel drive IS 350 F Sport will cost you at least $45,775.

THE VERDICT

The IS 350 F Sport is an engaging car and one that helps reinforce the brand’s focus on performance. But is it better than a BMW 3 Series? How does it compare the Cadillac ATS?

Without driving all of these vehicles back to back it’s tough to say. But I can sum things up like this: Whether you’re on the street commuting to work or an autocross course enjoying a few hot laps, the Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD is a capable and entertaining machine. It may not be better than some of its main rivals but it’s certainly in the hunt. It’s a strong contender that brings unique styling to a conservative segment. If you’re in the market for a luxury sports sedan, this Lexus F Sport model is worth serious consideration.

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