SAN FRANCISCO — July 28, 2016 — The mid-priced, compact sport sedan market is as heated as ever and among one of the finer sedans in this segment is the latest Lexus IS350. With competition from Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes, the engineers at Lexus need to be on their toes more so than perhaps at any time before.
There’s a great deal to like about the 2016 IS350 but topping the list is simply how fun it is to drive. Its suspension does a sublime job of balancing ride quality with minimal body roll during hard corning. Meanwhile, the potent V6 engine screams like a banshee in heat, prompting you to hit it as hard as you can and the all-wheel-drive system keeps the car glued to the road.
Lexus has done a brilliant job of milking every precious one of its 306 horses under the hood in such a way that the car feels quicker than it really is. Part of the reason it’s not quicker is that we’re looking at a curb weight between 3593lbs to 3737lbs depending on the trim package you get. To get that kind of weight moving off the line faster, Lexus would need to find a way to raise the torque quite a bit more than its 277 lb-ft offering.
The engine is mated to a six-speed “direct shift” automatic transmission in this all-wheel-drive model. The rear wheel drive version sees an eight-speed transmission. Of course there is a manual shift mode, using the shifting lever as well as paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
Lexus offers a few drive modes including, standard, eco, sport and sport+ – each offers varying combinations of transmission shift points, accelerator pedal responsiveness, ride and handling. For those of us who love to bury the ol’ right foot – its sport+ mode is easily the only mode you’ll want to keep the car in. In this mode, the engine holds the gears longer, the shifts feel quicker and the overall handling of the car turns it into quite the formidable four-door sports car.
Inside the cabin, we find what has now become “standard Lexus décor” but with some F-package goodness like carbon-fiber panels used rather liberally, the sporty seats and slick, digital instrument cluster oozes performance.
Unfortunately, we see that Lexus hasn’t deviated from its underwhelming “mouse-type” interface for the navigation and infotainment center. Sure, it’s usable but can it ever be a pain in the ass? You bet. You’ll find that as you try and navigate around the screen using this god-forsaken device, that the system will sometimes “guess” where you’re going to and instantly move the cursor to that point. If you thought dialing someone with zeros was painful on an old rotary phone, just try and navigate the on-screen keyboard and type something out like a long city name.
What doesn’t disappoint here is the Mark Levinson audio system. It provides very clear-sounding music, even as you crank it up. Good bass response, the mids can get a little lost in “stereo mode” but flip it over to the “Surround” option and you’ll hear the vocals pop out of the middle dash speaker, creating very good imaging and detail. While it doesn’t have the thump we’ve heard in other car audio systems, I’m confident it’ll make most customers very happy.
Driving the IS350 F-Sport is a very rewarding drive experience – slap it into Sport+, right-foot down, have a blast. From the nice growl of the engine to the rather flat body response around corners coupled with the grip of all-wheel-drive and you’ll soon see how this car begs you to push it hard. Of course it’s not a true sport’s car per se but who cares? You can still have tons of fun and haul your friends around at the same time. Where this car really shines is in its overall drivability and great steering response. You’ll find it has a brilliant balance between performance, overall refinement and a good ride quality for longer road trips.
One thing we’d love to see Lexus do on future models would be to find a way to incorporate larger wheels on this car – the 18-inch ones just look too small on it. Outside of that, Lexus has done a brilliant job with the body lines, even though we know the front grill can be rather polarizing to people – we kind of dig it.
At the end of the day, what we’re left with what is easily one of the best performance sedan values in its class. It’s loads of fun to drive and would easily go as one of our most recommended cars to buy if you’re looking for a great compact performance sedan.