2016 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport Review
I remember the first IS I drove almost exactly 15 years ago. That was way back in December of 2000, the car a first-year, first-generation 2001 IS 300 that I was particularly taken by. It wasn’t the optional brownish orange, or bright yellow that was all the rage back then, electric blue, or any other notice-me hue, but rather a mild shade of metallic silver, yet it was brilliantly fun to drive, had one of the coolest chronograph watch-style primary gauge packages I’d seen to date, and was a bold new step for what was at that time a staid and conservative Lexus brand.
I’ve reviewed six IS sedans since, including the then-new second-generation 2006 model at its national press launch in the fall of 2005, the absolutely brilliant 416 horsepower 2008 IS F with its then state-of-the-art eight-speed automatic, a superb looking 2010 IS F Sport, a then-new third-generation 2013 Lexus IS 250 AWD, a 2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport, and now this latest 2016 model in identical IS 350 AWD F Sport trim, albeit this one is painted in an eye-arresting color that’s totally worthy of its wonderfully bizarre Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 name. Thanks for the memories Lexus, all of which helped me form a wholly new opinion of the 26-year old premium brand.
While Lexus has built its solid reputation by building extremely high-quality luxury cars with a penchant for faultless reliability, the most recent J.D. Power and Associates 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study placing it first by a long shot, it was the IS and its derivatives that helped develop its sporting edge. Certainly the first-gen SC initially helped to craft this image, but those who experienced the second-generation “Sport Coupe” with its innovative retractable hardtop know that the car was more about comfort than all-out performance. Instead, the sportier IS went directly for BMW’s jugular, its venerable 3 Series, as well as Mercedes’ C-Class, Audi’s A4, Infiniti’s G (now Q50) and others fighting it out within the rear- and all-wheel drive compact luxury segment, leaving its front-drive ES to pull in disenchanted domestic luxury owners as well as Camry loyalists and the like graduating up to a more premium ride. Soon after the original IS debuted, Lexus offered a very European-style five-door SportCross variant that I also covered, and ditto for the retractable hardtop IS C that opened the brand up to a new demographic of sun worshipers in 2009.
This last car was the predecessor of the fabulous new two-door RC, at least while its roof was up, a model that pulled more stares and positive thumbs up than almost anything else I drove during 2015. The same for this most recent IS 350 AWD F Sport. Believe me, it turned heads and accumulated nods of approval just as quickly as the RC F Sport, although it didn’t hurt that both cars were painted in this same vibrant blue color, a $595 option that’s well worth every penny.
In F Sport trim the car’s massive gaping spindle-shaped maw, glossy black mesh insert, scalloped twin-projector full LED headlamps, checkmark-style LED driving lights, and radically recessed faux brake ducts are as aggressively penned as the compact premium sport sedan segment gets, making its comparatively simple gray-painted twinned five-spoke 18-inch F Sport alloys on 255/35R18 front and 225/40R18 rear all-seasons look almost small and understated. This is exacerbated by a gorgeous upswept rocker line that visually bleeds into the IS’ F Sport’s sharply angled taillights and abruptly cut trunk lid, whereas its twin chrome-tipped exhaust pipes look downright menacing, but such is a small problem that can easily be addressed by opting for a set of aftermarket 19- or 20-inch rims and rubber, possibly also sourced at your local Lexus dealer if on offer. On this note, Lexus may want to assess how it’s not effectively upselling the performance crowd that likes to personalize their cars. Still, even with its smallish rims the car is stunning, a standout four-door in a segment that doesn’t reward wallflowers.
As attractive as the IS F Sport is on the outside it’s at least as alluring behind closed doors, my tester’s all-black cabin enhanced with contrasting white thread on the leatherette instrument hood, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leatherish shifter boot (the knob gets the leather treatment), pleather armrests, door panels, and of course its perforated NuLuxe simulated-leather F Sport seats. Odd that Lexus goes to such trouble crafting such a gorgeous set of sport seats and then applies faux leather, but such is the case. They’re very real feeling fake hides just the same, and I suppose there’s some sort of environmental benefit to abstaining from a bovine byproduct.
Looking upward, lots of metallic surfaces enhance the design, some satin-finished and others patterned, while the car’s plastics quality is average for the class, meaning that the higher quality synthetics used are extremely good, although Lexus doesn’t extend soft-touch surfaces all the way down the door panels as most others in this segment do, their lower portions getting hard below the armrests, with the same non-pliable effect on the lower half of the instrument panel and glove box lid. Then again Lexus pads the sides of the sloping center stack to protect inside knees, which is literally a nice touch, while covering it with the aforementioned white-stitched leather-like treatment, whereas the center stack itself is an especially well laid out and beautifully finished bit of automotive jewelry.
The jewelry part is the lovely analog clock at center, bisecting the two middle vents, a recessed color infotainment display above these filled with high-resolution navigation in my tester, a $1,505 option, plus a standard reverse camera and plenty of additional functions, as well as a nice matte-black finished dual-zone auto HVAC and audio interface below, complete with a touch-sensitive temperature slider at each side, various buttons in between, an optical drive surrounded by stylish looking metallic audio knobs, and a row of tiny metal buttons underneath, all detailed out with the exacting quality expected of a Lexus.
The lower console gets standard heatable and cooled seat buttons along with one for the $150 optional heatable steering wheel, the gear selector on the left, drive mode controller behind that, and Lexus’ older toggle-style Remote Touch Interface with haptic sensors to the right if the navigation system is chosen, the IS not yet incorporating the new and much improved laptop-style touchpad controller found in the RC and NX.
One look at the F Sport’s LFA-inspired full TFT instrument cluster will put away any thoughts of yesteryear, mind you, its brilliantly colorful driver-focused design immediately captivating and impressively filled with core driving-specific info, the 3D relief-style center gauge layout reminding me of the original IS 300’s gauge package noted earlier.
You’d think with this seemingly track-ready set of digital dials the IS F Sport would charge away from standstill at the mere thought of foot to throttle, but despite a slightly firmer suspension setup it doesn’t feel all that different than the regular IS 350 AWD when cruising around town or taking to the highway, where it provides thoroughly comfortable motoring even on rougher pavement. It moves along quickly, however, and feels sharp in the corners when pushed, it just doesn’t beg you to push harder like some competitive sport models do, that is until you twist the Drive Mode Select dial all the way to the right from Normal to Sport mode and then further to Sport+, at which point the direct-injected 306 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with 277 lb-ft of torque feels a lot more eager while the six-speed autobox shifts more rapidly and abruptly, the downgraded transmission (the base model gets an eight-speed) holding its chosen gear longer as well, and when you click the gear lever to the left it forces you to shift it yourself unless you want to push it to redline for each and every cog swap, a flick of the shift lever or tug on the large right-side aluminum paddle mounted on one of the segment’s best looking three-spoke sport steering wheels relieving the tightly sprung engine and allowing a burst of newfound speed from the higher gear. It’s at these moments, especially if the road ahead is filled with serpentine S-curves, rises, dips and all other types of bends and undulations that the IS feels as sporty as anything in the class, a transformational process that will likely surprise those not expecting a Lexus to drive like a sport-tuned BMW.
Likewise the upgraded F Sport seats, which are ideally formed for holding backside in place while flinging the car through curves, are not only laterally supportive, but capable enough in their lower extremities for lumbar therapy, especially with the three-way seat heaters set to high. I drove all day in these and never felt any complaint from my aging spine, a testament to seats well designed.
The IS is quite roomy up front too, but like so many others in this class it’s more of a five-seater in a pinch than a true luxury sedan. Leave such limo-style duties to the ES and others within the pampering portion of Lexus’ lineup, the IS’ back seats best for two adults or three smaller folks or kids. Two adults should feel comfortable unless very large, my medium-build five-foot-eight frame allowing about four inches of knee space behind the front seatback when it was set ideally for me up front, plus about three inches above my head.
The trunk is nicely finished, as expected albeit not always delivered in this class (I’m speaking to you, Cadillac ATS), while the seatbacks are easy to fold down after walking around to the rear doors to lower, being that no levers allow you to do so from the cargo area. They’re also 60/40-split, which while better than a single folding seatback or none at all isn’t as versatile as others with 40/20/40-split configurations, the missing center pass-through helpful for stowing ski gear, for instance, with four thoroughly comfortable passengers aboard. Normally such 60/40-configured situations would be an opportunity for pre-teen arguments before the drive home, one inevitably winning title to the heatable outboard rear seat, but in the case of the IS there’s oddly no such option.
This in mind, the IS 350 AWD F Sport is a fairly well outfitted sport sedan, albeit missing a number of features others in this class get, especially at its as-tested $45,750 price point (minus the blue paint job and options). Along with those missing rear seat warmers and noticeable lack of a large panoramic sunroof overhead, all IS models instead getting the usual frontal moonroof standard, it also didn’t receive many of the luxury features offered in various packages available with non-F Sport IS variants, such as auto high beam, reverse auto-tilt side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a powered steering column (ok, to be clear this can be had at no extra charge but you’ll need to opt for variable gear-ratio steering to get it), driver’s seat memory, leather upholstery, clearance and backup sensors, parking assist, and lane departure alert, these items strangely unavailable if you want the F Sport’s sportier styling and are even willing to pay more to have them, but good news is that a number of extras can be had in F Sport trim if you’re willing to pay a bit more, including two of my favorite features being adaptive cruise control that’s ultra-convenient during road trips and in this case comes packaged with Lexus’ pre-collision system for $500, plus a 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound audio system with an 835-watt 12-channel Class-D amplifier that comes bundled with navigation for $2,645 and from previous experience is absolutely fabulous anywhere, plus the standalone option of a $210 powered rear sunshade.
The previously noted six-speed gearbox and additional lack of an auto idle-stop/start system, regenerative braking and other high-tech fuel-saving features offered by premium rivals means that fuel economy isn’t its forte, the IS 350 AWD good for a claimed EPA rating of 19 mpg city, 26 highway and 21 combined which isn’t quite as good as the even quicker (5.6 compared to 5.7 seconds to 60 mph) rear-drive version of the same car that manages 19 city, 28 highway and 22 combined, the less expensive and less powerful (but still fast at 6.1 seconds to 60) IS 300 AWD offering zero pump benefit, but the new IS 200t coming to bat with a much more agreeable 22 city, 33 highway and 26 combined rating while still slipping under the seven-second mark to 60 (6.9) via 241 horsepower and a sizable 258 lb-ft of torque put down to the rear wheels, not to mention that it’s available in F Sport trim as well. This is a car I want to drive.
But rather than look at the IS 350 AWD F Sport’s cup as half empty, it’s best to appreciate everything this car includes. After accessing the cabin via proximity-sensing keyless entry, ogling the stainless doorsills, aluminum sport pedals and ominously black roofliner on the way in and then starting the car with its ignition button, those front seat coolers are particularly refreshing on a warm summer’s day, while the aforementioned optional heatable steering wheel does likewise for colder months and segment norm dual-zone auto HVAC keeps front occupants at their optimal temperatures no matter the time of year. The front seats are powered, infotainment system connectable to your smartphone via USB or Bluetooth and filled with useful traffic and weather info via HD radio plus the additional confidence given by Lexus Enform Safety Connect, Service Connect and the brand’s downloadable remote app, while sliding the leather-wrapped gear shifter into R automatically puts the backup camera with active guidelines into play, the F Sport’s standard rear cross traffic alert, which comes as part of the standard blind spot monitoring system that together make sure you don’t get clipped by a fast moving car as you’re pulling onto the road from your driveway, let alone pull into the adjacent lane while its already occupied.
Out on the road you’ll be glad that all of its various active and passive safety features are busily working in the background, the four-wheel ABS-enhanced discs with electronic brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist providing effortlessly quick stops even after repeated application, combined with traction and vehicle stability control, each harmonized with one another via Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management that keeps all the driver assistance electronics communicating together in a high-speed digital discussion that could only be understood by one of Lexus’ talented engineers, while the usual six airbags are joined by two front knee blockers and two side-impact bags for the rear outboard passengers.
Just how all of this kit works won’t likely be as important to IS 350 AWD F Sport drivers as how well Lexus makes the car handle in inclement weather conditions. Its all-wheel drive is rear-biased, optimal for performance, with the front tires increasing torque and therefore grip when required, which makes this IS a superb four-season sport sedan. Put a set of high-performance snows on each rim and it would no doubt transform into the ultimate winter wonderland getaway car, and one that few will miss as it pulls up to the ski resort valet.
Yes, fifteen years after introducing its first sport sedan Lexus is now fully in the game, capable of going head-to-head with the best from Germany in most respects, while still delivering the revered quality and dependability fans of the brand have grown to trust. It’s a powerful combination that truly sets the IS apart from its competitors.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press