For years, if you wanted to buy a sports sedan, you went down to your local BMW dealership, picked out your preferred color of 335i, signed some paperwork, and drove home in your brand new Bimmer. Audi and Mercedes have each built competitors in the past that were arguably as good or better overall than the 3 Series, but if “fun to drive” was your focus, then you had to have the BMW.
When Lexus introduced the IS then, it was aimed squarely at the 3 Series. From its rear-wheel drive platform to its inline-six engine, there was no doubt that Lexus had the Bavarians in its sights. Unfortunately, despite sporting a fairly attractive design, a reputation for strong reliability, and plenty of power, the IS never quite had the fun-to-drive character that made — and continues to make — the 3 Series so dominant. Lexus is back with a third generation IS though, and they insist that this time it’s legitimately fun to drive.
So has Lexus finally built a credible sports sedan? I spent a week with an IS 350 F-Sport to find out.
To say the Lexus IS 350 F-Sport is aggressively styled would be an understatement. It’s bold, it’s unique, and it’s a look that people are going to notice. Whether you like the styling or hate it, at the very least, you’re going to have an opinion on it, whether you like cars or not. Much like the previous generation Hyundai Sonata, the IS 350’s styling is intended to provoke a reaction out of people, and personally, I’m a fan. If there were a different badge on the car, the aggressive styling might not feel appropriate, but inoffensive styling doesn’t fit the purpose of the IS anymore. No matter what your opinion is on the bolder new styling, it shows that Lexus is willing to take chances and risk alienating some buyers if it means attracting others who are truly passionate and excited to own one, and that can only be a good thing.
Compared to the exterior though, the styling of the Lexus IS 350’s interior is much less controversial. It is, however, very comfortable and well-appointed, and it’s hard to imagine anyone having major complaints. It really is just a nice place to be. The IS 350 F-Sport is a sports sedan, not a luxury sedan, but even with a focus on handling and performance, Lexus doesn’t skimp on the comfort. I left the suspension in Sport+ mode the whole time, but for anyone looking for a less firm ride, Normal mode should be plenty smooth. You won’t quite find ES levels of comfort there, even in Normal mode, but if that’s what you’re looking for, then maybe a sports sedan isn’t for you.
Perhaps surprisingly, the back seat actually has room for full-size, adult humans. I’m only about 5’10”, so it wasn’t terribly surprising that I was able to fit into the back seat, but I didn’t expect to fit comfortably though. If this were a friend’s car, you could ride back there on a day trip, and I doubt you would have any complaints.
But the real highlight of the new IS isn’t the back seat. It’s the front seat. If you’re excessively large, you may not find them particularly comfortable, but sports seats can’t be expected to fit every single potential body frame. To me though, they felt like they had been tailored for my torso, perfectly supporting and bolstering me without feeling hard or uncomfortable. Even if you don’t intend on ever buying a Lexus, you really should pay your dealer a visit just so you can experience the wonder that are these seats. They’re that good.
From the driver’s seat, the steering wheel is enjoyable to grip, and all the important controls are within easy reach, with actual buttons and knobs still there for most important tasks. Sure, touch screens are cool, but it’s nice to have a physical knob to use to adjust the volume. My only complaint about the cabin is really just that the mouse-like controller for the infotainment can be frustrating and difficult to use. Everything else is excellent though.
A bold design and a great interior are all well and good, but what about how it drives? That’s the key to the whole sports sedan equation, and not to spoil the surprise, but boy does the Lexus IS 350 excel here. It’s a brilliant package that all comes together to create an experience that’s truly outstanding. The engine has plenty of power, and the steering is incredibly accurate, but what stood out to me most were the brakes. Few things ruin the fun of a sporty car quite like brakes that you aren’t quite sure you can trust. They may still work, but vague and spongy brakes suck the fun out of spirited driving with the constant fear that whatever you do is going to end in fiery death.
Thankfully, the Lexus’ brakes felt strong and inspired confidence, which meant I could safely push the car harder than I would have otherwise. It’s not just the individual elements that make this car so fun to drive — it’s how well they all work together. The chassis, the suspension, the engine, the brakes, and the steering all work together to make driving the IS 350 an incredibly fun experience that’s better than just the numbers on paper. The version that I had was equipped with all-wheel drive which, especially with traction control off, gave the IS 350 incredibly predictable handling at speeds way higher than most people should really be driving on public roads. Even better, the harder I drove it, the better it felt, and the longer I drove it, the more it made me grin. If that was what Lexus was going for, then mission accomplished.
The question is: Should you buy the Lexus over the BMW? You certainly can’t go wrong with the 335i, but unlike in the past, the decision is now a lot less clear cut. The Lexus IS 350 F-Sport nails the fun-to-drive factor, and when you consider its lower price and better expected reliability, it makes an extremely compelling case for itself.
Yes, it may be hard to accept that anyone other than the Germans could build a credible sports sedan, but the Japanese have done just that. Buy the BMW 335i if you want to, but if you do, you owe it to yourself to at least take the Lexus IS 350 F-Sport for a spin before you do. You’ll probably surprise yourself with how much you like driving it, and who knows? You may even end up liking it better than the BMW.