2014 Lexus IS 350

Long regarded as one of the best driver's cars of all time, the BMW 3 Series has always been targeted by luxury automakers trying to create their own exciting, bang-for-the-buck sport sedan. For years, BMW has managed to ward off would-be rivals to its iconic 3 Series, but the combination of a softened F30 and solid, hard-hitting competitors could soon relieve the car of its crown. While the all-new Cadillac ATS has received the most publicity in this segment since its introduction, the 2014 Lexus IS has come on strong in its third generation to put plenty of heat on the 3 Series as the current-best luxury sport sedan.

The IS might be Lexus' most important launch in some time, as a new, strong attempt to draw younger buyers into showrooms. Rather than taking the same conservative path as the preceding IS, Lexus attacked the new car's design with enthusiasm. Exaggerated exterior styling, while certainly polarizing, definitely gets this car noticed.

We've certainly noticed the 2014 IS, with a couple of first drives (for the IS 250 prototype and the IS 350 F Sport) and a Quick Spin so far. This time around we had a chance to get a little more intimate with a staple of the new IS lineup: the non-F Sport, rear-wheel-drive IS 350.

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In a segment that seems to get more crowded by the year, the 2014 Lexus IS makes a strong first impression with styling that could have been off-day work of surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. Both front and rear, the lines of the 2014 IS look to have been carried over from a clay model that sat out in the sun too long. While contemporaries like the Cadillac ATS and BMW 3 Series have an understated elegance, this entry-level Lexus offers in-your-face aggression that is impossible to ignore.

This entry-level Lexus offers in-your-face aggression that is impossible to ignore.

Starting with Lexus' new signature spindle grille up front, the most distinctive elements of this car's styling are the two-piece headlights. Instead of combining two elements, Lexus separated headlights and daytime running lights into distinct parts, leaving the IS with small scalloped lenses above and Nike-swoosh-shaped LED running lights below. At the rear, the long, frowning taillights take some getting used to, but the LED elements give it a distinct appearance when lit.

One of the most impressive views of the 2014 IS is its profile, which reveals a neat visual flow toward the rear of the car with the rocker panels angling up and forming the leading edge of the taillights. Even with that neat detailing, we thought our tester's 17-inch wheels looked a size or two small in their wells.

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Lexus also focused its styling attention inward, giving the IS an interior layout that is more attractive than the outgoing car. Interior design direction from new family members ES and GS is in evidence here. The main display screen is now positioned higher up on the dash, making it easier to see while driving, and also adding dynamism to the two-tiered instrument panel.

We would be hard-pressed to find a more cramped rear seat in the segment.

As an added bonus, the new IS also has a much cleaner center stack. The new console features just a handful of buttons and an analog clock, while the prior unit had a front-and-center touchscreen with almost double the number of buttons. The refreshingly simple stack has easy-to-use capacitive touch sliders for the dual-zone climate control and actual buttons for all other HVAC and audio controls. Not equipped with the mouse-like Remote Touch Interface controller, the audio screen menu is controlled using a rotary dial. Even the base IS gets a new LCD screen in the gauge cluster, as well.

In terms of comfort, the 2014 IS is unabashedly a driver-centric car. It may be larger than the outgoing model in almost every dimension, but it is still surprisingly small inside. Drivers are afforded plenty of space, but we would be hard-pressed to find a more cramped rear seat in the segment. The IS' sport-bucket-like rear seats provide five inches less legroom than the 3 Series (or nine inches less than the new Toyota Corolla, to offer more perspective).

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In terms of performance, the IS 350 stacks up more competitively. While the lesser IS 250 earned the nickname "Jennifer Slowpez" from senior editor Steven Ewing in his Quick Spin of that model, those looking for both show and go will definitely want to check out this more powerful version. Ponying up $3,515 for the extra liter of direct-injected displacement in this 3.5-liter V6 accounts for 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque (up from 204 hp and 185 lb-ft in the IS 250). The bigger engine will also knock more than two ticks from the 0-60 time, for a net of 5.6 seconds.

The IS 350 is unquestionably a lot of fun to drive.

Better yet, the IS350 suffers only a slight drop in the fuel economy department from the base model, with EPA estimates of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway (compared to the 250's 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway). One of the reasons for this is that the IS 350 – in rear-wheel-drive form only – is equipped with the all-new eight-speed automatic transmission. Sadly, one area that the IS really lags behind the 3 Series, ATS and other sport sedans in its class is that it does not offer a manual transmission.

Speed freaks will still want to wait for the next-gen IS F, but the IS350 is unquestionably a lot of fun to drive. One of the cooler features on this particular model is that the eight-speed transmission is incorporated with a G-force sensor, which can detect when the car is being driven a little more spiritedly and then provide automatic rev matching. In all honesty, the automated programming of the transmission did well enough on its own; using the shift paddles may have actually lessened the fun.

2014 Lexus IS 350

It's more engaging to drive than the previous IS and not quite as raw as the original.

Selectable driving modes play a part in the experience, too. The standard IS 350 has three of them – Eco, Normal and Sport – all of which are configurable using a dial on the center console. Response to throttle input is noticeably different in all three modes, as are shift points.

Despite its mostly carryover powertrain, Lexus has done its homework to create a sedan that is more engaging to drive than the previous IS and not quite as raw as the original... a good thing. Some of this improvement can be accounted for in the sedan's longer wheelbase, which increases highway-speed stability. The entire chassis also feels firmer and more athletic for 2014. Engineering money well spent by the product planners, we'd say.

2014 Lexus IS 350

Small, fun luxury cars exist outside of German showrooms.

Speaking of money: the case for the IS 350 as a desirable sporting alternative to the benchmark BMW is made a lot stronger by the Lexus' bottom line. The IS costs thousands less than an equivalent BMW 335i or the Cadillac ATS 3.6, with a starting price of $39,465. Tacking on extra goodies like the $4,115 Luxury and Technology package raises the as-tested price to $45,325 (not that bargains abound on other luxury car options lists).

For now, the BMW 3 Series is probably still the top contender in its class, but in a short time, the new IS – along with the ATS – has proven that small, fun luxury cars exist outside of German showrooms. Love or hate the sheetmetal, but don't doubt that Lexus has made improvements to nearly every aspect of the IS, propelling it from an also-ran to a must-see in the process.