For the most part, this segment of the auto industry has been dominated by the Germans -- BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Offerings from Lexus, Infiniti and Acura have been good cars, sure, but they've always lacked the true sport-driving aptitude and soul that came with German engineering.
That could soon change.
Lexus is really putting its shoulder into changing this reality with its brand-new, controversially-styled, driver-focused 2014 IS sedan.
The IS comes in two different forms: The IS 250, which is powered by a 204-horsepower 2.5L V6 engine and IS 350, differentiated by its 306-horsepower 3.5L V6. Both of these forms come in a few trim levels, the most notable of which is the F-Sport trim, which includes noticeable aerodynamic, handling and aesthetic upgrades.
I spent the majority of my test driving time behind the wheel of the 3.5L V6-powered Lexus IS 350, which Toyota designed to compete for buyers interested in German luxury sport sedans like the Mercedes-Benz C350 and BMW 335. Click through to see my impressions.
The BasicsMSRP: $39,465 - $41,700
Invoice Price: NA
Engine: 3.5L V6
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 306 horsepower, 277 lb-ft of torque
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Seating: 5 people
Cargo: 19.4 cubic feet/47.6 cubic feet (with seats down)
Exterior DesignThe new design of the Lexus IS is a dramatic departure from its previous generations. While the old IS wasn't the most boring-looking car on the road, it certainly could have displayed some more aggression. Boy, did we get that with this new look.
This new design is mean, plain and simple. New exterior features in addition to its swooping curves, sharp angles and new lights include an elongated wheelbase, a wider stance making for a more aggressive look and that kind of crazy spindle grille we've seen on the GS and LS.
The IS looks good from certain angles and bad from others. I'm a big fan of the rear end and the side profile view, but I don't like it looking at it head on. The grille is a bit much and those LEDs underneath the headlights make it look like Nike paid to have their "swoosh" logo included as some form of product placement.
InteriorLexus has a track record of producing some of the best interiors in the business. The new IS continues that tradition. Lexus says that the driver-oriented cockpit design was inspired by the LFA supercar (which, sadly, I cannot verify, having never driven that beautiful piece of machinery). The aesthetics create a great balance of sportiness and luxury. There are soft touch surfaces throughout, including the buttons, steering wheel and armrests. The seats are great, especially the ones included in the F-Sport trim, offering plenty of support for those long treks behind the wheel and sport jaunts along windy roads.
One issue I have with the interior is that some of the digital readouts, like the temperature information, look like relics from 1998. In a car seeking to boost its standing as sporty and technologically advanced, these need to be updated to something more current.
Passenger And Cargo SpaceBecause the new design of the IS included a 3-inch increase in wheelbase length, rear seat space and comfort has been massively improved, resulting in what is the best rear-seat experience in the class. Up front, headroom and shoulder room are great, giving the driver and passenger plenty of breathing room and space to stretch the limbs on longer trips.
It may surprise you to learn that 60:40 split-folding rear seats are not standard on all luxury cars in this class. Fortunately, Lexus has included them on all trim levels of the 2014 IS, which dramatically improves cargo capacity, allowing for transport of bigger or oddly-shaped items such as skis and snowboards.
Driving DynamicsIn order to prove that the Lexus IS 350 deserves mention alongside the BMW 335 and Mercedes-Benz C350, I had the opportunity to drive all three of these vehicles on a autocross course on an abandoned airstrip near Oakland, Calif. The IS performed very, very well.
New front and rear suspension, increased body rigidity and new steering all add up to a hell of a sporty ride. The IS is capable of effortlessly tackling sharp curves at high speeds while providing impressive braking and acceleration performance. After several laps of the course in the IS 350, 335 and C350 it became clear that this car is undoubtedly deserving of respect from its German competition. I would hesitate to call it better than the 335, which is one of the best driving sedans on the planet, but I think the IS is definitely more nimble than the C350.
On the highway, the IS provides a smooth and quiet ride, resulting in very little driver fatigue. Any car that can tackle the track and a long road trip on the freeway in the same day gets my seal of approval.
Tech And InfotainmentThe IS employs the Lexus Enform Infotainment system, which I like a lot. It's functional, informative and easy to use. Sure, it takes a minute to get used to using a joystick instead of a touchscreen, but the reality is that having the control at your fingertips is much, much better than having to constantly lean forward and mash a button.
Some of the graphics could stand a little design love, but all in all, it's an easy to use system that actually does what you tell it to do.
Fuel EconomyThe IS 350 gets 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. Here's how it compares to its competition:
Mercedes-Benz C350: 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway
BMW 335: 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway
Infiniti G37: 19 mpg City, 27 mpg Highway
Bottom LineLexus should be proud of this car. They've made the IS much sportier to drive, updated what was already a solid interior and deigned the exterior to stand out on the road. It's a very good vehicle, not necessarily raising the bar for the segment, but providing a legitimate alternative to the German luxury offerings.
The IS 350 proves that the sports sedan isn't relegated to that continent across the Atlantic anymore. And starting at $39,465, which is cheaper than the 2013 model by the way, it's a pretty solid value, considering it undercuts its competition by several thousand dollars.
If you're shopping for a sporty sedan, definitely put this one on your list.