by Gabe Beita Kiser
Anything labeled "sporty" immediately flicks a switch in the mind of the enthusiast. A sporty car is no longer held up to the most basic of standards like "has trunk to put gym bag in" or "won't kill you in a 30 mph crash." Instead, new lenses are required to read the machine, ones that toss out logic and require a driver to remove wallets and phones out of the back pockets of their jeans to get a better feel for the road. On paper, the Lexus IS350 F Sport reads like a sporty car.
A 3.5-liter V6 makes 306 horsepower to back up the tough talk that the styling makes. In fact, as soon as I set eyes on the car I had no doubt about its abilities. The front-end styling is radical, although it gives the car more of a confident smirk than an aggressive "GET OUT OF MY WAY" face. The hunched lines that flow to the rear make the car look like it's prowling and asks the driver or passing cars, "Wanna play?" In this case, you can judge the book by its cover. Red leather with black accents drape across the bolstered front chairs and folding rear seats to make passengers buckle up and hold on. Aluminum pedals and paddle shifters mean that manipulating how the engine communicates driver thoughts to the rear wheels is made eight-speed easy.
This all culminates to make the car stand out like a piece of Lexus art. When transporting a family of four, including one preteen who was a budding gearhead, the Lexus kept getting referred to as "the cool car." Whether carrying a large family or a single critical test driver around town the IS was pleasant, aside from a clicking noise made by a loose part in the dash that I heard while going over bumpy road, which is unusual for Lexus. The mouse-like input for the infotainment system is an improvement over the touchpad control in the RC-F, but it's still maddeningly useless and distracting enough that this could have easily become an exclusive review on how effective the Lexus' safety features are. Preventing that is telepathic communication between car and driver.
Steering is precise and the ride is smooth yet agile. Both the car and driver can easily predict the result of inputs from driver or road. This translates to great cornering ability. The car hugs the road well, is easily tossed into corners, supplies the RWD reward of laying down sideways tire marks, and accelerates with enough pep to surprise drivers when they look at the speedometer. The brakes feel good too and extend a driver's confidence ever so slightly. Unfortunately toys are sparse, which should not be the case on a car of this price. A $40,870 check buys the most powerful of the IS engines with RWD. The $3,155 F Sport package adds 18" alloy rims, adaptive suspension, sport seats, and a Sport + mode to complement Eco, Normal, and Sport settings.
More technology comes with the $2,645 navigation package, which adds a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system and a host of apps that most people will never use. Lastly, extra playthings like blind spot monitoring, a variable ratio steering system, and illuminated door sills helped to push this Lexus to $49,205. Aside from the navigation system, a backup camera and lights that tell a driver when it's okay to merge lanes, not much about this car will blow away techies. Driving modes and variable everything gives the illusion that the car is a true luxury stomper, but the feeling that I was just driving an over-glorified Toyota Corolla just couldn't be shaken. Which brings me to the most unfortunate reality about the IS350 F Sport.
The car is an absolute bore to drive. If the measure of a sporty car were cornering ability, speed, and clarity in communication between the car, road, and driver, then the IS350 would be among the greats. The thing is, these metrics alone are not what makes a good sports car. It's the amount of fun that the driver has that determines whether or not a car gets the "sporty" label, and unfortunately that cannot be applied to the IS350 F Sport. Most of the time, when a car does everything right, it becomes a shining beacon for drivers seeking an experience instead of just a commute. In rare cases, being the perfect car backfires, giving the vehicle the feel of a very well-made appliance.
This is one of those cases, and no matter how much leather or bold styling Lexus adds, I couldn't help but feel like I was just driving a rear-wheel drive Corolla. Most of the car buying community will completely miss this fact of IS350 life because it truly is a great car. Despite the clacking noise from a loose part on my 3,000-mile-old example, which is probably an anomaly, an owner can rest easy knowing that they bought the most reliable and practical pick. This is what the IS350 is meant for, not racking up speeding tickets. An owner will likely feel that their $50,000 was well spent once they cross the 80,000-mile mark and have forged a bond with the car, but as someone whose day can be made in the apex of a corner, the IS350 F Sport doesn't quite do it for me.