Further shedding its image as a maker of boring luxury cars, Lexus turns its 2009 IS 350 into a tuner car. The IS 350 already featured fairly sporty performance, but now you can add bolt-on performance parts from the company's F Sport accessories, similar to the equipment used on the Lexus IS-F. We looked at a 2009 Lexus IS 350 kitted up with F Sport brakes, exhaust, air intake, shocks, lowering springs, sway bars, and forged 19-inch wheels.
Lexus also made some cosmetic and handling improvements for the 2009 model year, but the cabin tech remains the same as when the model was launched in 2006. Navigation, stereo, and phone system all sport minimal feature sets. The brightest spot in the cabin is the Mark Levinson audio system. We expect that the IS 350 will see a model update for the 2010 or 2011 model year, bringing in similar cabin tech to what we saw in the Lexus RX 450h.
On the road
As befits a Lexus, the 2009 IS 350 sports a cabin comprised of fine materials, with leather seats and soft plastics around the dashboard. It is a comfortable environment and a clear step above sister-brand Toyota.
But the F Sport accessories push the sport-luxury equation much more towards the sport side. Stepping on the gas, the exhaust lets out an aggressive note, although the 3.5-liter V-6 engine itself is unchanged, merely getting better air flow, and probably a few more horses, from the F Sport air intake.
Driving over an average asphalt road, the IS 350's F Sport suspension components make every weather-worn bump and ripple felt in the cabin. Although Lexus claims that it didn't sacrifice comfort for performance, the Bilstein-sourced F Sport shocks definitely deliver a harsher ride than a standard IS 350, the trade-off being minimal body roll in corners.
Putting the IS 350 through its paces on twisty mountain roads, those suspension upgrades and a tuner feel are apparent. The body feels rigid as g-forces push it in a turn--nothing like how most cars feel fresh out of the factory. Yet the IS 350 remains easy to drive and graceful, its luxury side still evident.
Intrusive traction control tamed our wild ways on a couple of occasions. Going into a sharp, downhill turn, a warning lit up on the instrument cluster accompanied by a quick beep beep beep, a sound that clearly means something is wrong. Power quickly disappeared until the car decided we could be trusted again.
On the smaller engined-IS 250, you can get a manual transmission, but you're stuck with a six-speed automatic in the IS 350, a weak link in the performance equation. We put it in Sport mode and tackled the corners, only to find that it didn't want to drop below fourth gear. Manual mode let us force it into third, but the shifts are not particularly crisp, and second is geared too low for all but the sharpest hairpins. There is no F Sport tuning for the automatic, although you can get an upgraded clutch and shifter with the IS 250's six-speed manual.
We were also able to see just how much of an improvement the F-Sport accessories provided on the twists and turns at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The improvements to the IS 350 F-Sport's handing are dramatic on the track. The chassis braces make the IS feel more stable and responsive to steering inputs, while the sway bars help to tune out some of the body roll and understeer. Over the glass-smooth asphalt of the well-maintained track, the rough ride of the stiffer suspension components was a nonissue, as was the Lexus' suite of electric nannies, which were curiously unobtrusive during our hot laps. The result is a sports sedan that is more willing to rotate through a turn and much more fun.
In the cabin
After spending time using the various tech car interfaces offered by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, it is refreshing to use the simple touch screen in the 2009 Lexus IS 350. Instead of manipulating some kind of joystick on the console to select letters on the screen, you just tap the onscreen keyboard in the IS 350. It really is the most direct and intuitive style of interface available in a car, with the only drawback being that the dashboard has to be designed so that the screen is within reach of the driver.