A few years ago, Lexus decided to shake its conservative (read:boring) image and set about ladling gratuitous amounts of "sportiness" onto its fleet of sedans. This manifested itself, visually, in massive gaping spindle grilles, LED-bedazzled headlamps, and hyperaggressive bodywork. Lexus' stodgiest models, the LS and ES, seemed to benefit most from the youthful injection; its large sport sedan, the GS, also emerged better than ever.
However, the Lexus IS was already a perfectly good sport sedan. The first- and second-generation models were reasonably sporty, quick both in a straight line and round a bend. It was a car that skewed younger than the rest of the automaker's demographic, loaded with practicality and surprisingly affordable when compared with the benchmark of BMW. The previous IS models were also handsomely (if not a bit conservatively) styled.
What happens when Lexus applies its youth serum to a vehicle that is already youthful? Well, you end up with the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport's front end, a styling mess that looks like it was penned by three different designers who'd never bothered to compare notes. The smallish LED projector headlamps compete with the L-shaped LED daytime running lights, which poke awkwardly at Lexus' signature spindle grille. Styling is subjective, but I don't think that I'm too far off base in saying that this third-generation IS is the ugliest car in its class.
Fortunately, you can't see the face from the driver's seat and everything beneath the sheet metal that I praised about the previous IS sedans is still present and accounted for in the third-generation model. I may not be a fan of the styling, but I loved driving the thing.
From the moment that I slipped into the well-bolstered sport seats, I knew that our example was sportier than the average 2014 IS. This example was equipped with the optional $3,180 F-Sport Package, which adds the aforementioned grippy (and heated) sport seats, LED front headlamps, 18-inch F-Sport wheels shod with all-season 224/40R18 tires, and more. (What? No summer tires?!)
Push the Start button and the IS 350's 3.5-liter V-6 engine fires to life with a subdued grunt, ready to deliver its 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque to either the front or all four wheels. Our example, an AWD model, still features some of the RWD model's rear-biased power delivery, sliding between a 50:50 and 30:70 front-to-rear torque split depending on the traction needs. The extra front-end grip could be just the thing that some drivers need for inclement weather and provided reasonably neutral, slightly understeer-y handling in the dry, but fans of sweet powerslides and sporty tail-wagging will definitely want to take a test drive in the RWD version first, which comes standard with stickier summer performance tires with wider 255/35R18 staggered rear rubber.
Between the wheels and the engine of our IS 350 AWD lives a six-speed automatic transmission. RWD IS 350 models are equipped with an eight-speed automatic, which is yet another reason to forgo the AWD system. Here's where I would normally lament the lack of a manual shift option, but that's never really been in the cards for a US-market IS of any generation, so I won't complain. Fortunately, the IS' autobox isn't a bad one, featuring manual shift and sport programs as well as paddle shifters that are very responsive to requests for gear changes.
Near the shift lever you'll find a control knob for the IS 350's Drive Mode selector, which allows the driver to switch to an Eco program with a counterclockwise twist or a Sport program by twisting clockwise. These two programs adjust the sedan's throttle response and engine performance for more fuel-efficient or more spirited driving, respectively. Pushing the knob like a button resets the drive mode back to normal.
IS 350 F-Sport models, like our example, also gain an Adaptive Variable Suspension that firms up for the Sport mode and an additional Sport S+ program that can be activated with a second clockwise twist of the Drive Selector that is even more aggressive. Rear-wheel-driven IS 350 F-Sport models also have the option to add Variable Gear Ratio Steering, which adjusts the amount of steering effort depending on the vehicle's speed, which is yet another reason to think about the RWD...you probably get the picture by now.
Cabin and tech
From behind the wheel, I found myself enjoying the IS 350 F-Sport's cabin. There are a few styling oddities here and there, such as the awkward shelflike protrusion that's created by the vents beneath the center display, but the aesthetic is largely understated despite drawing heavy inspiration from the LFA supercar, starting with the instrument cluster.
Where non-F-Sport models feature a simple dual analog gauge setup, the F-Sport features a single large digital tachometer. Surrounding the digital gauge is a physical bezel that adds a nice extra dimension to what would otherwise be a flat design, and flanking the gauge are digital readouts for coolant temperature and fuel levels. When in Normal or Eco drive modes, the tachometer has a black background, but shifting to Sport mode changes the background to white. You can also customize the tachometer needle's color, set the background to glow red at a certain engine rpm like a sort of shift light, and other things.
2014 Lexus IS F-Sport's gorgeous gauges
That would be cool by itself, but there's more. Tap a button on the steering wheel and the entire tachometer (physical bezel and all) slides a few inches to the right, revealing more screen space on the left side for displaying navigation directions, trip computer and fuel economy information, current audio source information, and other information.
The instrument cluster is powered by a TFT LCD that is surprisingly resistant to glare and remains acceptably visible and clear even in direct sunlight. As LCD instrument clusters go, this is one of the best that I've ever seen.
The instrument cluster isn't the only LCD in the IS 350's cabin; it's also got a color display in the center of the dashboard, where the primary interactions with the infotainment system take place. This system is largely identical to a system that we were able to test in the Lexus LS, GS, and ES models, but with a smaller 7-inch display that doesn't feature the split-screen configuration of the larger vehicles. The display is recessed deeply into the dashboard, which shelters it from the worst glare from the sun and puts it outside the reach of those who would think that it is a touch screen.
Rather than touch sensitivity, the IS' infotainment system is commanded with a center-console-mounted Remote Touch Controller. This weird little joystick fits perfectly at the driver's fingertips where it can used move a cursor around the display above. The Remote Touch uses absolute positioning -- which means that the upper corner of the stick's movement corresponds with the upper corner of the screen -- and features haptic force feedback. When the onscreen cursor moves over a virtual button, the Remote Touch's joystick snaps to the position where it can be pressed like a button to make selections.
I've used this system in about a dozen Lexus vehicles during my time at CNET and every time, I've been annoyed by it. It's not because of the learning curve; the controller is easy enough to use and the control scheme is extremely simple to pick up and, thankfully, Lexus' shallow menu system is simple enough to navigate.
The thing that always bothers me is the force feedback. For certain tasks, such as flinging the cursor into a corner to change the map mode or bumping between a few large virtual buttons for audio sources, this controller really shines. For fiddly tasks, such as entering an address with the onscreen keyboard or trying to pick one of the dozens of virtual buttons on the hopelessly cluttered Radio screen, the controller had a bad habit of snapping to the wrong virtual button and then blowing past the right one when I nudged the stick to correct.