Maybe next time

The 350 is a heart trans­plant and a facelift away from per­fec­tion

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Prestige - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MOTORING ED­I­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au Twit­ter: @JoshuaDowl­ing

THE Lexus IS sedan is the Ja­panese maker’s ri­val to the big­gest sell­ers among the three Ger­man lux­ury brands, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

When the first IS sedan was re­leased by Toy­ota’s pre­mium brand 14 years ago, one of its ad­van­tages was a long list of stan­dard equip­ment, usu­ally ex­tra cost op­tions on the Euro­pean mar­ques.

Times have changed. The Ger­mans have come down in price and their cars are welle­quipped.

The Benz C-Class is the third best-sell­ing medium-size car in Aus­tralia be­hind the Toy­ota Camry and Mazda6, and com­fort­ably out­sells the equiv­a­lent 3 Se­ries, A4 and IS. The model, due midyear, will widen the gap.

Now in its third gen­er­a­tion IS sedan, Lexus needs find some magic. Its re­sponse was to come up with a most un­usual de­sign. The trou­ble is, it’s po­lar­is­ing.

VALUE

The IS starts at $55,900 for the IS250, but you can get an A4 or 3 Se­ries for less and a C-Class for not much more.

The 350 F-Sport, which starts at $73,000. That sort of mon­eygets you a su­per­ef­fi­cient Ger­man twin-turbo. Lexus gives you a low-tech and thirsty 3.5-litre V6 that’s been around since Noah’s ark.

TECH­NOL­OGY

In an at­tempt to dis­guise the

lack of propul­sion un­der the bon­net, Lexus adds an eight­speed au­to­matic. This helps it to 5.9 sec­onds from 0-100kmh and pro­vides bet­ter fuel econ­omy at free­way speeds, but in daily driv­ing it’s still thirsty.

There are four driv­ing modes: Nor­mal, Eco, Sport and Sport Plus. They merely ad­just the sen­si­tiv­ity of the throt­tle, sus­pen­sion and, be­lieve it or not, the air-con­di­tion­ing.

The cen­tral tog­gle to ad­just cabin con­trols is sim­i­lar to those found in Audi, BMW and Mercedes. This is where lux­ury brands feel the need to over­com­pli­cate things when a sim­ple but­ton would do nicely.

Tun­ing a ra­dio sta­tion takes sev­eral mouse clicks (and you’re eyes off the road) in­stead

of hit­ting one but­ton to seek and an­other to store. And they call this progress. The third it­er­a­tion of the Lexus “hap­tic” sys­tem, and still it trails Benz and Audi. BMW’s i-Drive is equally frus­trat­ing.

DE­SIGN

I’m yet to meet any­one who loves the look of the IS. Lexus started out with a rel­a­tively nor­mal sedan shape then went crazy with the front and the rear end styling, as if that would some­how wipe years off the av­er­age age of its buyer base.

It’s ended up with an of­f­cut from The Fast and the Fu­ri­ous. I can’t be­lieve that Lexus is so des­per­ate to be cool that it al­lowed panel gaps around the head­lights that you can fit fin­gers through. This brand prides it­self on build qual­ity.

With its over-sized grille and head­lights shaped like squints, the IS sedan ap­pears to have over­dosed on Prozac. Then there’s the swoopy back end, with its con­trived lines run­ning dra­mat­i­cally into the rear door. One won­ders if there was a mixup with a draw­ing left be­hind dur­ing a visit to Lexus of a pri­mary school ex­cur­sion.

It’s a pity be­cause the in­te­rior is stun­ning. It’s mod­ern, well laid out, and the qual­ity of the ma­te­ri­als is su­perb. The dig­i­tal dash dis­play looks like it’s from a sports car, not an ex­ec­u­tive sedan. It’s awe­some. Who­ever did the in­side needs to get pro­moted to do the out­side.

SAFETY

As with most cars in this class, the Lexus IS has all the elec­tronic gad­gets cov­ered, with lane de­par­ture warn­ing, blind spot alert, radar cruise con­trol and lots of other stuff that will have you look­ing for the “off” switch.

The Lexus also gets a pedes­trian friendly pop-up bon­net (which soft­ens the blow if a hu­man is struck). In­side, the Lexus IS has 10 airbags, in­clud­ing knee airbags for the driver and front pas­sen­ger, and side airbags for the back seats (as well as the cur­tain airbags).

No star rat­ing is listed be­cause lux­ury cars tend not to get tested by ANCAP. But with more airbags than a jump­ing cas­tle it’s safe to say a five-star rat­ing would be likely.

The tyre warn­ing light was on from the mo­ment we col­lected the IS350 F-Sport and stayed on un­til we re­turned it seven days later, but there was suf­fi­cient air in all four tyres. It tran­spired that a faulty switch was ac­ti­vat­ing the light.

DRIV­ING

It says some­thing when an ex­ec­u­tive sedan from Ja­pan out­ma­noeu­vres a BMW. The FS­port drives bet­ter than a BMW 3 Se­ries, partly be­cause Lexus has ma­tured and partly be­cause BMW has dropped the ball.

The F-Sport is one of the stand­outs to drive in the class, at least un­til the C-Class. De­spite rid­ing on 18-inch wheels and low-pro­file tyres the IS350 FS­port is com­fort­able over bumps and yet carves cor­ners. In the same sit­u­a­tion, the run­flat tyres on a 3 Se­ries will rat­tle your teeth or have you ques­tion­ing the laws of physics.

The Lexus’ en­gine, al­beit rather old tech, works smoothly with the eight-speed auto. But it needs to join the real world and de­liver a world-class en­gine to go with the chas­sis, not serve up last night’s din­ner re­heated.

And Lexus needs to fast­track a facelift for this car. Cus­tomers will tire of park­ing blocks away from their des­ti­na­tion.

VER­DICT

The IS350 could be so much bet­ter with a mod­ern en­gine. It could also be a lot eas­ier on the eye. The ex­te­rior de­sign­ers owe the chas­sis en­gi­neers an apol­ogy.

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