Maybe next time
The 350 is a heart transplant and a facelift away from perfection
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.