The good-things-come-in-small-packages adage holds absolutely true when we talk about Lexus.
Toyota’s luxury arm may live off the healthy sales generated from the mid-sized ES350 and the LX570 SUV, and has earned its well-deserved reputation for quality luxury saloons from the flagship LS model.
But the standout of the Lexus fleet, for me, has always been the baby IS range. The latest IS 350 F Sport only cements my long-held belief.
Why? Because it is the most driver-focused model and has always been that way since the first IS 200 that was developed to take on the then-mighty BMW 3 Series as the pinnacle of front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, compact luxury cars.
I would argue that is still the case with the F Sport, which hasn't lost its vision or place in the market. It still has a taut chassis you can throw around with joy, rear-wheel drive that frees up the front axle to just focus on steering – and therefore is lighter and more direct than its all-wheel drive counterparts.
It has also kept its front and rear overhangs to a minimum, maintaining its wheel-at-each-corner stance.
This 2021 model began life in 2014 and has welcomed a few makeovers inside and out along the way, so in some areas it is feeling its age compared to the latest C-Class Mercedes and Audi A4, particularly on the inside.
Lexus is working on a brand-new IS that will be hotter than this current model, but in the meantime it is staying relevant in the segment by bringing valuable updates for the second half of this year.
Powered by a 311bhp, 3.5-litre V6 that develops 380Nm of torque, the F Sport doesn't give you any more under the hood over the regular IS350, but it does tighten things up underneath, gives you a few more goodies inside and includes a rear spoiler and 19-inch forged alloy wheels.
It is backed by an eight-speed automatic transmission that drives through the rear wheels. Although some of its competitors boast more power, be reminded that it achieves this without turbos, supercharging or hybridisation, which is perhaps another indicator of its age in a class now dominated by turbo and/or hybrid options.
The F Sport gets from 0 to 100 kilometres an hour in a claimed 5.7 seconds, but this is a case where numbers don’t tell the full story because it is a more rewarding drive than most that run with the above-mentioned engine configurations.
Point me towards the hills and winding roads of Hatta or Al Ain, and this is where the Lexus's engineering comes to the fore. The IS has not lost its delightfully responsive chassis, letting you throw it into corners with confidence, keep the power planted without losing traction and not fight the dreaded all-wheel drive understeer that affects its competitors.
In its most dynamic Sport S+ mode, the IS350’s steering feel is superb, delivering a near-analogue, almost-perfect feedback of what is happening at the wheels through my fingers. It also holds the gears longer, keeping a sustained powerband through switchback corners and downshifts quickly when it senses inputs through the accelerator.
Its ECU brain very quickly adapts to my driving style as I transition from casual motorway cruising for maximum economy and comfort to an enthusiastic mountain blast.
The IS F Sport manages to blend this out-of-character sportiness with the comfort and luxury that is synonymous with the brand, which may surprise you if you approach the IS with preconceptions on how you believe a Lexus should perform.
Although I wasn't a fan of the colour choices on our test car, mixing a vibrant red leather interior with a metallic blue exterior, it didn't take away from the overall ride and comfort thanks to the eight-way power adjustable seats with vented cooling for these hot days. The centre console features a new trackpad and 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
The haptic trackpad is perhaps oversensitive and needs some self-training to hit the commands without taking your eyes off the road. I found I was constantly overshooting the function I was looking for, which distracted me from driving, so I tended to wait until I could pull over to change the music, find an address or alter the climate setting.
It's a gripe of all modern-day cars, where cheaper touchscreens have replaced hard-touch buttons you used to find intuitively without taking your eyes off the road, whereas navigating a multifunction screen is arguably a less-safe alternative.
There is wireless charging for phones that connect to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which are easy to use, showing the full screen instead of just favourites as on some cars, and it also has a new 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system.
The 2021 update to the IS 350 is welcome progress to what was already a delightful driver's car, especially this F Sport version. Although it may lack some of the cutting-edge features found in the newest generation of executive compact saloon, it delivers a premium driving experience.
Engine: 3.5 V6
Transmission: 8-speed auto