What on earth is going on at Lexus’s styling department? From the looks of things, it seems hell bent on producing the most bizarrely styled cars on the road and I can’t help but think that, in the long term at least, it’s an exercise in futility to make cars that are so divisive that you attract as many haters as you do admirers.
I’ve tried my best to accept that “spindle” grille but I’ve given up. If I stare at it any longer I’ll probably see a rabbit or something – this Lexus IS350 could well be the world’s first four-wheeled “magic eye” optical illusion.
This is a pity because the rest of the car’s exterior is pretty smart, so the best thing to do is forget about what everyone else will see in their rear-view mirrors and enjoy the many delights on offer within the car’s interior. This isn’t an entirely new model (the engines, for instance, are carried over from the outgoing one) but the improvements that have come to pass are significant over the old IS, with more space, a more contemporary and unique design and a greater impression of prestige than ever before. Which, when you’re dropping Dh230,000 on a car, is exactly what you should expect.
Do not confuse this with the storming IS-F. The IS350 F-Sport, to give this car its full title, is definitely aimed at driving enthusiasts rather than the luxobarge market that’s cornered by the LS range. Its natural rival is BMW’s truly superb 335i – they’re similarly sized, 3.5L, six-cylinder saloons and they’re closely matched on price, too. BMW’s engine is a twin-turbo, multi-award winning masterpiece that the Lexus can’t hope to compete with, although it’s rumoured that the new IS-F, when it arrives, will downsize from a V8 to a blown V6.
What the IS350 F-Sport does bring to the table is some of the LFA supercar’s attitude, at least when it comes to the driving environment. A chunky, lovely-feeling steering wheel sits in front of digital instrumentation that’s legible and easy to use. The dashboard is stylish and there’s a large, central display screen that is streets ahead of recent fodder by both Lexus and Toyota. The seats are supportive and the materials used, while not as nice to the touch as those used in the German competition, are still a marked improvement over other Japanese cars. So far, then, so good. But what is it like as a driving machine?
There are four driving modes at your disposal here: Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+. In the car’s default Eco mode, there’s a definite blunting of performance, but the others are much more in keeping with the car’s aspirations, with Sport+ providing a proper punch, but you really do have to stamp on the throttle to get that. When the revs soar, so does the sound from the V6, carefully channelled into the cabin to provide some sonic character.
It’s a pleasing sound, make no mistake, and if you push the Lexus beyond its comfortable cruising zone (Sport+ and using the steering wheel gear shifters) it eventually rewards with a dynamic drive that’s almost (but not quite) as brilliant as the BMW’s. It just doesn’t feel anywhere near as rapid as the 335i and the sound isn’t as inspiring, either. But even in its most focused driver setting, it remains comfortable and extremely refined with none of the bone shaking tendencies of some other vehicles.
Its brakes and steering are commendable, too, with plenty of feel from both, and the eight-speed automatic transmission shifts around without histrionics – although it doesn’t do much to help its fuel economy, which is on a par with cars much more powerful. But the thing that really impresses about this Lexus is just how solid the entire thing seems – there’s an overriding impression of absolute quality in everything; except perhaps, for some of the interior surfaces. It shows just how far Lexus has come in recent years, inasmuch as it feels decidedly European rather than Japanese or American. And, despite my misgivings about the way its nose looks, there isn’t a single moment during my few days with the car when I feel a sense of regret about having to drive it.
The IS350 F-Sport faces competition from more than BMW, however, in the shape of Audi’s A4, the Merc E-Class and the astonishingly good Cadillac ATS, and in fairness it doesn’t disgrace itself in front of any of them, offering a genuinely capable alternative from the established norm and, at the very least, managing to distance itself from the “posh Toyota” tag that Lexus has been tarred with from the very beginning. With a bit more power, a bit more class and a bit less styling madness, who knows? It still might get to trounce the best of Bavaria.
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