Alvin Thomas slams the pedal to metal and finds that the Lexus IS 350 F-Sport isn’t just an average luxury cruiser, but a potent little pocket rocket.
When Lexus first broke onto the world’s automotive scene in the early 1990s, the world was shocked to see Toyota – one of the world’s leading brands of the time – come up with a luxury marque. Undoubtedly, there were a lot of questions: would they be able to keep up with the Germans and British – who had been at their jobs for decades – and why it cost as much as a BMW or Mercedes-Benz?
However, Lexus kept doing what it did best; creating opulent cars with legendary reliability and it soon etched a bullet-proof name for itself in the industry. A host of sumptuous cars followed and the brand soon became a household name in many countries.
But it is what followed that changed the face of Lexus: by the late 20th century, the brand entered the Middle Eastern market – and it soon became more than a carmaker. It became a brand that many Arab kids aspired to own one day. And the aspirations of these young people from a region with an emerging economy, dreaming of buying a car from an emerging manufacturer, soon wrote itself into a beautiful love story. Everybody wanted a Lexus, and it soon became a sign of wealth and status.
Almost two decades later, things are still the same, and Lexus is still one of the region’s best-selling luxury carmakers. But if there is anything that has changed over the years, it has to be the way Lexus has served up its cars to customers.
And looking at my test IS 350, which also has “F” and “Sport” badges tagged along with it, I have to say that I am quite confused by what I’m seeing.
Is it a luxury cruiser? Or is it a rival to the BMW 335i M Sport or Cadillac ATS?
But one thing’s for sure: the Lexus got my attention in terms of aesthetics. I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure of its design at first but it did grow on me, and I soon grew to admire its swooping side-profile and the razor-sharp front grille and rear lights – which descend downwards – to blend with the side skirts.
Even the headlights (along with the Nike-esque daytime running LEDs) and the spindle-like grille makes the IS look like it is frowning down on its competition. It’s all very sporty and bellicose, especially in the graphite colour my tester came in.
The interior, however, follows a different approach. Is it avant garde? Yes. Does it complement the exterior? Perhaps not so much.
Mind you, it’s an amazing place to be in and it all looks attractive. There are a lot of peculiar shapes around the cabin and everything is stretched and almost rectangular-themed (except for the clock). In the F-Sport trim, the interior is further complemented with leather trim, a clean centre console and a multimedia screen that is controlled via a joystick-like mouse set-up. The latter is incredibly finicky and will require getting used to.
The seats are extremely comfortable and are well bolstered – even in the rear. There’s ample space in the back and it’s on a par – if not more voluminous – than its rivals.
Powering the IS350 F-Sport is a monstrous 3.5-litre V6 engine that sends all the power to the rear-wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. To be clear, that’s 312hp and 375Nm of torque in a car that weighs only 1,600kgs (before I hop in, that is).
The results? Well, they are staggering.
Because there are no turbochargers, most of the power is available throughout the rev range and there’s no lag from the engine. And that’s fantastic news because the car redlines at 6,600rpm. This means you will be screaming all the way through the gears if you choose to do so.
The eight-speed automatic is smooth, but quite dictatorial unless you take things manually using the paddle-shifters. Upon doing so, we could hit the 100kph mark in a little over six seconds. The car, however, is kept sane by computer nannies and it does come alive in corners, fighting between understeer (if you leave the traction control on) and a plateful of oversteer thanks to all the power that is sent to the rear wheels. Mind you, it’s not uncontrollable; it’s just a lot of fun.
Handling is further aided by the sharp steering, which manages to provide decent feedback. The ride is smooth despite riding on the GS-inspired 46cms alloy wheels. Body roll is existent but manageable, and the chassis is lively. The brakes are also very strong and linear.
The Lexus IS350 F-Sport has the charisma to put it into the sporty territory but also the finesse and grace that keeps it within the luxury segment. But what surprised me most was that the boffins from Lexus have managed to make this an interesting car to drive.
By doing that, they have managed to put a smile on my face. This is not a car you drive; this is a car you indulge in. The “F” in F-Sport isn’t just for show: it clearly denotes “fun”.