Esquire’s 2013 Car of the Year
2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
Finally, a Lexus that’s thrilling first, responsible second
Accountants will tell you that car companies live or die by marketing. Al Gore will tell you that everyone should buy an electric Nissan Leaf because the climate is changing. But there’s more to it than either of those things: Cars aren’t toasters, EV’s don’t solve everyone’s problem, and even the most boring automobile was built by a group of people dedicated to giving you an emotion. For some, that means rolling down the road oozing an image. (Example: Leaf, you look like a selfless, humble man. Porsche 911, the opposite.) For others, on a different part of the spectrum, it’s knowing they made the smartest purchase possible.
We put a priority on the urge. A car should be based on need — it has to be responsible, affordable, adult, refined — but also desire. You have to look at it twice, maybe even a third time, as you walk away from it in a parking lot. It should rip apart a curvy two-lane and make you feel like you’re getting away with something. Maybe it makes the neighbors overtly jealous, or maybe it hangs out under the radar and makes them think you bought a used taxi. Above all, like our past choices — the 2013 Cadillac ATS, the 2012 Audi A7, the 2010 Audi S4, and the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO — it has to feel special. Which is remarkably hard for a mass-produced object to do.
The IS 350 F Sport does all of that. This is surprising, because Lexuses are not known for emotion. They are known for being almost painfully smart. They are known for being built by Toyota, Lexus’s successful but beleaguered parent company, to achieve benchmark standards of reliability. When it comes to sport sedans — fast four-doors with sports-car speed but family-sedan comfort — it’s known for getting everything but the intangibles right. The numbers always worked, but the feeling in the wheel fell short.
That’s somewhat forgivable. Because sport sedans serve so many masters, they’re the primary challenge in this business. For decades, everyone has patterned their efforts after the BMW 3 Series because it sells well and legitimately feels like nothing else on the road. You whale on a 3, the car talks back: The wheel comes alive, the engine barks at you, your spine gets a telegraphed message about what each tire is doing.
Lexus’s IS, introduced in the U. S. in 2000 and renewed or face-lifted regularly since, always seemed mute by comparison, and everyone assumed Toyota, the company behind sedate cars like the Camry, just didn’t get it. The IS was perennially in the BMW’s shadow, as well as the shadows of the two or three cars behind the BMW.
And now it’s not. Remarkably, it’s sent them all packing.
The V-6-powered rear-drive IS 350 F Sport is a beast, with horsepower similar to the BMW’s. But crucially, unlike everything else, it’s not trying to be the BMW. It’s $44,345, first of all, and behind the wheel you get just enough information to be confident. The dash, which is pared down to just a central tachometer and a digital screen, feels stark and purposeful, like you’re flying some kind of off-the-radar aircraft in combat. Sixty mph comes up in 5.6 seconds, and every bit of the car’s 306 hp is usable and approachable, rain or shine. The leather is buttery, the touch sensitive, the eyebrow-shaped climate controls futuristic without being gimmicky. Most new cars have cockpits like iPhones, meaning you don’t drive so much as operate an app. Focus like this is rare.
This is a car that rewards you for making smart choices. You can get the IS with all-wheel drive or a smaller engine, both of which are fine; snow happens, and fuel mileage is a real concern in the modern world. But you really want the rear-drive 350 F Sport (19/28 mpg). It comes with a staggeringly good eight-speed automatic that matches revs on downshifts and measures how hard the car is cornering when judging how to make a shift; the all-wheel-drive car gets a less intelligent six-speed. It offers steering feel and adaptive suspension, both of which make the (still quite good) BMW seem a little overhyped. Chiefly, it feels wider and stronger and grippier than it is, and with its lively chassis and snarling engine, rowdier than any Lexus before it. Which prompts you to use all of what its tires can do. You bomb down a highway convinced that the car wants you to have a good time. So you do.
Luxury sport sedans operate in a knife-fight part of the market. BMW sold roughly one hundred thousand 3 Series models in America in 2012. Sales of the Mercedes-Benz equivalent, the C-Class, were a bit over three quarters of that total. The old IS hit just over 25 percent of BMW’s sales. After… well, this is a sea change. This is a deeply Japanese machine in the best way, a hypersensitive steamroller of a car that has as much in common with a German autobahn weapon as a Gundam suit does with a Walther P38. The industry has never been more concerned with green, but it’s also never been a better time to buy an honest, gutsy, fast set of wheels. The IS 350 F Sport is all that. And it’s the Esquire Car of the Year.