ClubLexus First Drive: 2014 Lexus IS250 F Sport and IS350 F Sport
Let’s cut to the chase – Lexus is brewing some serious recipe in their latest designs. Ever since Akio Toyoda took the seat as CEO in 2009, we have seen a serious shift in the direction of Lexus vehicles. They are more focused back on quality and most importantly emphasized on driving dynamics and sportiness.
After reviewing the 2012 LFA, 2013 GS350 F Sport, and the 2013 LS460 F Sport, honestly I couldn’t wait to drive the latest 2014 IS F Sport. In fact I decided to not read much into the specifications of the car first and base my review truly on feel. I requested the IS350 F Sport but it was not available for a while so I had to settle with the IS250 F Sport first.
Exterior: Bold? Extreme? Over the top?
Upon picking up the IS250 Fsport in Ultra White, you really can’t help but stare at the front grille of the car. BMW started the tradition of “kidney grilles” on their cars long time ago, few years back Audi integrated upper and lower grilles together, followed by Acura’s odd idea that a “beak grille” design would work on their cars. Now Lexus decided to “unify” the front-end design across all models with their spindle grille approach. We have seen it with the GS, ES, LS, LX, and RX, but the new IS F Sport simply takes it to a whole new level.
IS250 F Sport in Ultra White
From what I notice, you hardly have someone with a neutral opinion about the look, they either say it is very aggressive and like it or it is too extreme and plain ugly. While the F Sport front-end really pops, my feeling is that Lexus has been trying way too hard here. The whole idea of having a spindle grille but at the same time different from models to models limited the potential on the vehicle design and the new IS has gone slightly off the chart.
The new face of 2014 IS F Sport
But the good thing is the rest of the exterior flows well with the aggressive front end, with strong side profile carrying curve lines that flow together with the taillights and bold trunk lines. Comparing to competitors like the BMW 3-series, Mercedes C-class, and the Infiniti Q50, Lexus is clearly the most aggressive, but judging the overall styling I personally think the Q50 is a better blend of elegance and sportiness.
Interior: Setting the New Standard
On the contrary, the new IS interior completely blows the competitors out of the water. The whole layout is very easy and fresh on the eyes and nothing short of elegant. People complain about the Nuluxe not being real leather, but I have to say the quality is superior and no passengers could tell the difference at all. The seats are incredibly comfortable and the lateral supports are done very well.
Rioja Red interior
The LFA inspired dash gauge cluster adds quite a few extra points too obviously. Do you need it? Absolutely not, the engine doesn’t rev fast enough to warrant a digital display like this. But is it cool? Absolutely yes, my passengers kept on asking me to demonstrate the screen moving side to side, going through the menus, etc… It adds a lot of coolness to the overall ownership experience.
The whole telematics setup is done very well too. It doesn’t have the 12.3 inch screen like the GS but I think the size is perfect for this car and set up very cleanly. The system has also been updated quite a bit with more graphics and information displayed. It does get some getting used to but nothing crazy. For the navigation, finally you get the 3D map setup which a lot of people have been asking for. Half of the world would not agree with me but I have no problem with the Remote Touch technology at all, given how everyone should be very familiar in operating a computer mouse. I am no longer a big fan of touch screen and this is far better than the systems in BMW and Mercedes. There is a drawback on the latest telematics though – speed. The system just operates slow compared to previous generations. Lexus seems to be aware of this and a fix is on the way.
The new climate control screen
Lexus app suite
New audio interface, more details and information
Split screen setup, can have up to 3 display areas
Neat details on running the iPod cable
Another huge improvement is the rear cabin design. In the previous generation of IS, although being a sedan, the rear cabin space was far from impressive. Most people would feel very cramped back there, from head room to shoulder room to leg room. The new IS has grown in size and wheel base, and the resulting rear cabin space has improved drastically. In fact, I placed two car seats in the back and my kids had no complaint on space at all. Together with the fold-down rear seats, it makes the new IS a lot more practical.
By comparison, both the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class interiors look dull and unappealing. They don’t flow as smooth or has as many details as the IS interior. IS interior also feels more solid and is built with higher quality material. The Infiniti Q50 interior is definitely a closer match to the IS interior, but the IS still maintains a clear margin in my opinion.
IS250 F Sport Drive: This Is It?
I admit I had pretty high hope before picking up the IS250 F Sport because of my experience from driving the GS350 F Sport. First thing I noticed was the new IS definitely got bigger, it drives wider and longer than the previous generation. But still it feels smaller than the 3-series and the C-class, while being about the same as the Q50.
I knew the IS250 is not going to be very powerful but the actual experience was worse. It could be because of my lead foot, I found the car constantly downshifting and high revving but it just couldn’t go fast enough. Braking was on the weak side as well, it did have good initial bite, but possibly due to the weight of the car the brakes didn’t feel linear enough.
The chassis is very solid and impressive, it kept very stable when I tossed the car around. The steering wheel has a fantastic grip and I am most definitely in love with. The car also feels very balanced, I didn’t feel much understeer or oversteer when taking a corner fast and exiting it hard. The road feel is great too, you feel planted to the ground and the steering gives you solid feedback in most conditions. Putting the car in Sport mode and the throttle response improves noticeably, which helps to compensate the lack of power.
However, something just didn’t feel right to me besides the power. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad car at all, drives smooth, decent audio system, and above average handling. But as a driving enthusiast, some part of the car didn’t feel enough and complete. After every spirited drive, I kept on thinking about two things: Why does the steering not feel responsive enough, and the suspension not seem to be working hard enough?
IS250 F Sport drive mode ****
I decided to look up the vehicle specifications and compare the differences and options between different IS setups. The answer couldn’t come fast enough – the IS250 F Sport does not have variable gear ratio steering (VGRS) and adaptive variable suspension (AVS), which are both available on the IS350 F Sport.
IS350 F Sport drive mode ****, notice the extra S+ mode
Believing that those would be the “fixes” to my less than satisfied experience with the IS250 F Sport, I gave in and waited for the IS350 F Sport to be available for test drive.
IS350 F Sport Drive: Alive and More!
This time around Lexus provided me with a Matador Red Mica IS350 F Sport, and I have to admit I had a tough time handing back the key. The car drives ridiculously good! With an extra 100hp, the IS350 is completely alive. It simply surges forward every time I ask it to without limit. It sounds great as well though it’s from an intake sound generator not the intake design, but it does add to the driving experience for most.
The 8-speed automatic transmission works pretty well, but just like the LS460 F Sport that I test drove, it somewhat makes manual shifting more confusing. Leaving it in auto mode and let the computer decides what gear to be in works out better in my opinion. This is especially the case when you put the car in Sport mode. Throttle gets crispier and much more responsive, and depending on the driving condition with the help of the new G-AI system, the torque converter can lock up providing faster shifting and transmission stays in a lower gear anticipating the moment you need the power. Lexus executed this part extremely well and in my opinion performs much better than competitors.
Steering is drastically different as well. With the VGRS, the car turns faster when I need it to and I feel my hands were noticeably less busy compared to the IS250 F Sport. Same thing with the suspension, when put in the S+ mode (which is not available in IS250 F Sport), the shock dampening tightens up and the car feels more planted when taking hard corners.
Last of all, braking is a step up with the larger 4-piston caliper system, more powerful and linear which compliments the more powerful engine perfectly. All the above difference (power, gearing, suspension, steering, and braking) really brings out how brilliant the new IS chassis is. The car just never feels like it’s working at the limit, it stays very balanced and solid. This is very different from previous Lexus, which couldn’t inspire close to as much confidence and fun in driving.
In fact, as I worried, the tires are now the bottleneck for this machine. I constantly found the tires chirping and car sliding left and right when taking hard corners, indicating that the car could take more but the tires gives in. But thanks to the VDIM system, it doesn’t just cut down all the power but “guides” the vehicle in the right direction instead.
For the longest time, people criticize Lexus and Infiniti as being too “Japanese” and the driving experience could never match the “Euro feel”. That has all changed with the latest Lexus and especially the new IS. It drives better than the 3-series hands down – feels lighter, more nimble, more responsive, drives smaller, and better road feel. Most importantly, the IS now has that “Euro car” feel with the superb chassis, solid steering, and firm suspension. The C-class continues to feel front heavy and light steering and the Infiniti Q50 still feels too much of a Japanese sports sedan.
Verdict: Slam Dunk Right?
So is the 2014 IS F Sport a clear winner? Possibly but not a sure win and here’s why. When it comes to interior, the IS is totally leading the pack. With better materials and quality, together with richer features and more space, the IS wins. When it comes to driving dynamics and performance, the IS is at the top too. There will be people possibly debating between the 3-series and the IS, but the C-class and Q50 are lagging. That says a lot about the fun-to-drive factor on a Lexus.
The problem comes down to the exterior. I am sure there are people who love the new IS F Sport exterior with that aggressive grille, but my feeling is there are people who think the front end, especially the grille, is too much to take. I won’t be surprised if that becomes a major roadblock in consumers’ purchase decision.
And deciding between IS250 F Sport and IS350 F Sport? Please save up and get the IS350. It’s far more than just the power. Let’s take a look. The IS250 F Sport I test drove has a MSRP of $42,109 versus $48,269 on the IS350 F Sport. But the IS350 F Sport has blind spot monitor (BSM), a $600 option. It also has the Mark Levinson audio, another $1,140 upgrade, which I have to say is not that impressive compared to the standard premium audio system. Taking those options out for an apple to apple comparison and we are talking about $4,400 difference. For that money, you get over hundred more horsepower, VGRS, AVS, bigger and more powerful brakes, and 8-speed transmission. That’s a lot of sweet options for not so much money, a clear decision for any driving enthusiast.