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Published: 03/25/2013 - by Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor
We tried to straight-line the quick right/left/right downhill Turn 3 at the tree-lined Driveway Austin test track in the reworked 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport.
It got light over the blind crest, the left-side tires not coming down on the apex rumble strips, but to the left of them, off the track, on a concrete patch. We waited for a sickening plastic crunch of cracked bodywork. But it never came. The 2014 IS didn't care, the adaptive suspension soaking it all up with perfect smoothness.
So we buried our right foot back into the carpeting, the 3.5-liter V6 honking away as we juked through the turns before stomping onto the brake pedal for the upcoming hairpin. The sport sedan wiggled back and forth in protest, but the powerful, fade-free brakes reined it all in.
As we unwound the steering and dialed the power back in for corner exit, the F Sport's front tires howled in protest. Dropping the throttle did little, as the front end wanted to push and the rear wanted to stay planted.
And that's when it hit us. Despite its similarities, this is a much different IS 350 than we're used to, and not always in a good way.
There's a reason why the 2014 Lexus IS 350 feels so different. Naoki Kobayashi, Lexus IS assistant chief engineer, told us that a main goal with the new IS "was about achieving a more fun-to-drive car," while somehow also giving the car an even better ride. He talked of sharper steering and improved handling.
While we don't doubt that was a goal, the new car is longer, heavier and more softly sprung than the outgoing model. Do the math, and it's not surprising that the new IS feels less willing to change directions, especially in an at-the-limit setting like a racetrack. To us, the old F Sport was more lively, more immediate, with more direct steering and a tail that was a little more playful.
Will this matter? No. Probably 99.5 percent of Lexus IS owners, including F Sport buyers, will never take their car on the track. For them, this larger and more luxurious IS will be a better car 100 percent of the time.
Lexus engineers pulled out all their tricks to beef up the IS's new body. Extra spot welds, laser screw welds and 80 feet of adhesive body bonding were added, along with new crossmembers and bracings. The chassis is some 10-20 percent stiffer, according to Kobayashi, and 22 pounds lighter due to a higher content of high-tensile steel and aluminum. The stronger body structure also meant Lexus could give the IS 60/40 split/fold rear seats for the first time, long a sore spot with buyers.
Still, curb weights are heavier across the board due to ever-more luxury and tech items, along with NVH-reducing sound-deadening materials. The IS 250's 3,461-pound curb weight is up by 26 pounds, the IS 350 up by 66 pounds to 3,593.
The wheelbase was stretched 2.7 inches to 110.2 inches to add rear seat room (another IS sore point) with the side benefit of a smoother, more stable ride. Overall length is up by 3.6 inches to 183.7, while the width and height are up less than an inch each.
A new multilink rear suspension design borrowed from the larger GS separates the spring/damper assembly, putting the springs off the shocks. The greater distance between the suspension towers gives more trunk space at 13.8 cubic feet.
Both the standard 2014 Lexus IS 350 and IS 350 F Sport have softer springs but slightly larger antiroll bars than the outgoing car. But the big news is the IS 350 F Sport's standard adaptive variable dampers. Although the driver can only change the dampers between two settings from the cabin, Kobayashi says the dampers constantly switch among nine settings for rebound and preload.
Leave the Drive Mode Select knob in Normal and the dampers are softer than the previous F Sport. Switch it to Sport+ (Sport doesn't affect the suspension, only throttle and steering) and the top two to three settings are stiffer than the old F Sport, according to Kobayashi.
Although we weren't overwhelmed with the F Sport's agility on the track, we did like its compliance on curvy, central Texas roads. On this undulating ribbon of tarmac, at about seven- or eight-tenths pace, the F Sport proved an excellent dance partner, showing decent grip, good steering weight from the electric assist and always, always a superbly planted chassis.
It soaked up bumps with ease, and even in Sport+ it was never jiggly. If anything, Kobayashi erred on the too soft side with the Sport+ setting. Quite unlike the GS 350 F Sport, which deftly switches from mild-mannered luxury sedan to ultra-stiff and ultra-capable sport sedan with the turn of a knob.
New Transmission, Same Engines
If you heard that the IS gets an eight-speed automatic for 2014, you're right. Sort of. Only the IS 350 rear-drive versions get the monster-motored IS F's quick-shifting eight-cogger. All IS 250 and IS 350 all-wheel-drivers continue with the old six-speed. But all versions come with paddle shifters, and all perform enthusiastic throttle blips on downshifts.
Unfortunately the IS 350 F Sport's auto doesn't hold gears to the rev limiter in Manual mode. But then, neither does BMW's. We also found it resistant to manual downshifting at times, instead beeping at us in that Toyota mother hen way of saying, "Nope, we just don't feel you're ready for a lower gear yet." Even though there should've been plenty of revs available.
Both of the IS engines are carryovers from the current model. The IS 250's 2.5-liter V6 continues to put out a measly 204 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque. It's smoother and quieter than any turbo-4, but way down in power in comparison to the competition.
That fact doesn't deter Lexus. Company officials told us, "The 2.5-liter is our most popular powertrain on the IS and delivers great performance and fuel economy (an estimated 21 city/30 highway/24 mpg combined)." Lexus claims the IS 250 hits 60 mph in 7.7 seconds.
The IS 350's V6 also makes the exact same 306 hp and 277 lb-ft as before. It remains an ultra-smooth way of launching to 60 mph in a claimed 5.6 seconds, which is mighty quick. The EPA has yet to release mileage figures, but Lexus says the new eight-speed auto should garner a 1-mpg improvement (28 mpg) on the highway.
Best in Class
The IS's redesigned cabin is possibly its most striking feature. The quality of the materials, workmanship and use of varied textures are first-rate. The controls operate with fluidity, the seats have the supplest leather you'll ever find and soft-touch materials abound. There's even padded leather on the center tunnel where the driver's right knee rests. Nice.
F Sport models get a large, LFA-like central tachometer, which can be adjusted to make room for other readouts. The driver seat was lowered 0.75 in. for all IS models, and F Sports get a body-hugging set of thoroughly comfortable front seats along with a thick-rimmed steering wheel.
One bewildering feature is the twin cupholders cut into the front passenger's center armrest. It's a horrible place to put your left elbow.
Rear-seat passengers will like the new interior, too. There's an extra 1.6 inches of legroom back there and 0.7 inch more shoulder room. Rear headroom is up by 0.2 inch, but most adults will still find their heads brushing the roof.
More Luxurious, Less Frisky
Lexus seems intent on dialing the 2014 IS 350 back until it feels right to the biggest audience possible, and if that means softening it up a bit, that's the trade-off it's willing to make. It's evident behind the wheel of this IS, although we doubt most buyers will notice as much as we did.
What will get noticed is the improved ride, quieter and more luxurious interior and extra rear seat space, all of which are huge factors for most buyers in this segment. It may not be the purest driver's car in its class, but it's still more than capable on a twisty road as long as you're not trying to keep up with a BMW 3 Series.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.