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FIRST DRIVE: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

FIRST DRIVE: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

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When Lexus was launched in the late 1980s, it seemed the brand had Mercedes Benz clearly in its sights. With that laser focus and a “relentless pursuit of perfection,” it took less time than many pundits had predicted for Lexus to become a well respected premium automotive brand.

Yet, while Lexus succeeded in producing very comfortable, very reliable luxury cars, something was missing, especially for the driver. Lexus vehicles were elegant and smooth conveyances but never came close to answering the call of the open road.

That is about to change.

I recently spent four hours driving a final pre-production prototype of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport on the back roads of North Carolina surrounding the Pinehurst Resort and the on the track at Rockingham Raceway. What I experienced was a Lexus like none I’d ever driven before. This Lexus is quick. This Lexus is responsive. This Lexus is confident. This Lexus is – dare I say it? – fun.

Yes, you read that right, I used “Lexus” and “fun” in the same sentence.

How did this happen? How did a car company known for building vehicles that were the automotive equivalent of Prozac, create a legitimate sports sedan?

In talking with Lexus executives at the event, it’s clear that the IS F Sport is the result of a very clear strategy to make cars that are fun to drive.

No longer content only to build cars that are everything my aunt Iris covets, Lexus began this shift a few years ago with the introduction of their “statement car,” the LFA. Low production, statement cars are meaningless, however, unless what they’re trying to say is translated into more mainstream products, and that’s what has happened here.

From the outside, the IS 350 F Sport features an aggressive take on Lexus’ new signature “Spindle” grill. While an attempt to establish an overall design language for Lexus products, in this case the look also improves engine airflow and brake cooling. The F Sport also features twin projector LED Headlamps that appear to be channeling the Nike swoosh. It’s shod 18-inch 5-spoke wheels with performance summer or all-weather tires.

Get behind the wheel, push the start button and a couple of other cues that this is a different kind of Lexus become readily apparent.

First, the sound. Oh, that wonderful, deep, guttural rumble which quickly becomes a satisfying roar when you mash the loud pedal. Lexus actually engineered the 3.5L, direct-injected V6’s intake resonator to ensure your ears are treated to a heavenly internal combustion chorus as you pull away from a stop.

This engine does more than sound good. With 306 hp @ 6400 rpm and 277 lb-ft of torque at a very usable 4800 rpm, it moves the 3593 pound IS 350 F Sport from 0-60 in a very respectable 5.6 seconds thanks to its 8-speed automatic transmission.

The second LFA inspired feature is the instrument cluster which features a large round tachometer/speedometer that slides from the center of the panel to the right making the most of the 8-inch LCD display with its customizable driver information center (see video below). Yes, it’s a bit gimmicky, but it does a good job of presenting the information you’ll want while providing a very noticeable wow-factor every time you drive the car.

So The IS 350 F Sport sounds great and has a cool instrument cluster, but how does it drive?

Very well, thank you very much.

Lexus worked hard to create a more rigid frame, using body adhesive bonding. underbody bracing and laser screw welding to increase strength and reduce cross-sectional deformation. What this means is a more solid platform from which to hang the independent double-wishbone front and rear suspension components, with the goal of increasing straight line stability, steering feel and overall drivability.

The F Sport features an Adaptive Variable Suspension that is controlled by a four-position drive mode system (ECO, Normal, Sport and Sport+). This also adjusts shift points in the automatic transmission and alters the variable gear ratio steering to create a feel appropriate for the type of driving you’re doing.

Want to cruise down the highway in comfort and get the best economy possible? Choose the ECO mode. Running errands around town or commuting to work? Normal is your best bet. Ready to blast through the switchbacks on your favorite two-lane country highway? Try Sport or if the pavement is really smooth, Sport Plus.

As someone who has owned a BMW 3-series sedan and currently drives an Audi A4 Quattro with a six-speed manual transmission every day, I can say that my time on the track in the the IS 350 F Sport was eye opening. This car was quicker, handled better and felt more alive than any previous Lexus I’ve ever driven.

Part of this is also due to the supportive 10-way adjustable driver’s seat, upholstered with their NuLuxe composite material, and new driving position. Lexus lowered the seat height by 20mm. Compared to the previous IS, you now feel like you’re in the driver’s seat instead of on it. It’s a position much more familiar to those who are used to driving sports sedans from BMW and Audi.

On the track the F Sport felt balanced and unflappable, with just a hint of understeer as I pushed it hard into the corners. Blip the throttle, however, and the rear end sets up nicely for a smooth, predictable slide. Using the paddle shifters I was able to keep the revs in the center of the power band, making the most of its 306 horses. I still prefer a traditional manual transmission, but I’m old-school like that. The four-wheel anti-lock discs showed very little fade, which was impressive given that the other journalists and I were doing our best to wear them out.

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Bottom line: This is a very capable sports sedan, yet still a Lexus. That’s why it’s going to be a hit in the American market. It offers performance competitive with other cars in this class while sanding off the rough edges that make the BMW and Audi so much fun for someone like me to drive.

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