ROAD TEST: 2016 LEXUS IS 350 AWD F SPORT
The Lexus IS 350 — especially the corner-hugging, all-wheel-drive version (AWD) — is refined, comfortable, physically appealing for the most part, technologically sound and sort of sporty. It’s not racy or edgy, though. It’s a car for a 57-year-old boomer.
That’s good and bad. Good in that these sorts of cars are catnip for boomers. Bad in that without big-horsepower bragging rights, Nürburgring-conquering handling or some other special quality designed to get your palms moist and your loins boiling, there’s a lack of sex appeal. Call this BMW 3-Series-fighter more Notebook than 50 Shades of Grey.
That’s a problem. What made Fifty Shades of Grey a best-seller aligns very nicely with what sells sporty cars with as-tested price tags of $55,247.47 – cars like the IS and rivals such as the BMW 3-Seires, the Audi A4, Infiniti G50 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
“I can’t stress enough, for buyers of these kinds of cars, bragging rights absolutely play into it,” Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at research firm AutoPacific, tells Automotive News.
“It” being the urge to lay down fistfuls of dollars on a head-turning ride with the bragging rights of a roundel or a three-pointed star or some such brand icon. This is a problem the boss of bosses at Lexus parent Toyota Motor recognizes.
Akio Toyoda told reporters at this year’s Toyota Motor Show that Lexus is reinventing itself with “emotional and cool” at the centre of everything. Lexus, then, is not a station wagon brand. Lexus will leave that to BMW, Mercedes and Audi.
“If your focus is selling more cars, as many as possible, a station wagon would be of interest,” he said, adding “When you say ’emotional and cool,’ it’s not a station wagon.”
It’s all well and good that everything in the Lexus lineup falls into the “recommended” and ultra-reliable class at Consumer Reports. Lexus is and has been No. 1 for reliability seemingly forever (this year BMW is ranked 11th and Mercedes-Benz 21st). The Germans have yet to master reliability and low-cost maintenance. But they crush Lexus when it comes to sales appeal. Globally, BMW and Mercedes sell four times as many vehicles as Lexus. In Canada, BMW’s 3 outsells the IS almost three to one.
The IS 350 AWD (all-wheel drive), my tester, came with a rich looking coat of paint (an extra $650), a stunning array of features and options, F Sport dress-ups (e.g., leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel for an extra $7,000) and a serviceable 306 horsepower V-6 mated to a slick six-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters on the wheel. The key infotainment interface – a superb version of the Lexus console mouse – is class-leading and something BMW should aspire to with what has forever been the tedious and endlessly irritating BMW iDrive. The seats are built for 300-, 400-km runs – comfy for a long haul. I like this car plenty and would consider owning one.
This Lexus also has a $7,000 price advantage compared to a comparably-price and uniformly equipped BMW 340i xDrive. The Lexus ticks all the rational boxes, then. But it does not rise to the level of “emotional and cool.”
Not yet, anyway, though what we’re hearing out of Lexus about ground-breaking designs, technology and performance should be troubling to the dominant and arguably complacent German luxury brands.
THE LOOK: The lamentable, unfortunate Lexus spindle grille is there, but in a smallish car it’s not such a dominating visual feature. The rest of the design is clean and smooth and well-proportioned. Handsome, not jaw-dropping.
THE DRIVE: The steering is sharp but not jittery, the brakes solid and steady, and in cornering, everything is predictable, bordering on entertaining. The V-6 is not as smooth and pleasing as the 320 horsepower inline turbo six in the BMW 340. Lay into the throttle with your right foot and things get raspy around 5,000 rpm.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has yet to rate the IS, but it will score well when finally tested. The IS starts with a rear-wheel-drive configuration – good for balance and handling performance – while in the tester, AWD adds seamless traction when needed.
THE CABIN/STORAGE: No one will be overwhelmed by the elegance of the cabin design; it really is quite functional and there is a lot of black plastic, just like in the Bimmer. Cabin room is on par with rivals. The trunk has decent luggage space and the 60/40 split folding rear seats are good for loading golf clubs and snowboards. The human-machine interfaces are thoroughly intuitive. For full vehicle and package features and specifications, visit lexus.ca/is.
THE BRAND: Lexus is all about unsurpassed reliability. It says to the world that you are a little more careful than, say, a Bimmer buyer. And depending on your point of view, less obnoxious.
WHY BUY? The IS 350 AWD is a very grown-up entry-lux sedan, one you’ll be completely happy to own for 10 years. Somewhere around year four or five – or sooner — you might start to get bored.
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6 (306 horsepower/277-lb-ft torque).
Transmission: six-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
Fuel economy (l/100 km): 12.6 city/9.1 hwy using premium fuel.
Warranty: four years or 80,000 km, with seven years or 110,000 km on the powertrain.
Price: $51,900 base; $55,424.47 as tested, including $2,045 freight and delivery.
Comparables: BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Infiniti G50, Acura TSX, Cadillac ATS, Volvo S60.