Football boots don’t match a two-piece suit. A racecar cannot pamper its occupants. But the 2017 Lexus IS350 Sports Luxury at least attempts to do what it says on its model designation badge – to strike a balance between two contrasting attributes.
In the premium medium-sized sedan space, the facelifted IS350 must contend with greater competition than ever, from traditional Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class rivals, to outliers such as the Infiniti Q50 and Jaguar XE.
While pricing starts from $60,000 for the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder IS200t, 3.5-litre V6 versions kick off from $65,000 plus on-road costs. These are for the Luxury model grades, while the F Sport versions add $8000 or so.
This near-$85,000 Sports Luxury, meanwhile, mixes the steering and suspension of the F Sport with more luxury kit than the, er, Luxury.
Vehicle Style: Medium sedan
Price: $84,160 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 233kW/378Nm 3.5 V6 petrol | eight-speed automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 9.7 L/100km | Tested: 13.5 L/100km
A minor facelifted greeted the Lexus IS late last year. It incorporated some new active safety systems, including automatic on/off high-beam and lane-keep assistance that subtly moves the steering wheel to ensure the driver does not wander into the next lane, plus revised suspension control arms and bushes.
Outside changes are limited to a sinewy new LED headlight shape and a revised ‘spindle’ grille. There are also new 18-inch alloy wheels and chrome rear bootlid applique, but the changes are as subtle as the overall styling is ‘distinctive’.
No changes apply to the engine, which continues to drive the rear wheels through an eight-speed auto, with Lexus claiming impressive 5.9-second 0-100km/h acceleration and a less impressive 9.7 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined fuel cycle.
A BMW 330i can match that sprint time, but its 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder claims to use only 5.7L/100km. But the IS350 Sports Luxury is heavier, and far better equipped than that (albeit $15K-cheaper) German rival.
- Standard Equipment: Keyless auto-entry, power windows, power mirrors with electric-fold and puddle illumination, multi-function trip computer, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, leather trim with electrically adjustable heated and ventilated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter, active cruise control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and auto headlights/wipers
- Infotainment: 10.3-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, digital radio, twin USB inputs, Lexus Enform app connectivity, live traffic satellite navigation, voice control and 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio
- Cargo Volume: 480 litres
Lexus loads up even the entry-level IS350. The Luxury already includes real leather, electrically adjustable front seats with heating and cooling, even an electric-adjust steering column and active cruise control.
The F Sport gets 18s, two-mode adaptive suspension, performance brakes, sports seats, unique trim, plus blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts; and this Sports Luxury further lobs in Mark Levinson audio, and an electric sunroof and rear sunshade.
The problem from the outset is that is difficult to see where the $20,000 moving from the IS350 Luxury to the IS350 Sports Luxury has gone, other than with the above.
This Lexus is, of course, beautifully finished. In terms of the design, however, the current-generation IS was launched in 2013 and in some ways it shows.
Big-picture items are sound with the IS350 Sports Luxury, such as the superbly low driving position with beautifully supportive seats, a small and tactile steering wheel and legible instruments with a high-resolution 10.1-inch screen taking centre stage.
It’s in the packaging and detail that this sedan is found lacking.
The rear quarters are also now the most cramped in the segment, particularly for headroom underneath the sunroof, although the bench seat itself is supportive and very obviously padded to reward two outboard passengers. This is a four-seater at best, particularly given the intrusive centre tunnel in addition to the lack of legroom.
By contrast the 480-litre boot is among the largest in the segment, complete with a usable square space and 60:40 two-piece split-fold (although a 3 Series has a 40:20:40 three-piece) backrest aiding practicality.
Back up front, and a computer mouse-style controller that moves a cursor on the screen to access infotainment functions remains finicky, particularly on the move, and it never quite complements the soaring 15-speaker audio system’s rich quality.
Frustratingly, functions such as accessing a smartphone contacts list or entering a navigation address are blanked out at speed. Yet, speaking of pace, there’s no digital speedometer, or even a head-up display.
The Toyota-derived voice control is fine in affordable models, but it lacks the ‘one shot’ address readout of an Audi or BMW, which compounds the accessibility issue.
Finally, some active safety items are not a patch on other rivals, with auto high-beam being of the up/down variety where the A4 and C250 are available with systems that ‘block out’ only the portion of beam affecting forward or oncoming traffic.
Those same rivals also have lane-keep assistance systems that are far more intuitive than that of the same name used here, which lets the vehicle wander out of the lane before aggressively tugging at the wheel to bring it back to the centre.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 233kW/378Nm 3.5 V6 petrol
- Transmission: eight-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: Independent front and rear
- Brake: ventilated front and rear disc brakes
- Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering
If the IS350 Sports Luxury feels dated inside, then the opposite is true on the road. Despite wearing low-profile 18-inch tyres, ride quality from the two-mode adaptive suspension is superb.
In Normal it is silken and supple, yet Sport only subtly tenses the dampers to feel firmer but never harsh. Surprisingly given the suspension isn’t rock hard, bodyroll is limited, while the steering is sharp and incisive (albeit too weighty in Sport mode).
Only the Jaguar XE on standard suspension could match the IS350, while both the Audi A4 and Benz C250 need their optional adaptive suspension to match it. A BMW 330i has standard dampers, but they don’t work quite as finely as they do here.
On-paper choosing a 3.5-litre V6 petrol over a newer, savvier 2.0-litre turbo seems like a mistake, particularly given the $5K premium. It isn’t, though, because this is one of the all-time great engines, with the sort of immediate step-off response and throttle linearity that leaves its turbo sibling, and all-turbo rivals, in its wake.
Although it has eight gears, the auto can refuse to kickdown from second to first gear when acceleration is required around town, leaving the V6 (which makes 378Nm at 4800rpm) in a torque hole. It also needs a more assertive Sport+ mode calibration, but otherwise the transmission is fine.
Another downside to this lovely engine is fuel usage. Its claimed usage is around 40 per cent higher than a 330i, which claims the same acceleration, and our on-test 13.5L/100km was equally poor.
The 3.5-litre at least has terrific refinement to match low road noise levels and that superb ride quality, so certainly the IS350 gets the ‘Luxury’ part of its badge bang-on. As for the ‘Sports’ part, it’s close.
With a 1685kg kerb weight the Lexus can’t match the zingy, fleet-footed feel of a 330i that is a gob-smacking 215kg lighter.
Through corners there is never the BMW’s segue between sharp front-end point and balanced back-end thrust. Instead, it sits planted, with rock-solid stability and an electronic stability control (ESC) that acts more like a strict school teacher than a sporting partner.
The lack of a ‘Sport’ ESC setting could be a resolution, and particularly as Lexus moves towards promising that its new vehicles are sportier and more dynamic than ever, it needs to fix what seems to be a culture of intense electronic intrusion.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars – the Lexus IS scored 35.0 out of 37 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2016.
Safety Features: 10 airbags, ABS and ESC, forward collision alert with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot and lane-departure warnings with lane-keep assistance, front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Four years/100,000 kilometres.
Servicing: The first annual or 15,000km service is complimentary, with the following three ranging between recommended prices of $623.68 and $654.35.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The A4 is the spacious, tech-laden all-rounder, while the 330i is the greatest driver’s car by some margin. The oddball Q50 is solid only in Red Sport specification, while both the C250 and XE need options (chassis and interior kit respectively) to shine.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Lexus IS350 remains a smooth, high-quality premium medium-sized sedan option, but the entry-level Luxury makes this Sports Luxury seem overpriced.
For around $85,000 a well-optioned A4 or 330i – both of which start at $70K – are just as quick and more convincing than the IS350 Sports Luxury. Some issues are inherent to this ageing generation of sedan, such as tight rear legroom and lack of technology (head-up display, adaptive-auto high-beam, and improved lane-assist).
Ride quality and refinement are the IS350’s highest high points, however, along with the lovely V6 engine.
It ultimately means that this Sports Luxury falls right on the border between finding a fine balance and a sore compromise between raciness and indulgence.
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