2018 Lexus IS 350 F SPORT: The 3 Series BMW Used to Build

Published on July 6, 2018 in Test Drives by William Clavey

The compact luxury sports sedan segment is a copycat game. At the top of the food chain lies the BMW 3 Series. The other two German carmakers, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, keep gnawing at its ankles, and in some cases, beat it at its own game with the A4 and the C-Class.

Then you’ve got the new kids on the block, the Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Jaguar XE, the Genesis G70 and the all-new Volvo S60. They’re all great sedans, but they also all mimic the same basic formula. The Lexus IS 350 F SPORT does not. In many ways, by remaining independent and somewhat conservative, the IS stays true to the original concept of a sports sedan—you know, the one BMW pioneered with the 3 Series?

Remaining Traditional Where it Counts

Within the IS lineup, the IS 350 F SPORT is the top-dog trim level. It’s the most powerful, sportiest, and better equipped variant—at least, until an IS F version returns. And unlike its entire crop of rivals, which all rely on turbocharging, this IS is the only one to still be powered by a naturally aspirated V6 (a turbo four powers the base model). At 3.5 litres of displacement, the V6 is rated at a comfortable 311 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque.

Sure, the IS with the F SPORT package too comes with an adaptive suspension and adjustable drive modes, but none of its components can be individually altered. It stays rather sensible, presumably for reliability purposes, an obsessive Lexus quality. Its eight-speed automatic isn’t a double-clutch unit. There’s no start-stop feature, and no hybrid variant. It even has a CD player.

Here in Canada, all IS 350s are all-wheel drive. Unfortunately, we don’t get the US’ available rear-wheel-drive model, a letdown for enthusiasts. At least, our IS makes a bit more power, five more horsepower and three pound-feet more of torque, actually. It’s a tiny bump, but a bump nevertheless, which helps quell the extra 143 lbs. (64 kg) added by the all-wheel drivetrain.

Our tester was fitted with the F SPORT Series 3 package, the second and most complete of available add-ons. It sells for the $2,900, complementing the more affordable Series 2 package ($1,300) by a set of 18-inch wheels and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. We’d suggest sticking with Series 2; you’ll still get the adaptive suspension and aero package.

Photo: William Clavey

Forget Numbers

The 2018 Lexus IS 350 F SPORT is far from the fastest of its class. I mean, even a BMW 330i, the base trim of the lineup, eats an IS 350 for breakfast.

But while the Germans are busy brawling it out with the Italians and the Brits in the quest for the fastest compact sedan around the Nurburgring, Lexus is content with a 6.5-second 0 to 100 km/h acceleration time. And so are we, because what shines through isn’t speed and crackling exhaust pipes. While quick enough, what we admire is the IS 350’s composure, brilliant chassis, butter-smooth engine and a cabin so comfortable and luxurious that you could spend a night in it and still look dashing for that morning board meeting.

Enter a corner fast in the IS 350 F SPORT, and you immediately sense a compact, buttoned-down and nimble chassis that instantly reacts to the slightest inputs of its small diameter steering wheel—very much like a BMW 3 Series from a few generations back.

It’s a quick-reacting steering rack, one that allows the car to turn in sharply, and when combined with the adaptive suspension, the net result is a playful little sports car that feels light on its feet.

Unlike its European rivals, changing from Comfort to Sport or Sport + modes in an IS isn’t as dramatic as you’d imagine. The car doesn’t have multiple personalities, but rather remains the car it was always meant to be: smooth, controlled, easy to drive. Sport + mode slightly firms up the dampers, but not too much as to offset the smooth ride. In this mode, the eight-speed automatic downshifts two cogs, sticks to the first six, all while responding faster and holding on to revs longer.

Sadly, that eight-speed remains the IS’ Achilles heel. It lags, taking forever to downshift. And when it does, it tends to drop the engine’s revs too low in the power band. The ratios themselves are also too long. That V6 wants to rev, and makes good power once it’s singing high. But the gearbox buries it in the lower cowls of the rev range (where it makes much less torque), preventing the IS 350 from delivering truly exciting performance.

Photo: William Clavey

Remaining Snug

In this age of the crossover and increasingly growing sedans, it feels great to sit inside a proper compact car. The IS isn’t big, and the tight rear-seat legroom is a clear indication of that. But that’s also why it looks so distinctive on the road. The IS has spot-on proportions. It’s stanced like a proper sports sedan, and it never feels heavy or bloated, either to the eyes, or behind the wheel.

The cabin itself is Lexus-typical quiet. Build quality is near obsessive and there are neat details such as the slight bronze tint in the windows, the way the tiny shifter slides harmoniously within the palm of your hand, the hydraulic feel of the radio’s control knobs, and the way the tachometer moves over at the touch of a button to reveal another menu within the dashboard. It’s all modern, youthful, and distinctive.

However, the infotainment interface remains a mess with its cluttered menus, dated interface and absence of Android Auto / Apple CarPlay integration. The IS relies on a mouse-like knob to control it. We’re not sure which is better or worse—this or the touchpad Lexus puts in its newer vehicles.

Content in its cozy little corner, the 2018 Lexus IS 350 goes about its own way not by being the quickest or most sophisticated compact sports sedan of the group, but rather the most coherent one. It drives like an E46 3 Series, is more comfortable than a C-Class, as reliable as a Camry, and whether you like the way it looks or not, you’ll never mistake it for anything else than what it is. Lexus, if you’re looking for a car to copy for your next-generation IS, please, pick this one.

Test drive report
Test model 2018 Lexus IS
Trim level 350 AWD
Price range $41,140 – $53,100
Price as tested 53 100 $
Warranty (basic) 4 years/80,000 km
Warranty (powertrain) 6 years/110,000 km
Fuel economy (city/highway/observed) 12,3 / 9,1 / 10,3 L/100km
Options N/A
Competitive models Acura TLX, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Hyundai Genesis, Infiniti Q50, Lincoln MKZ, Maserati Ghibli, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Volvo S60
Strong points
  • Brilliant chassis
  • Comfortable and well-put-together cabin
  • Naturally aspirated V6
Weak points
  • Dumb-witted eight-speed automatic
  • Furiously unintuitive infotainment system
  • Tight rear seat
Editor's rating
Fuel economy 2.5/5 We recorded a 10.3 L/100 km average. For an all-wheel-drive V6 sedan, that's good, but some of its turbocharged competitors can do better.
Comfort 4.5/5 Immensely comfortable, quiet and well put together. Rear legroom is a bit tight for tall people.
Performance 3.5/5 The IS is nimble, handles well and encourages spirited driving. The V6 engine pulls strong, but the automatic gearbox muffles its potential.
Infotainment 1.5/5 Dated, complicated, counterintuitive and hard to operate. Still not compatible Android Auto / Apple CarPlay.
Driving 4.5/5 The IS 350 is a nible and playful compact sports sedan that you'll want to drive hard on a twisty road. In many ways, its driving dynamics remind us of older BMW products.
Overall 4.0/5 Fun to drive and quick enough, the Lexus IS 350 trades a bit of performance for comfort, build quality and reliability.
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