published Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Test Drive: New Lexus IS 350 is both athletic and refined

The new 2014  Lexus IS features the company's distinctive spindle grille and all-new sheet metal. 
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
The new 2014 Lexus IS features the company's distinctive spindle grille and all-new sheet metal. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2014 Lexus IS 350

Exterior color: Silver Lining Metallic

Interior color: Black

Engine: 3.5 liter V-6

Horsepower: 306

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 28 mpg highway, 19 mpg city

Dealer: Lexus of Chattanooga

* Price (as tested): $48,386

The new “spindle” grille available on the 2014 Lexus IS 350 sports sedan is shaped like an hour glass — a subtle reminder that life’s too short to settle for a dull car.

If your idea of automotive perfection is a car that blends race-track performance with luxury and refinement, the new IS 350 has you covered.

Easily the most athletic Lexus I’ve ever driven, our IS 350 test car — in blistering F-Sport trim — makes 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, according to Motor Trend. While I didn’t attempt to hit that particular performance limit for fear of attracting the attention of the Secret Service detail here early this week for President Barack Obama’s visit, a day of driving on Chattanooga city streets and freeways offered its share of thrills.

When a car pulled into my lane abruptly on Brainerd Road, the IS 350’s huge brakes stopped on a dime. In a merge lane on I-75, the 306-horsepower V-6 swept me snugly into a small opening in traffic. If you could somehow breed a BMW 3 Series sedan to a Lexus GS, this would be the offspring.

STYLING AND FEATURES

The IS 350 — and the slightly less powerful IS 250 — represents a bold new styling direction for Lexus. One of the predominant features is a gorgeous line that sweeps upward from the rocker panels under the front doors, continues through the rear wheel arches, and tucks neatly under the taillights. The effect is to draw your eyes to the rear of the car as if the wind is guiding your glance.

The aforementioned spindle grille, which is debuting across the Lexus line, gives the fascia a serious, nose-to-the grindstone quality that should excite younger drivers. In F Sport trim the grille is fitted with a black mesh design which also shouts “wicked.”

Inside, the IS 350 is one of the most comfortable sports sedans we’ve driven. The well-bolstered front seats hug you like an old friend, which comes in handy when you fling the car around curves. All the instruments are at your fingertips and seem to find your hands naturally. One of the whiz-bang features on our test car is a tachometer in the instrument cluster that actually slides to the right when you push a button to reveal more gauges — a hidden feature we learned from Lexus of Chattanooga sales consultant Matt Moreland.

Our test car, which stickers for $48,386, had almost all available options except for all-wheel-drive. Interestingly, the F Sport package is only available on rear-wheel drive models like our tester. Standard features on the IS 350 include a slick eight-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters), a power moon roof, high-intensity headlights, 10-way power front seats, LED daytime driving lights and 10 air bags. The F Sport package, a $3,620 add-on, includes LED headlamps, 18-inch wheels, leather seats (heated in the front) and aluminum pedals. Add the tech package to get navigation and a 835-watt Mark Levinson sound system.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The magic of the IS 350 is how it blends performance and comfort. From the moment you grab the fat steering wheel and hear the exhaust note, you’re aware of being inside a well-tuned performance machine. Not only does the 3.5 liter V-6 offer a burst of speed off the mark, but the chassis delivers a fun-filled, edgy driving experience. That said, if you simply want to sink into the soft leather seats and let the IS 350 whisper down the highway, that’s always an option, too.

Driving position and visibility are generally good, and the IS 350 offers several driving modes including ECO, normal, sport and snow. Our tester included an Sport-plus mode that activates an air-suspension system and alerts the throttle and transmission to put on their work clothes.

BOTTOM LINE

With the IS 350, Lexus is clearly looking to compete with the BMW 3 series the Cadillac ATS and the Audi S4. All things considered, it should succeed by offering the best of two worlds — comfort and performance.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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