Test Drive: 2017 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport

There’s something to be said for keeping things simple. Not counting its distinctively aggressive front-end treatment, the Lexus IS 350 mostly sticks to the basics, and they’re good basics. Robust, powerful V6 power? Check. All-wheel-drive surefootedness? Check. Nicely appointed interior? Check. Quiet, comfortable ride? Check. Competent handling? Check.

Because it covers all the major bases with what feels like such remarkable ease, it adds up to a exceptionally well-balanced and assured luxury performance car

In none of these areas does the IS 350 stand out as particularly exceptional, but because it covers all the major bases with what feels like such remarkable ease, it adds up to a exceptionally well-balanced and assured luxury performance car that can win favour both with drivers and passengers, and get approval from both your head and your heart. It’s one of those cars that had my wife swooning and myself smiling.

The current-generation IS 350 has been around since 2014, and to keep it fresh Lexus has tweaked it with some subtle styling and interior changes. Up front there’s a slightly revised grille and fascia with bigger air intakes in the bumper, more prominent character running lights, and across-the-range standard LED headlights. At the rear these are matched by redesigned LED taillights and chrome-tipped exhaust outlets. Non-F Sport cars also boast new wheel designs.

Interior updates include revised HVAC controls, new surface treatments, new stitching on the instrument binnacle cover, and a handful of key new active standard safety technologies. These are bundled as the Lexus Safety System +, and include dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, and automatic high beams.

The rest of the IS 350 interior follows the luxury-performance script almost perfectly, with clean, simple surfaces built from high-quality materials. There are no plasticky-looking or hollow-sounding surfaces to be found, and all the switchgear and controls feel good to operate, with a couple of qualifiers.

First is the pedal-operated parking brake, which from a practical standpoint I actually prefer over fussy electronically actuated park brakes, but which should really be a hand brake (c’mon Lexus, I’m sure you can find room somewhere).

Second is the infotainment controller: After several years of driving Lexus products fitted with various iterations of the company’s haptic-feedback Remote Touch Interface, I still find it awkward. It’s fine when parked, where your hand isn’t getting jostled around by road imperfections and you can pay full attention to the screen. But the menu system is overcomplicated to begin with, so that when using it underway I found my visual attention more divided than I’d like, and bumpy road surfaces conspired to make the control pointer bounce around, with the result that I hung up on an important phone call I was trying to answer. The lesson here, I guess, is that I should’ve used the steering-wheel controls, but why should the controls on the screen be any more difficult to operate than a physical button? On the bright side, the system is powerful and quick to respond, and I certainly liked the big 10.3-inch infotainment display and split-screen capability, which provides the ability to show a lot of useful information at once, at a size that’s easy to read.

Both my wife and I found the firm, deeply bolstered F Sport seats to be thoroughly comfortable (at least once I figured out how to operate the ratchet-style fore-aft headrest adjustment) but I’d guess that larger-framed drivers might find them a bit constricting (I’m 5'11" and 165 lb). The backseat isn’t huge, but it didn’t get any complaints from my 5'9" teenage daughter and I found it comfortable enough sitting “behind myself.” The trunk is adequate if not exactly huge at 310 L, but you do need to take care not to brutalize your groceries with the exposed hockey-stick hinges (Lexus dresses these up with plastic covers, but they’ll still do a number on badly placed eggs).

Of course all the expected comfort and convenience features are all fully accounted for, with the exception of heated rear seats and genuine leather upholstery. The former seems like an unfortunate oversight in our cold climate, while you might not even notice the latter if it wasn’t pointed out to you, as Lexus’ NuLux simulated leather looks and feels quite convincing (if you want genuine leather it’s available with the Executive package, but not the F Sport).

In addition to the previously-mentioned Lexus Safety System + features, standard equipment in the IS 350 includes dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, smart key with pushbutton start, garage door opener, navigation, and a 10-speaker audio system, DVD player, Bluetooth and USB input. Because my test car had the $1,300 F Sport Series 3 Package, it also got goodies including a power moonroof, a fantastic-sounding 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, TFT instrument cluster, 18-inch F Sport wheels and F Sport badges sprinkled throughout.

Under the hood, the IS 350 gets Lexus’s tried-and-true 3.5L V6 hooked up to an electronically-controlled conventional six-speed transmission (with paddle shifters for when you want to shift for yourself), and is power fed to all four wheels for sure-footed traction in slippery conditions. It’s not necessarily the most state-of-the-art setup out there, but it’s a refreshing reminder of just how satisfying a big V6 can feel. The transmission mapping seems to be right on the money – only rarely did I catch it a little flat-footed in too high a gear – and the engine can be quietly powerful yet docile when moseying around town, then wake up to provide impressively lusty performance when you mash the throttle. Zero to 100 km/h acceleration can be dispatched in just over six seconds.

The only downside is in the fuel economy department: I found it easy to keep consumption below 9 L/100km when cruising at around 100 km/h on the highway, but difficult to hold the average below 16 L/100km in city traffic (I like my acceleration). Returning the IS 350 at the end of the week I’d travelled 290 km and used 45.5 L during a roughly equal mix of city and highway driving, for an average consumption of 15.5 L/100km, measured both at the pump and according to the car’s computer.

The ride – from a double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension – is solid and composed without being harsh, and the IS 350 is remarkably quiet and relaxed at highway speeds. If you’d prefer a little more handling chops at the cost of some suspension compliance, satisfaction is just a twist of the drive control knob away. Personally I found the difference between Normal and Sport to be rather subtle, but Sport+ makes things decidedly sharper-edged. When pushed hard along twisty roads, the IS 350 feels much more lively and tossable than its 1,695 kg (3,737 lb) curb weight might imply, and certainly much lighter on its feet than the 1,786 kg (3,937 lb) Infiniti Q50.

At a base price of $53,350 plus $1,300 for the F Sport Series 3 Package, the Lexus IS 350 is priced competitively against rivals like the Infiniti Q50, Acura TLX SH-AWD, Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series xDrive. Within this segment the Lexus boasts an enviable record for reliability and a well-balanced character, and while buyers looking for better fuel economy might want to check out the 241 hp turbocharged four-cylinder IS 200t instead, the IS is a solid contender either way.

2017 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 306 hp
Peak Torque: 277 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 12.6/9.2/11.0 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 310 L
articles_PricingType 2017 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
Base Price $53,350
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,045
Price as Tested $56,795
Optional Equipment $1,300 – F Sport Series 3 Package (F Sport steering wheel, adaptive variable suspension, 18-inch F Sport wheels, 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround audio, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, heated and ventilated F Sport seats, power rear sunshade, LFA-style TFT instrument cluster, power moonroof, F Sport front grille and aero package, F Sport shift knob and scuff plates) $1,300
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.5
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
7 Practicality
8 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
6 Fuel Economy
8 Features
8 Value