2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Brendan McAleer

The road that winds across the spine of Vancouver Island from Port Alberni to Tofino, BC, is gorgeous, scenic and twisty – truly, no better/worse place in the world to be jammed up behind two rented RVs. As it is written in the Rental RV Handbook, these two wallow in the corners at sub-30 km/h speeds, and then make like Han and Chewie on the straights, hitting the hyperdrive, ignoring the indicated pullouts and making safe passing impossible.

If you’d like to know what our Lexus sport sedan makes of this sort of behaviour, just take a gander at the look on its face. Ye Gods. That is one angry machine.

After eight long years, Lexus has finally updated their compact sedan and, here in the F-Sport models, it’s not what you’d call subtle. The massive hourglass grille gurns like the Noh mask of a vengeful spirit, gawping with menace. It’s like a Cylon. It’s like Darth Vader. It’s like the Predator. It’s like an Audi grille wearing Mom Jeans.

Add in the fact that, like most press cars out West, this thing’s clad in Ontario plates, and little wonder that the two RV-ists ain’t pullin’ over. No problem then, we’ll just slow our roll and check out the interior appointments.

It’s tempting to call the inside of the IS “LFA-lite” and leave it at that. From centre-stack to air-vents, the guts of this fancy Toyota are an homage to the fanciest of Toyotas, and that’s mostly a good thing.

Mostly, because despite high-quality materials and excellent fit and finish, there are a few areas where non-Lexus-o-philes will look at a surface of undisguised plastic and wonder why it isn’t aloominum-look or carbon-fibre overlay. I like the honesty just fine, but it’s not going to woo everyone away from the Teutonic competition.

2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

The seats – here’s a minor detail that’s excellent in execution. At the Texas launch of the car, Lexus engineers blathered on at length about a sports car–low hip point and a new method of bonding the leather bolsters with an impressed curve in the foam. No surprise then that the IS can boast butt-cosseting chairs, and when you get out to look at them, there’s an air of quality.

Out back, the car’s previous cramp-tacular rear seats have expanded to now fit normal human beings with, y’know, legs and whatnot, and they swallow up our rear-facing child-seat with ease. The trunk impresses when I manage to stow both the running stroller and hiking backpack in there.

2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

While the central screen is better integrated than in a BMW 3 Series, Lexus’s control system is not. You know how everyone uses trackballs to control their desktop computers instead of mice? That’s right – we don’t. The odd controller is fiddly to use, often jumps two places when you only wanted to move one, is a bit slow and overloaded, and is generally distracting to use. Possibly you could get used to the shortcuts in more than a week’s worth of driving, but in the short-term it felt like it was different for difference’s sake. And, a sadly recurring cardinal sin among manufacturers of all types, the navigation system will not allow a passenger to input addresses while moving.

The party piece of the dash, a sliding digital instrument cluster that moves to the right when the sub-menus are accessed, is brilliant. I’m not sure I’d ever get tired of the way it whirrs like you just unlocked some secret mode. Putting the drive-select into Sport also changes the colour of the tachometer ring, and the whole thing pulses red once the revs climb up above four thousand or so.

If you’ve been driving along in Eco-mode, as I have been, this behaviour is rather hilarious. A gently increasing pressure on the throttle while going uphill suddenly startles the six-speed automatic into a downshift and the instrument cluster gleams with instant malevolence, as if we’ve just attracted Sauron’s baleful attention. “Calm down, car,” I admonish, as the kid’s sleeping.

2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

Mind you, once the route-clogging RVs pull over into a visitor’s centre, the wriggling last section of the road to Tofino is freed up, and we’re able to stretch the car’s legs a little – put it in Sport mode. Even if the little Lexus has carryover displacement and horsepower (a 3.5L V6 making 306 hp), what a smooth and fantastic-sounding engine it is.

Optioning the IS with AWD is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, grip is improved, and for Canadian climates at least, a measure of winter capability is added.

2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

But Lexus giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. Go for all-wheel drive and you don’t get the eight-speed automatic with its clever g-force locking torque-converter, you don’t get the variable-ratio steering, and the F-Sport trim becomes a bit more of an appearance package rather than performance trim: F for façade?

But it’s only briefly annoying. The six-speed is competent enough, and quick-shifting (it can be manually paddle-shifted as well). Fewer gears means the driver simply exploits the revs a bit more, and while the engine doesn’t have the torque-flexibility of forced-induction rivals, it is a jewel of a V6 and sounds fantastic. It’s also very quick – the AWD version is just as quick as the eight-speed rear-driver. Obligatory moment of silence for the now-dropped manual transmission option that hardly anyone bought.

What’s more, you get all the benefit of Lexus’s next-generation chassis, which is wonderfully capable. It’s actually a little less lively than the previous car, but in the all-pervading dampness of a West-Coast fall, the planted and tractable IS resists all the efforts of the writhing road to flick it off. Come a bit hot over a crest to find an unmarked low-speed bend and a deflated, undercut section of pavement, and the car simply settles into the curve – although it does crash a bit over the rough stuff with the suspension in full stiff.

The steering is, as expected with any electric-assist system, just a little bit on the dull side. However, unlike many others in the segment, it’s not artificially heavy. The highest praise I can award the driving feel is that it’s not unlike the Cayman, where the excellence of the chassis shines through despite the toning-down of wheel-transmitted road-feel.

When we pull into Tofino, the mutant aggression of the Lexus’s slashed and grilled face makes the car stand out like a sore thumb. It’s a surfer’s paradise here, and the year-rounders – bearded, tattooed men and wind-blown, tanned and athletic women – all drive older cars. The JDM Mitsubishi Delica is king here, along with the VW Westfalia and pretty much the only surviving colony of Mazda MPVs left in the wild. If you want to blend in, you need to strap a surfboard to your roof.

We do not blend in. The bruised red paint and wild styling make this car as incongruous as if it was painted with a sign reading, “GET A JOB, HIPPIES.”

However, over a weekend of sudden downpours, rain-slicked pavement and winding forest boardwalks, the Lexus did actually feel adapted to its environment. The all-wheel drive never put a foot wrong, and the car was composed, and comfortable, and complacent – and, in the end, a little bit compromised.

For the rear-drive IS, the F-Sport package is an enhancement. It makes a brilliant chassis sparkle, and might just be able to out-dice a top-spec Cadillac ATS on a back road.

However, in the all-wheel-drive version, a bit of extra road presence comes with somewhat outlandish facial surgery, quite noticeable in-cabin road noise and not much additional competence. The tires are also short-lived in terms of tread-wear rating.

Early on Sunday, our little family walked the long trail through the misty rainforest down to a surf-lashed shore. Here, where waves roar and flung spray from the Pacific joins the wind-whipped clouds, is the boundary of the wild, wet, West Coast. Standing there, immersed in a cloud of atomized water, it feels like you’re at the edge of the world.

2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD. Click image to enlarge

Heaven knows why we human beings are so attracted to the edge of things, but in the F-Sport, Lexus provides you with all the edgy looks you could possibly want. Behind them, you’ll find a perfectly competent four-door sport sedan with excellent reliability and decent fuel economy – taking the RV-enforced slow road netted us a very decent average of 10.5 L/100 km for the week.

Given the pricing structure of Lexus, the F-Sport is actually cheaper than similarly equipped luxury trims. To me, the character of the AWD car seems more suited to luxury than to sport, but if you like the polarizing looks, there’s no extra expense – just a little less equipment.

Fuel Economy
Exterior Styling

Less equipment is, unfortunately, my one complaint with the AWD version of the IS. While we all wait with anticipation to see what kind of a monster Lexus will craft from their new platform in the IS-F, I’ll also be wondering how long it’ll be until opting for all-wheel-drive traction doesn’t also mean giving up on that little bit extra.

Related Articles:
Comparison Test: 2013 Audi S4 vs 2014 Lexus IS 350
Test Drive: 2013 BMW 320i xDrive
First Drive: 2014 Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
Road Trip: 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD to Whistler
Test Drive: 2013 Mercedes-Benz C 350 4Matic

Manufacturer’s Website:
Lexus Canada

Photo Gallery:
2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD

Pricing: 2014 Lexus IS 350 AWD
Base Price (IS 350): $44,500
Base Price (IS 350 AWD): $53,200
Options: $7,800 (F-Sport Executive: Mark Levinson 15-speaker premium audio; dynamic radar cruise control; heated, three-spoke F-Sport steering wheel; power rear sunshade; F-Sport aero kit)
Freight: $1995
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $53,195

BMW 3 Series
Cadillac ATS
Infiniti Q50
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Volvo S60

Crash Test Results:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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