I just spent a weekend behind the wheel of a 2014 Lexus IS350 AWD — the brand’s third attempt to dethrone the BMW 3-Series from its perch atop the entry-level luxury car segment.
Make no mistake, in the over two decades since Toyota’s luxury brand first hit the U.S. market, it’s more than firmly established itself. The top tier of luxury automotive sedans includes three players: Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus. And maybe Audi, if you’re young and cool and feeling generous. There no debate: Lexus is the biggest success story in the auto industry, over the last 25 years.
Unfortunately, I found the IS350 AWD to be a disappointment. A mysterious betrayal, even, of that grand legacy.
The gloom didn’t set in right away. I was impressed by the IS’s stylish, modern interior. The leather-lined interior feel quality, and the hand-stitched accents look very classy. The dash is a marvel behold. It’s touch-sensitive climate controls are really cool to use, and the chrome-accented A/C vents are quite elegant.
But then the sadness began to set in.Why the hollow plastic trim pieces? The center console and steering wheel that use plastic components are state-of-the-art, so skimping on the trim cheapened the look of an interior the company clearly wants to exude a premium feel.
Then there’s the bump. It’s on the left side of the center transmission tunnel (rear- and AWD cars have one of these, to accomodate a drive axle). And it’s an uncomfortable bump, awkwardly placed where your feet are supposed to go when you’re driving the car. It has to be there, because it’s the transfer case for the AWD system. But it seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. Which, for a company that’s all about the “Relentless Pursuit if Perfection,” is shocking misstep.
It got worse. Our $US47,000 test car did lacked an in-car navigation system — a particular shame because the Toyota/Lexus’ technology is one of the best in business. A few years ago, such an omission wouldn’t have been a big deal. However, when a $US23,000 Dodge Dart can be optioned with Chrysler’s industry-leading UConnect navigation system, it’s hard to understand what Lexus was thinking.
So…cheap plastic. No nav for 47 grand.
And that wasn’t the end of my sadness.
The IS350 is supposed to be a sport sedan, but when actually being driven, it didn’t live up to its billing. Sure, the 3.5-liter 306-horsepower V6 engine, a carryover from the previous generation, feels great — velvety smooth. But when pushed a bit, the AWD version’s six-speed autobox can’t keep up. It feels reluctant to unleash the engine’s full, gutsy potential.
There’s an easy fix for this — get the rear-wheel-drive IS350, with an 8-speed transmission. Eight speeds are better than six. No bump. And it’s $US1,000 cheaper!
The car’s interior left me wanting, as did the driving part. But the exterior redeemed the IS350. The third generation features some truly provocative styling cues. Love it or hate it, the looks certainly aren’t boring. The bold, swoopy lines offer a refreshing departure from Lexus’ typically understated designs.And the IS350, for my money, showcases the carmakers most successful adaption of its controversial “spindle grill” design.
This might all sound like pretty weak praise, but the bottom line is that I hold Lexus to a high standard — a justified BMW-Mercedes standard. And the fact is that just because the IS350 didn’t please me all that much over the few days that I tested it doesn’t mean it isn’t a great bet for long-term ownership. There’s every chance that the car will enjoy near bulletproof reliability. Lexus’ award-winning customer service experience is a wonder to behold.
You will be very happy 10 years from now if you buy an IS350 today. Competitors, including the BMW 3-Series, will fall by the wayside, and you will end up with a comfortable and reliable sports sedan with great resale value. If you go for the AWD version, you’ll be all set for the winter weather.
In the end, the IS350 isn’t a car that appeals to a driver’s emotions, but rather one that appeals to logic and reason. In a weird way, this is perfectly consistent with Lexus’ brand values. The IS350 isn’t going to worry you very much. It just isn’t likely to excite you in the way it’s supposed to.