I know Lexus has a reputation for stodgy old-fashioned saloons, and a history of mild Teutonic cloning in all aspects minus exhilaration but you know what? I never got that impression. Sure their twenty year old tarted up Cressidas of the past were almost synonymous with formaldehyde, but when they rolled by they commanded attention the way only a ‘Big Fat Lex’ could. Maybe their street credibility could be attributed to Hollywood and rap videos. The first time the concept of a hot Lexus even occurred to me was when I saw a video of Super GT racing driver, Manabu Orido snaking a tuned version of the previous generation IS around a slippery Japanese circuit. Today the company makes the manic ten cylinder LFA supercar. They also churn out their own M3 rival, the IS-F. So where does that leave the similarly bodied cherry red IS 350 I’m driving?
Admittedly, there is nothing new to see here. Our test car comes equipped in SE trim which includes 18-inch alloys and a moonroof, otherwise it’s a typical IS wedge of metal – even those daytime running lamps are standard issue. The deep metallic paintjob goes a long way in injecting some new verve onto the six year old body shell. Unfortunately Lexus are discontinuing the F SPORT cosmetic upgrade so you won’t be able to pump up the IS’s appearance, and that’s a pity because the IS needs a bit more ‘show’ to match the ‘go’ under that long bonnet. Visually it remains a strong Japanese counterpoint to the likes of BMW’s 3 Series and Audi’s A4 whilst the subtle ‘IS 350’ badge manages to raise eyebrows on the odd occasion that it is actually noticed.
Enter the cabin and you’ll encounter a tidy arrangement of switchgear complemented by an old-fashioned wooden trim. Fit and finish throughout the cabin are top class. The design is elegant but the ergonomics is a bit odd. The sliver of wood along the door panel housing the window and door locking controls has been mounted at an angle that will take some getting used to. The insistence on using the antiquated touchscreen Lexus interface (minus the excellent Lexus Haptic device) for many of the controls also mean you’re unable to do two things at once. You cannot therefore adjust the climate control without exiting your radio or MP3 menu or navigation. A mild annoyance, yes, although on one occasion when I was trying to dial down the temperature of the air conditioning during one of the Cape’s rare heat waves, my phone rang. This brought up the telephone screen and so between concentrating upon this important call and of course driving in a responsible fashion I was left with very little brain power to navigate myself back to the climate control screen wherein resides the ability to drop the temp from 26 degrees to 16. Can I not just have a knob instead? The steering wheel is a bit thinner than you’d expect on a performance car, but my single biggest complaint has to be headroom. There is just not enough of the stuff, which means I have to drop my seat as low as it can go and then slide the seat too far away from the helm. This problem was compounded for our helmet-wearing test driver. In other news, the seats were an excellent mix of comfort and grip.
I’m going to oversimplify this and say that where the V8 powered Lexus IS F rivalled the Mercedes Benz C63 AMG and BMW M3, the IS 350 with its normally aspirated V6 3.5 litre squares off cleanly against Merc’s C350 and BMW’s 335i with similar outputs and price tags. Typically, the Bavarian favours performance so pips the softer cars to 100kph (5.6sec), but the 5.8 seconds we achieved in the 0-100kph sprint is not far behind. It performs this trick with a 3456cc V6 engine, which then churns out 233kW and 378Nm through a six-speed auto onto the rear wheels. It even manages a beautiful wail from its exhaust pipes eerily similar to that of a straight six BMW and by virtue of being normally aspirated delivers a sharp throttle response, albeit somewhat softened by the auto. We even managed a 9.0l/100km combined fuel economy figure on our 78.4km test route, beating the claimed figure of 9.4l/100km.
The Lexus IS 350 favours a softer suspension, dialling out a bit of sharpness for compliancy. Across the front axle Lexus have employed McPherson struts whilst at the rear a multi-link suspension has been selected, with gas-filled monotube dampers and anti-roll and ball-jointed stabilizer bars bolstering the chassis all round. Beyond that, things get very clever with aluminium brake calipers to reduce unsprung weight and suspension geometry optimised for camber and caster with anti-dive, anti-lift and anti-squat characteristics. Wait. What? Tear yourself away from the Lexus brochure and what this means is that despite its comfy ride it remains flat and composed when pitched hard into a corner. Turn-in is fairly precise with initial understeer swapping smoothly into oversteer when prodded with a stick before the acronym army of electronics pulls you straight.
At a R548600 price point you have some options. Merc’s C350 is your most logical alternative at R520 000. BMW’s 335i costs a similar R525866, but neither of these cars is fitted out with the same level of kit that the Lexus is. Then there’s Volvo’s Polestar S60 and V60, four-wheel driven dynamos with some Nordic flair, also for similar money. If you’re a fan of the badge, and able to get comfortable in the driver seat and can fathom the irksome GPS navigation of the Lex then by all means it might be the intermediate sports car you want. Personally I’d still opt for the BMW 335i, perhaps because I already have a Polestar in the garage.