2019 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD Review

The aging Bimmer fighter claws for positioning


Amos Kwon, Editor-In-Chief



Positives: Affordable relative to competitors, great V6 engine is smooth and willing, responds well to steering inputs.
Negatives: Looks and feels dated compared to newer entrants, still frustrating infotainment system betrays the model, tight back seats, handling not as taut as some competitors.
Bottom Line: The IS 350 has a great engine but it's underpowered compared to other models. Though it's engaging to drive, there are better options out there including the new Genesis G70 and the Audi A4. The IS 350 with AWD is a solid four-seasons sport sedan for those who aren't looking for the most stylish, the best handling, or the most prestigious sports sedan but want reliability and fun in one package.
Lexus's smallest sports sedan is starting to show its age. When the IS emerged in its 3rd generation and current form in 2014, it beat the BMW 3-Series in terms of the driving experience, but a lot has changed since then. Now in its sixth year of production, there are more aggressive, more stylish, and more technologically polished sports sedans out there. We drove the IS 350 with its naturally-apsirated V6 and all-wheel drive configuration for a week to see if this once king of the hill still has the beans to hang on. Read on for the full review.
 

Driving Experience

8

 

This might just be the right small sports sedan for Chicago. It's not the fastest, the best handling, or the most communicative, but its very competent and well-mannered. The AWD option is a great feature, as well, and it loses virtually nothing by losing the RWD.

Ride Quality: One of the IS's best features its ride comfort that provides great shock absorption and composure on virtually all road surfaces. It feels solid like most Lexus vehicles but especially so in the sports sedan segment that prefers firmness over ride comfort.

Acceleration: It's quick enough but not blistering. The AWD traction keeps it planted, and 60 mph comes in 5.5 seconds in F Sport trim. It feels progressive and potent but never mindblowing in terms of power.

Braking: The brakes felt great with solid stopping power and good progression. At no point did they feel grabby or did the pedal exhibit mushiness.

Steering: The feel, precision, and responsiveness were all very good.

Handling: You can't thrash it as hard as the Genesis G70, and it gives up some body roll in the turns, but it feels secure.

Technology

6.8

 

Lexus can't seem to do infotainment right after numerous modifications. The Enform system is probably the best in the new LC luxury coupe or the UX crossover, but the system is still vauge and unengaging to use. The IS 350 does get new voice command integration for Amazon Alexa devices but still no Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Infotainment System: Though our F Sport came with the bigger screen, and visibility is better, the system is still frustrating to use and distracting while driving. Coloring is dull, and the icons look dated. This is the car's biggest Achilles heel.

Controls: The shift knob and paddle shifters feel great and actual very well. It's the climate controls, audio knobs and buttons, and infotainment that need work. Buttons are too small, and we really dislike the vagueness of the infotainment and the weird climate temp sliders.

Styling

7.3

 

Some folks really hate the spindle grille, but it was a good move for the brand for more brand recognition and a path out of the styline doldrums. It's polarizing, sure. But at least it gets noticed. The IS was the first vehicle in the lineup to get it, and then it was slapped on the GS, LX, GX, CT (now dead) and ES. The UX was designed around it, as was the RX and NX. The IS is starting to look a little dated and shockingly a little bit more muted compared to newer offerings from competitors.

Front: The newly styled LED headlamps are now a bit more oddly shaped. The front end with the F Sport grille is better looking than the stock IS grille, but the front end still comes across as overly busy.

Rear: The tailights get more drama with a triangular pattern within the light housings, and the huge swaths continue to drop into the rear quarter panel. It's not unattractive but also not particularly fetching.

Profile: It's the IS's best angle with simple contours and a nice sloping hood. The line that runs from the door up to the taillights is a nice continuous styling element.

Cabin: Lexus's interiors are getting better (UX, LC, RC, ES), but the IS continues to be a mishmash of shapes that don't work well together. It's overdone and not especially elegant. It does evoke some sportiness, but the weirdness factor prevails. At least materials quality is top notch.

Comfort

7

 

The F Sport bucket seats are great, and the overall front seat comfort is quite good. The seating position, however is a bit tall, and the back seat is tight.

Front Seats: Grippy and well bolstered, they're good for 6-footers and have good cushioning. Too bad the seating position is on the high side and compromises some of the comfort.

Rear Seats: Real adults can't sit back here, and it's one of the smaller back seats in the segment. We had trouble getting back there with the compromised space and the low roof.

NVH (noise/vibration/harshness): Sound deadedning is excellent, and the IS is seriously quiet for a sports sedan. Even at 80 mph, it's a restful place to be.

Visibility: The sloped roofline makes rearward visibility tough, but views out the front and sides are very good.

Climate: The system works fine, but it's the heated and cooled seats that stand out. They activate very quickly, which can't be said for some competitors.

Safety

8.9

 

It's too bad the IS doesn't get the top score from the IIHS because it nailed the crash tests and has a solid set of standard and optional safety features. It's a very safe model that's been thoroughly tested.

IIHS Rating: It misses awards due to "acceptable" headlights, but it scored "good" in all crash tests, and has "superior" front crash prevention tech.

NHTSA Rating: The IS gets five stars from the federal government.

Standard Tech: The Lexus Safety System+ includes a robust feature set with Pre-Collision System w/ Pedestrian Detection, High Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert w/ Steering Assist & Intelligent High Beam Headlamps.

Optional Tech: Our tester came with Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, rounding out an excellent set of safety measures in the IS.

Storage/Cargo

5.8

 

The IS isn't big on storage or cargo space, and there are other models that provide more. Even for everyday use, it's a bit short on reachable space that can hold more than some keys.

Storage Space: There are no open binnacles in the center stack except for the steeply angled top ledge in front of the infotainmnet screen, a location that's odd and easy to forget. The cupholders are a bit far back in the center console, and the armrest is small.

Cargo Room: It's one of the smaller trunks in the segment at 10.8 cubic feet. The BMW 3-Series has 17, and the Audi A4 has about 13. At least the second row seats are 60/40 split folding and opens up more room. Don't worry, no one wants to sit in the back, anyway.

Fuel Economy

7

 

The naturally-aspirated six-cylinder engine is smooth, but the lack of turbocharging means no solid efficiency gains. We eked out a decent number but didn't approach EPA estimates due to driving in exclusively Sport+ mode the entire time.

Observed: 18.1 mpg

Distance Driven: 155 miles

Audio

9.2

 

Our upgraded 15-speaker Mark Levinson system is powerful and sounded great. The bass and clarity were top notch, and we experienced no distortion. The system is pricey at nearly $3K, but the reward is one of the best systems out there.



Final Thoughts

The IS 350 is one of those sports sedans that gets ignored all too often. It's getting a bit long in the tooth compared to newer offerings like the Genesis G70 and the redesigned BMW 3-Series. It's a solid all around sedan, but the compromises in terms of space, technology, and interior design soften its edge. But if you want a car that's fun to drive, built incredibly well, and gets high marks for safety, the IS 350 is a solid buy.
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