Compact executive sedans were once a well-recognised symbol of prestige and status. The car to show colleagues and friends you were on your way to greatness.
In a sign of the times and changing tastes, former legends such as the once dominate BMW 3 Series has been relegated to benchwarmer status in the minds of premium buyers.
With the exception of the Mercedes C-Class, the rise of the premium SUV has eroded the appeal of smaller executive sedans, which in many ways is a great shame. It’s a segment with a large array of talent, along with the overrepresented Germans, there’s also the new Alfa Romeo Giulia and the underrepresented Jaguar XE. Competition and value are fierce.
Premium SUVs look impressive and the perceived metal for money equation is near impossible to argue against if you’re chasing a desirable badge. However, there’s the elephant in the room, in most cases, a well-engineered sedan will easily win a ride and handling battle with an equivalent SUV.
The compact executive class now exists only to appease keen drivers, which is great news if your name happens to fall under this classification.
Now it’s not all about Europe, to keep the European brands on their toes Lexus has a dog in the fight. On test here is the 2017 Lexus IS350, a car that follows a script many Australians will find recognisable, six-cylinders in the front and drive at the back.
The IS350 sits at the business end of the IS range, pricing starts at $65,390 plus the onerous on-road costs. Good luck getting a six-cylinder engine in a comparable European car for anything near that.
While the powerplant is sure to win the IS350 plenty of admiration, it’s also a brilliant looking car. The lines and edges are sharp and well defined. The IS isn’t trying to play it safe.
There are many new aspects of the car’s exterior that deliver a very modern design. The front bumper, spindle grille, LED headlamps, daytime running lamps, rear combination lamps and trapezoidal tips on the dual exhaust give the IS some very unique points of difference when compared to its competitors.
Moving to the interior, the IS350 is another example of Lexus’ commitment to premium surface materials. Every touchable interior surface has a lovely feel. Matte finishes are found throughout and add to the overall cabin atmosphere.
The digital instrument cluster is a thing of beauty. It’s configurable, but it provides a simple easy to read layout that’s obviously sports car inspired. Keen drivers will love its wonderfully simple look, all the information you need is there without any unnecessary complications.
There are a few interior compromises and idiosyncrasies. Firstly, being rear wheel drive means a substantial transmission tunnel that makes the IS a four-seater. Legroom in the back is tight if those up front are on the tall side. For a car with a 2800mm wheelbase, the packaging could be better.
Cup holders are an important part of any modern car, in the IS350 the two designated for the front occupants are stationed a long way back in the centre console making it an awkward spot to store an almond milk latte.
The 10.3-inch infotainment screen provides excellent graphics and is skillfully integrated into the dash. Unfortunately, the infotainment system as a whole remains the Achilles heel when it comes to Lexus interiors. It’s overly fiddley and lacks the intuition required in 2017.
Like some other Lexus models we have tested this year, the indicator stalk lacks a crisp reassuring click when tapped and the foot-operated park brake is completely unacceptable.
Safety is well sorted with all IS models now equipped with the Lexus Safety System+. The system includes autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control, lane departure warning and automatic high beam. All IS variants also get a reversing camera and 10 airbags leading ANCAP to give the IS a 5-star rating.
The driving experience has a sporty flavour to it, immediately noticeable is a suspension setup that is on the firm side. The IS350 struggled to iron out the lumps and bumps found on just about all of Australia’s country roads.
Our tester was equipped with adaptive variable suspension as part of the F Sport upgrade. This technology electronically adjusts and monitors all four dampers simultaneously to match the surface conditions and driving preferences. Overall, it did very little in terms of comfort. On the upside, find a smooth road, select SPORT+ on the driving mode selector and the result is brilliant.
This car is about the engine, all of the IS350’s rivals (in terms of price) are using turbocharged four-cylinder engines, so a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 is a genuine point of difference if you're not yet ready to downsize. The numbers are good with 233kW of power and 378Nm of torque available to exploit.
It’s a V6 that never feels under duress, it breathes easy and produces a very linear production of power. What is surprising is Lexus’ claimed 0 to 100km/h time of 5.9 seconds, with an instant throttle response the IS350 feels considerably quicker.
Naturally-aspirated engines now have a very distinct, easy to identify character. The move to smaller forced induction units has happened at such a pace that models still using a naturally-aspirated powerplants stand out and offer a unique drive that purists will appreciate.
Gear changes are handled by a very fast shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. The gearbox is linked to the drive mode selector which brings the G-sensor AI-Shift Control into play. Essentially, it alters the gear ratios to match the driving style.
During our highway assessment, the IS350 proved itself to be a pleasant medium for covering long distances. However, slightly more noise infiltrated the cabin than we were expecting as the speed climbed.
Long distance cruising also highlights the very firm front seats. After a few hours behind the wheel, the seats begin to detract from the overall comfort level. The side bolsters are really hard which will make it difficult for some people to find the perfect seating position.
Variable gear ratio steering was also part of the F Sport pack, it uses a dedicated module to control the steering ratio according to the car’s speed and steering input. The system does work well and offers light steering at lower speeds and a firmer feel when you are moving a bit faster.
When driving the IS350, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that this is a car capable of far greater performance than it’s currently tuned to deliver. This is a feeling that still lingers long after the car was returned. It could be a proper sports sedan.
We clocked up nearly 1200km over our week with the IS350, combined consumption came in at a neat 10L/100km which is a whisker above the official figure. It should be noted that this test did cover more highway miles than we would generally undertake. One drawback of the naturally-aspirated engine is the IS350 can’t match the efficiency of its turbo rivals.
Many buyers now expect transparent ownership costs, yet Lexus has not moved to embrace the age of capped price servicing, which is a shame. The brand’s dealerships provide a premium service experience by offering a loan car. Alternatively, for those who live or work close enough, dealers will collect the car and return it after maintenance is completed. Intervals are set at 12 months/15,000km. This premium service experience is one of the reasons Lexus ranks so highly in terms of customer satisfaction.
Lexus provides a four year/100,000km warranty package to support the IS350, it’s the longest standard warranty on offer in the premium segment, but still could be better when viewed in the context of the wider new car market.
The IS350 is fighting for respect in a category owned by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. On top of the big three German brands, Jaguar has the very impressive XE. Despite the crowded market, the Lexus IS350 still commands consideration.
What the IS350 offers is a unique character in an age of homogenisation amongst its main rivals. The engine brings something different to the table and with its conservative tune, it will no doubt be reliable and last for a few decades. The interior is trimmed in premium materials but isn’t as ergonomically well executed as other Lexus models.
Value is where the IS350 leads the way. When comparing like for like, the value equation presented by Lexus is very strong. The IS350 gets plenty of kit that is optional on its competitors. Buyers wanting to stretch their funds as far as possible would be well advised to drive the IS350 before falling in love with a three-pointed star, blue and white roundel or four rings.
Lexus IS350 Specifications
Price from $65,390 plus on-road costs Engine 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 petrol Power 233kW @ 6400rpm Torque 378Nm @ 4800rpm Transmission eight-speed automatic Combined Fuel Consumption 9.7L/100km Tank Capacity 66L Length 4665mm Width 1810mm Height 1430mm Wheelbase 2800mm Performance 0-100km 5.9 seconds Turning Circle 10.4m Kerb Weight 1645kg Service Intervals 12 months/15,000km Warranty four year/100,000 kilometre
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