LEXINGTON, Ohio — That feeling of driving inspiration I tend to get after a long day of watching racing hits me hard. Hours of observing others — professional racers — tear it up on track always leaves me with a desire to do the same, which in reality, is a dangerous feeling to have. Outside those racetrack grounds are public roads with speed limits, other motorists and a million other factors.
Nevertheless, I’m feeling rather giddy in the 2022 Lexus IS 350 F Sport after leaving the Lexus Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Lexus invited me down to watch the race where a pair of Lexus RC Fs run by Vasser Sullivan Racing were competing. I rode along for a hot lap in a modified IS 500 F Sport Performance with one of the team’s pro drivers between races, and while that car’s V8 is rather intoxicating, I still find myself really digging the 3.5-liter V6 in the humble IS 350 F Sport on Ohio’s winding back roads.
Before leaving the track, I check the box on Google Maps to “avoid highways,” and point the IS down any road vaguely heading in the right direction that looked curvy in search of somewhere to enjoy Lexus’ recently-updated sport sedan. Being the F Sport model, there is some hope for fun. All IS 350 F Sports get a unique (and louder) exhaust, 19-inch wheels, larger 265-section-width rear tires, a cold air intake and an interior “sound generator” that pumps some extra noise into the cabin. What this car doesn’t have, is the Dynamic Handling Package available on IS F Sport models. This adds an adaptive suspension and lighter BBS forged wheels. Additionally, this IS is the all-wheel-drive version, so it doesn’t have the Torsen limited-slip rear differential or the extra-sporty “Sport S+” drive mode available on the rear-wheel-drive version.
Despite this IS 350 F Sport being in mildly sporty dress, the trip starts out on a promising note. Much of the happiness derived from driving this sedan comes courtesy of its naturally aspirated V6 engine. It puts out a healthy 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, good enough for a 0-60-mph sprint of 5.7 seconds. Peak power is made at 6,600 rpm, which means you need to keep the pedal buried and work for the acceleration.
Others in this sport sedan class have long since made boosted four-cylinders the go-to powertrain, making this naturally aspirated engine a breath of fresh air. It may not have the low-down, effortless torque of a BMW 330i or Alfa Romeo Giulia, but it makes up for that in a trumpet of angry bees reverberating throughout the interior at full chat. The F Sport exhaust, intake and synthesized noise combine for a sweet, sweet sound that I call upon over and over. Even with the windows down and wind whipping through the cabin, that V6 sings clear as day.
Each trip up the tachometer isn’t as quick as it should be though, and the six-speed automatic is partially to blame for that. Most performance sedans these days take advantage of eight-speed (or more) transmissions, leaving you with closer ratios and more time spent in the meat of the power band. Meanwhile, Lexus forces anybody who wants the all-wheel-drive version of the IS to deal with its six-speed auto. Only the rear-drive version enjoys the more modern eight-speed, which is a real shame.
Rolling through Ohio’s farmlands, it downshifts under braking for the occasional corner in Sport mode, holds a gear through a wide sweeper and generally behaves smartly. Tapping through the paddles leaves me wishing for zippier shifts, but it’s necessary at times if you want the car to hold gears beyond some immediate switchbacks. A more responsive shifting experience would be nice, but for an old six-speed, Lexus makes it work.
The all-wheel-drive system isn’t a performance-oriented system, either, but it doesn’t step on your toes. Most of the forward motivation is obviously coming from the rear, and while there is a little tug from the front, the front axle mostly just feels like it’s along for the ride. Unless you really need all-wheel drive, skip it, especially because the hardware causes such a massive intrusion to the driver-side footwell, the likes of which you don’t see in modern all-wheel-drive sport sedans.
My initial disappointment at the lack of an adaptive suspension lessens as the drive goes on. Lexus is putting its whole lineup through a driving revolution of sorts, and the IS was the first to get the treatment. Even in base F Sport spec, this Lexus is an engaging and willing handler. It eagerly darts into corners with weighty, confident steering. Body lean is present, but never detrimental to the goal of having fun, and it deals with quick transitions and weight transfers without faltering. In short, this chassis is a good one.
Even though it has the wider tire package, the all-season rubber is still the limiting factor here, as it begins protesting fairly early. Still, I can carry enough speed to have a blast on the twisting roads in the middle of Ohio — it just won’t put up any nutty skid pad figures, and that’s fine. The IS is a road car after all, and even in 500 F Sport Performance trim, it doesn’t have high aspirations of being a track toy.
Once the backroads meet the inevitable highway that leads back north to home in Michigan, I’m left smiling, and my desire for some enthusiastic motoring, fulfilled. The IS 350 F Sport isn’t one of those sport sedans that’ll beat you senseless with torque and perfectly flat handling. Lexus simply chooses not to engage in the numbers war, and instead sprinkles in some intangibles that make driving it that much more fun. If there ever comes a day when you can’t find a pure, naturally aspirated V6 engine in cars like this, it’ll be a sad one.
Cruising home on the highway, the standard suspension proves its worth. I essentially melt into the Circuit Red leather driver’s seat, and enter full relaxation mode. Seriously, these seats are remarkably comfortable, so kudos to Lexus for the continued seat engineering excellence. It only needs a stronger cooled/ventilated seat function, for even at its max setting, the cool air could hardly be felt on a hot day.
Despite Lexus adding a touchscreen to the IS’ tech repertoire, this infotainment system is still a downer. The touchscreen doesn’t allow scrolling, so it’s frustrating to operate, requiring way more taps than usual, which ultimately leads to more erroneous inputs while driving. I’m left preferring the also-frustrating Lexus Touchpad for inputs. At the very least, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are onboard, so you can ignore the dated Lexus infotainment software to some extent. Plus, Lexus kept some lovely, tactile volume and tuning knobs front and center for easy use.
This IS has the $2,750 Mark Levinson audio system with 17 speakers, and it's heavenly on a long drive. Even with the windows down, blasting through the countryside, the audio is clear and crisp. The Acura TLX might have the best of this segment’s audio systems, but the setup in the IS is killer, too.
The long drive also allows a chance to test out the efficacy of Lexus’ driver assistance systems, all of which come standard on the IS — you can’t say that for the Germans. The lane-tracing system works well when the lines are clearly painted, and isn’t too fidgety with the wheel. It also smartly turns off lane-tracing as soon as it notices poor markings or lane deterioration, putting it on the conservative side of these systems. It’s easy to live with and react to, though, and the adaptive cruise control is similarly smart with smooth and predictable inputs in traffic.
After pulling back into the driveway at night, and taking one last look at the IS, I’m left with some final thoughts. You buy this car for a couple reasons. One, its naturally aspirated V6 offers an auditory experience that just can’t be had in its four-cylinder competition. And two, it truly is eye-catching. The “redesign” for 2023 might not look dramatically different in photos, but this IS is significantly sportier and more modern looking than before. Its wide rear fenders, swoopy side styling, full-length taillight and generally small footprint give it a look that appeals to the performance fiend, but doesn’t go so far as to lose any sense of Lexus elegance.
At $53,875 as tested, the price is agreeable for what you get. Besides the performance extras, this IS is loaded with all the features one might want for daily driving — Lexus even added the option for a rear window sunshade this year, and of course this test car had it. If the IS has an Achilles’ heel, it’s how blastedly good the Acura TLX and Genesis G70 are these days. You can get boosted V6 versions of those cars that are far more powerful than the IS and don’t cost much more. It just depends on your priorities, and the Lexus certainly has some strong legs to stand on in the fight.
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