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2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport review

By Alex Affat, 01 Feb 2021 Reviews

2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport review

In a crowded segment, is the IS350 F Sport a dark horse worth betting on?

What is the Lexus IS350 F Sport?

There is no shortage of competitors in the sporty C-segment saloon class.

While the German big three have long dominated the landscape, is the distinctly Japanese Lexus IS350 F Sport worthy of your consideration?

When the updated IS was announced for Australia late last year, Lexus’ local outpost stressed a renewed sporting focus for the IS while the longer Lexus ES is pitched as the more luxurious option in the product portfolio.

The IS350 F Sport occupies the halo position of the range, boasting the familiar naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre quad-cam V6 with dual variable valve-timing, yielding a respectable 233kW and 378Nm.

An eight-speed automatic gearbox handles cog-swapping duties, sending power solely to the rear wheels.

Price and value

Retailing at $75,000, the IS350 F Sport bats against cars like the $77,900 BMW 330i and the Mercedes-Benz C300.

You can also throw in the excellent Genesis G70 3.3T, which also offers six-cylinder grunt and rear-wheel-drive thrills.

The compulsory F Sport Package brings a unique body kit, 18-inch wheels, adaptive dampers and five differing drive modes spanning from the frugal eco setting, to Sports S+.

There are also the usual Lexus luxuries such as driver-seat memory settings, heated and cooled front seats and an LFA-style TFT driver display.

There’s a new 10.3-inch infotainment screen capable of Android Auto/Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, and, thankfully, it’s touch-sensitive allowing you to eschew the finicky trackpad interface.

Gone, too, is the archaic foot-operated parking brake. Welcome to the 21st century.

MORE 30 years of Lexus Australia: a brief history of the marque

A dramatic exterior refresh is headlined by slimmer LED headlights, while the pronounced swage line intersects with a sweeping crease which characterises the visually pumped rear haunches.

These, in turn, are end-stopped by an attractive full-width tail lamp assembly.

Less dramatic is the interior facelift which, apart from the updated tech, seems largely unchanged and betrays the exterior’s modern makeover.

How does the Lexus IS350 F Sport drive?

Hitting the high-mounted starter button and setting off leads to an initial disorientation as you readjust to the Lexus’ relaxed mien.

In normal mode, the throttle mapping is remarkably unresponsive and requires far more input to spur the four-door onwards than expected.

Initial impressions are that the on-centre steering is doughy and vague, although not as weightless as that of modern Audis. The ride is fantastic although this yields significant body roll under lateral load in this setting.

It is so softly sprung that the low front valance occasionally makes contact with tarmac under compression, even on the most gradual and usually innocuous of speedbumps.

Where competitors would require a simple half-turn of lock for certain on-road manoeuvres, the Lexus requires more.

There was a split-second of alarm when coasting into a side street with some momentum, where my arms were very nearly crossed-up and the reflection of the stylish sedan’s signature spindle grille momentarily loomed large in the reflection of a parked car.

Twisting the rotary dial into Sport S mode sees the throttle mapping sharpen to what others would call ‘Normal’, while the dampers also firm up nicely and should help keep that front lip off the ground.

One could argue that this should be the true default setting for something with ‘sport’ in its badge, although comfort mode offers a sublime duality of character for those who must endure a boring commute.

MORE Lexus RX300 F Sport review

Even with the sharpened throttle response of Sport S mode, the naturally-aspirated mill lacks the lowdown response of its turbocharged contemporaries but pulls strong throughout the midrange and gains pace rapidly when already on the move.

The turbocharged four-cylinder of the IS300h may be equally responsive down low, however the $2k premium for the IS350 F Sport is well worth the extra kit and top end power.

The gearbox can be hard to understand as it attempts to predict your next gear selection via an internal G-meter.

When you’re driving spiritedly, it’s liable to skip down a gear which can lead it to settle at the peak of the gear below where you want it to be, if you happen to click the downshift paddle twice.

Power delivery is linear although unrushed with peak torque arriving at 4800rpm without the assistance of forced induction.

In a dynamic setting, this powerplant and chassis rewards momentum when driving on a fast flowing road, keeping the revs healthy and plugged into the power band.

The Lexus won’t be nearly as flattering to the talents of the driver in the way that others in this segment will, but will cover ground quickly if you work with it, not against it.

While it may not be the sharpest steer, tune into the particular cadence of the Lexus IS350 F Sport and you’ll find it does have something to offer the keen driver.

Sport S+ mode, which most noticeably stiffens up the dampers again, sees the previously floating ride of Normal mode tease out the hidden athleticism of the well-balanced chassis.

The steering, which initially feels vague, improves once off-centre while the front and rear ends feel well-connected and are easily rotated by managing steering input and throttle – so long as you temper your corner entry.

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The chassis and engine do feel dated compared to other, newer, competitors (this generation IS originally debuted on the market in 2013), and the tyres don’t enhance the dynamics.

The Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres are the same model fitted to the understeery base GR Yaris, and are worked far harder in this application with an extra 355kg on top of them.

The threshold where grip turns to understeer is low if you don’t guide the nose in to corners with braking.

Even in the depths of suburbia, the Dunlops are very vocal and are prone to audibly screeching if you lean on them, even in low-speed situations such as roundabouts.

Verdict

Despite its age, there are many redeeming qualities to the IS, and there’s a distinctly old school charm to this rear-driven naturally-aspirated sedan.

It may be outgunned by Mercedes-Benz’s C300 and BMW’s sublime 330i, but it offers a unique and genuinely characterful alternative to the usual offenders. And we can’t fault it for that.

Rating: 3.5/5

Like Updated styling; duality of comfort and entertaining dynamics
Dislike Slow steering; lazy throttle mapping; dated engine & interior

READ NEXT 2020 Lexus RX 450h long-term review

Lexus IS350 F-Sport
Engine: 3456cc V6, quad-cam, 24v
Power: 233kW @ 6400rpm
Torque: 378Nm @ 4800rpm
0-100km/h: 5.9sec (claimed)
Weight: 1685kg
Price: $75,000