Why The Lexus IS 350 F-Sport May Make BMW Dealers Nervous

Side view of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport

The very best cars are works of art.  It is visual interest, after all, that is the first connection most people make with an automobile.  Even those who do not consider themselves to be "car people" will usually admit that the car they are driving was chosen mostly because of how it looks.  In fact, that may be more important to them than it is to enthusiasts, who may be willing to overlook aesthetics in favor of the driving experience. Take BMW, which certainly has an identifiable look, but hardly an exciting one in recent years. Yet they sell because of performance.

A car that can provide visual interest and excitement before it is even driven, and then back that up once in motion is a powerful combination.  And after years of building strength upon strength--first handling, then engine power, now styling--the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport appears to have reached that balance.

Rear three-quarters view of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport.
First of all, art. The 2014 Lexus IS 350 is an all-new design.  It has a longer wheelbase, but shorter front and rear overhangs, conveying simultaneously the message that there is more room inside for you and that it is a more serious performance car, unwilling to waste space or time.

Front three-quarters view of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport.
The new IS 350 has also adopted Lexus' new signature spindle grille.  As with the character lines along the body, it implies motion and aggression, aided by the projector-beam headlamps that appear to be fixed in an angry, determined gaze at the road ahead. In Matador Red Mica, shown above and the color of the test car, it adds up to an imposing presence.

The IS 350 AWD begins at $41,700. Standard are a 3.5 liter V6 engine rated at 308 horsepower, a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, full-time all wheel drive, the ability to electronically select four driving modes--ECO, Normal, Sport and Snow, 17-inch aluminum wheels with tire pressure monitoring, high-intensity discharge headlamps and LED daytime running lights, and dual chrome exhausts.

Interior view of the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport Interior.

If the exterior is art and aggression, the interior is art and luxury, with a standard equipment list that includes a power tilt and slide moonroof that opens or closes with a single touch,  pushbutton start and stop for the engine, a heated 10-way power seat with 2-way lumbar adjustment for the driver and a heated 8-way power seat for the front passenger, a full-color multi-information display that shows audio, phone and trip information, a Lexus Premium Display audio system with real-time traffic and weather, album art, a 90-day free subscription to SiriusXM Satellite Radio and HDRadio., which is a digital format for AM and FM stations that make AM sound like FM and FM sound like Compact Discs. Another benefit to HDRadio is that it is free as long as you have a receiver, and it allows stations to broadcast two, three or four additional channels.  Since most people don't have HDRadio receivers, there is not a big audience as yet and as a result, not many advertisements.  It is virtually commercial-free music on most stations, some of it very eclectic material that commercial stations do not usually play.

F-Sport is an option package. It costs an additional $3,180 and adds a special F-Sport spindle grille in place of the bright, thin horizontal bars that are found on the standard IS 350, replaces the high intensity discharge headlamps with LEDs, upgrades the wheels to 18-inch, five spoke rims with all-season tires, adds special F-Sport seats, a perforated leather steering wheel and shift knob, silver performance trim inside and a black headliner.

There is no engine upgrade. That is reserved for the $63,000 IS F, which has 416 horsepower and an 8-speed transmission.  But the F-Sport package on the IS 350 does add adaptive variable suspension and SPORT S+ mode, which includes enhancements to the adaptive variable suspension, the steering and the vehicle stability control.

The test car also had the Navigation and Mark Levinson Premium Audio system, which features 835 watt, 15-speaker surround sound, satellite navigation, a backup camera, and Lexus Enform, a group of apps including iHeart Radio and Open Table.  That package is an additional $3,225.

The final option was a blind spot monitor with rear traffic alert, which can sense cars moving behind you on a street or in a parking lot aisle before you can see them. That includes auto-dimming exterior mirrors and costs $600.

At the wheel, performance was strong, handling very capable.  The ride is a bit harsh but that is not unusual in a car with a suspension tuned for performance.  And fuel economy is not a priority, with an EPA estimated combined 21 miles per gallon city and highway.  The city figure is 19, the highway 26.  The window sticker says you'll spend $2,000 more on gasoline over 5 years driving this car than you would the average new vehicle.

The total price with $910 delivery, processing and handling fee was $49,615, a number easily reached at the BMW dealer, as well.  For those of us for whom aesthetics are a priority, the scales could easily tip Lexus' way.