Lexus IS 350 turns into a grown-up sports sedan after 16 years 

By Peter Hubbard

(June 12, 2017) For those who recall a time long, long ago and far, far away … when cigarette advertising was still legal on network TV, a certain cigarette company tried to lure women into switching to their thin, slim brand of cancer-causing tobacco product with the advertising tag line “… You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Well, the same can certainly be said of Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand. I realize I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember when the brand was launched with considerable fanfare nearly 30 years ago — and remember it vividly!  Can you believe it’s been that long ago? 

Time sure has flown since Toyota’s 1989 introduction of the new 1990 Lexus models.  

By introducing a brand new premium channel, Toyota’s goal in the US was to lure wealthy Yuppies away from their Bimmers and Benzes and into their Japanese luxury liners, instead. 

At the time, their loyal Corolla, Celica and Camry buyers had no place to go — vehicle-wise anyway — when they hit their ‘40s, made partner at the law firm and moved to the golf course community in the far-out ‘burbs. 

The first two models on the Lexus lot were the LS400 and the ES250.  Since the ES was little more than a re-badged Camry, the LS garnered most of the attention. It represented Toyota’s first attempt at a “full-size” luxury performance sedan with a healthy V-8.

A major reason for part of the stir was that Toyota brought it to market with an amazing introductory price of just $39,900!  And a couple years down the road, the mid-size GS350 and the SC300 and SC400 arrived to critical acclaim as well. 

As most are aware, the Lexus model ranges have expanded and morphed dramatically over the years.

Instead of three sedans there are now four.  To the LS, GS and ES was added a new entry-level, sub-$30,000 IS model for 2001 model year — the IS300.  In 2006 the IS300 was replaced with a revamped IS250 model, in the process becoming the first Lexus with an all-wheel-drive model, designed to accommodate drivers braving dicey northern climates.

Hybrid versions of the GS and ES are now available, and four SUVs have been added as well as RC and LC coupes, plus new track-tuned F Sport performance versions of all models in the Lexus line-up. 

When first offered in 2006, the IS offered an array of new luxurious features, plus a roomier cabin, and a powerful 204-hp, 2.5-liter V-6 engine. Only minor upgrades followed the next few years, but in 2010, Lexus added dozens of electronic features as standard equipment and updated the GPS system. The entire body, front and back, were restyled in 2011, and a new F Sport package was added. In addition, xenon headlights and adaptive cruise control were included as available options.

The current-generation IS was totally redesigned for the 2014 model year.  And with the price of electronic gadgets and applications coming down, a host of new high-tech options were added to the build sheet. The car grew wider and longer, too, resulting in more interior room, a wider and more athletic stance.  It also got a revised suspension and steering system for better handling, and upgrades in the quantity and quality of safety features.

Frankly, the end result is fairly impressive. Truth to tell, I was quite under-whelmed over my exposure to the first- and second-generation IS models.  Both seemed like mere half-hearted attempts to lure BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class buyers. Instead, they seemed to be luring Toyota Scion buyers into defiling the IS with all sorts of bizarre aftermarket upgrades.

As a result, the it seemed more targeted at young Asians hooked on drifting, than a genuine alternative for European buyers.  

For 2017 there are not one, two or three, but six models in the IS family.  These include the rear-drive IS200 Turbo, the IS200 Turbo F Sport, the IS300 AWD and IS300 F Sport, plus the IS350 AWD and the IS350 F Sport

The test vehicle was the IS 350 F Force.  And no doubt about it, with the F Force upgrade the IS350 is no BMW poseur — it has all the makings of a genuine competitor for those who decide to put it through its paces.  

It comes equipped with 3.5-liter, 24-valve DOHC direct-injection aluminum-block V-6, equipped with variable valve timing. It churns out 306 horsepower @6400 rpm and 277 lb-ft of torque @ 4,800 rpm, and comes mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. The “smart tranny” can be set to a variety of driving modes, including “eco, normal, sport and snow.”

Thankfully, it also comes with wheel-mounted paddles, allowing for plenty of fun when you decide to shift over into allegro con brio mode. Assisting in that endeavor are 225/40R18 tires in front and 255/35R18 rubber in back, mounted on split 5-spoke styled wheels. Assisting in the road-gripping efforts are a double-wishbone front suspension and a multi-link unit in back. 

Standard interior features of note include a power tilt-slide moonroof, 10-way power driver’s seat, 10 airbags all around, and the extensive electronic Lexus “pre-collision” safety system. It includes pedestrian detection, dynamic radar-controlled cruise that applies braking and a lane departure alert that vibrates the steering wheel. 

Base price is a competitive $41,370. 

The $3,155 F Force package on our tester added a host of sporty appearance upgrades, the aforementioned fatter rubber, deluxe leather seats and wheel and drilled aluminum pedals. The optional $2,835 navigation and infotainment system includes the high-end 835-watt, 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio unit, controlled via the upgraded 10.2-inch video display.

It also comes with the Lexus “Inform” navigation system and additional apps that include Bluetooth and an upgraded application suite. Throw in some mats, illuminated door sills plus a freight bill and our IS350 F Force stickered out at $49,530.

Our week behind the wheel included plenty of seat time on both 3-lane Interstates and country back roads, which included visits to both a small-town jazz festival and an old-fashioned swap meet, complete with a huge selection of greasy-oily-rusty bits. 

Good news … and unrelated to the review entirely, I did come away with a renewed appreciate for the talents of NOLA’s Aaron Neville, as well as a vintage Plymouth dog-dish hub cap for the amazing price of just $5 bucks!


I admit it … I’m not a huge fan of Toyotas current infatuation with the toothy “large-mouth” bass grille they insist on affixing to the mouths of all their products these days. I suspect the design element was put in place to portray their vehicles as aggressive and s
porty.  But in my book there are ways to do that without reminding me I need to make a dentist appointment every time I see one! 

I’m much more enamored with the way Lexus styled the car’s backside and taillights.  Forward tips of the taillights curve around and point forward, completing the character line coming from the front that starts at the bottom of the front wheel well, gradually rises and aims at the forward point of the taillight as it reaches the rear wheel well.  This angular rectangle shape is “seconded” by the chrome exhaust tips and separate red back-up lights.

The dark grey “Caviar” paint scheme was high quality and very well executed, with metal flecks and the kind of high-gloss finish that reflects light brilliantly.
The guys down at the car wash will really relish working on this baby. 

One last note about the shape; as with most sporty cars these days, the A-pillar on the Lexus IS is cocked at a much more rakish angle than previous versions.  While I suspect this contributes to a sleeker look, helps contribute to the car’s slippery 0.28 drag coefficient and reduces wind noise, it also decreases the door size and lowers the angle of entry — a lot.  So for guys six feet or taller, be forewarned.  Tremendous flexibility will be required in order to enter in your normal feet-first manner without putting a second part in your hair, or you’ll be forced to enter in the feminine fashion — butt first at a 90-degree angle, then swing your legs in.  Not a complaint, mind you … just an observation.


Inside, the cabin of our IS350 F Force was … well, a tour de force. The center stack is topped with that 10.25-inch long and narrow video screen.  Almost reminds one of the wide-screen cinema down the street. Flanking the old-school round clock are dual air vents. Below that are the ventilation controls, followed by the slit for CD, flanked by dual sound-control knobs for volume and tuning. 

Functions for your map and other applications that use the wide-screen display are controlled by a rectangular knob on the center console, as well as the usual touch-screen method. 

The sport bucket front seats come covered in vented red leather panels, stitched and fitted to match the athletic demeanor of the car. You also get a perforated and heated (if desired) leather-trimmed steering wheel.  Door and dash panels are trimmed in brushed aluminum and dark wood-like panels.  All blend together harmoniously to create a sporty, yet understated environment.


The Lexus IS350 F Force drives like what it is — a sports car.  It offers immediate response to throttle inputs, with the 300-plus ponies under the hood eager to please. Thankfully, it has both the suspension and tires to keep you firmly planted to the pavement, and the braking system is first-rate, too.  Meaty 13.15-inch ventilated discs in front, plus 12.25-vented units in back ensure rapid, panic-free stops.  On top of that there’s a trick electronic “Brakeforce Distribution” system that modulates the amount of†stopping power sent to the front and rear wheels, for†enhanced control.

It handles like a champ. 

No matter what type of road surface or environment you throw at it, the IS displays the kind of competence and confidence you WANT in a sports car in the $40 - $50K range.


No doubt about it, this is no weekend drifter’s hopped-up toy car.  Add the F Force package to the IS350 and you’ve got the genuine article — a real honest-to-goodness sports sedan. While the Europeans may have created the segment, they certainly don’t have it all to themselves anymore.  While American automakers have made attempt from time to time to mount a challenge, this little Lexus manages to accomplish the feat. 

While Lexus still may not have the panache or status in certain gated golf-course neighborhoods, Lexus IS owners certainly won’t be embarrassed when they launch from standing starts at a stoplight.  This rascal can hold its own.