Recently, Lexus invited Digital Trends down to the Bay Area to take some pre-production IS units for a spin in both street environments and on some technical track courses. How could we say no? We didn’t.
Lexus had a full spread of cars on hand for us to drive, including the balls-out IS 350 F-Sport, an IS 250 with all-wheel drive, and some regular-flavor IS 350 and 250 examples. Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was time behind the wheel of the glossy white IS 350 F-Sport.
The latest updates to the IS sedans has Lexus taking square aim at what could be called the “beginning luxury buyer” demographic, best described as those upwardly-mobile types who have just cleared 40, are ready to trade up from that economy car to a bit more of a hot rod but still need four doors and some decent gas mileage. My kind of car!
Located across the bay from San Francisco, the decommissioned Naval Air Station Alameda, with it’s long, wide runways, was a perfect spot to spool up this low-flying Lexus.
Lexus set up a technical course with a long straightaway at the start to test the cars acceleration and threw in a slalom section and numerous tight curves to test handling prowess. Knocking over any of the hundreds of orange cones was frowned upon.
Sliding into the 350 F-Sport’s driver’s seat and it’s clear that despite having four doors and room for four actual full-sized adults, this car is built for fun with bolstered seats, a 306 horsepower V6 under the hood and eight speeds in the automatic gearbox that can also be toggled with the shifter or steering wheel paddles. Still, it’s a Lexus, and a nice way to spend the day driving in any fashion, with it’s wood trim, comfy leatherish seats, big LCD screen and that touch-o-steampunk analog clock front and center.
Lexus wasn’t shy about allowing drivers to thrash the cars around the course since a more civilized sojourn through clogged local city streets was planned for later. So 3-2-1 blast off it is, the traction control light blinking as the F-Sport powered down the front straight, tires chirping in the lower gears. No cops, stop signs, cross traffic or pesky pedestrians to deal with so triple digits were almost possible before dropping anchor on the excellent brakes before a quick chicane came up heading into the first cornering section of the course.
The rear-wheel drive F-Sport pick and rolled through the corners and then flashed through the slalom course, the V6 howling near redline in second gear, before hitting the super-tight hairpin section near the end. It was so much fun I did it again. And again and again.
One bit of trick tech Lexus talked about in their pre-drive presentation was the new more adaptive automatic transmission that they said would hold revs during aggressive driving such as the kind I was subjecting the F-Sport to. With the car in “Sport +” mode and the LFA-inspired gauges (F-Sport only!) sporting a racing red ring reminding me to give it my Andretti best, I ticked off the traction control and dropped the hammer again but this time kept my digits off the paddles as the car sliced through the course.
The new fairy-dust sprinkled transmission worked as advertised, holding revs close to redline as I bombed through the course, tires squealing and more than a few cones sent tumbling. Oh well, our track time was about up anyway. Sorry about the cones, guys.
After a good thrashing on the tarmac, drivers hit the streets of Alameda, nearby Berkeley and the multitudes of congested nearby highways. Out in traffic with the F-Sport in Boring Drive Mode, my right foot kept itching to test out all that horsepower again but for some reason the 40,000 cars in front of me headed into the Bay Area would just not part like the Red Sea.
Oh well, that made it a good excuse to try out the 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system (verdict: worthy) and all the other bits like navigation and half-dozen safety systems built into the car, most of which I could not get to activate due to our ever-slowing velocity. ABS seems to work well, however.
Trickling back to the test track to wrap up the test drive, another driver caught my eye in the rear-view mirror as he fairly careened through traffic in a bid to catch up with the new F-Sport (not hard to do at 40mph). Pulling up alongside, he rolled parallel to my car, then forward to check out the new aggressive and blacked-out spindle grille and LED eyebrows, then back to survey the swooping new body lines that traversed the car to the new back end where LED taillights and the dual exhaust hummed quietly along.
Aftermarket rims shining in the sunlight as the car rolled along in heavy traffic, he finally rolled down his likely more-than-legally tinted window and flashed a thumbs up before resuming his private race against the rush-hour traffic.
And yes, he was driving a Lexus.