It’s a car, about as fundamentally a car as you can imagine, a four-door sedan. It’s not a hatchback, notchback, or wagon, not an SUV or CUV, not a van, MPV or AUV, not a “crossover,” not a sports coupé, nor anything else. In these times, when a new category seems to be invented every other month, and the end of the internal-combustion engine is on the horizon, a four-door sedan has ironically become something of a retro statement. But this is no retro statement. This is an interesting exercise in relentless refinement of a traditional car type.
It’s a compact car, slightly larger than a Toyota Altis, but smaller than a Toyota Camry. Having said that, it is like few other compact cars I have ever driven, with more than 300 horsepower under one’s right foot, handling and safety to match, and an aesthetically satisfying interior made of high-quality materials. It’s a rear-wheel drive car, which makes it better equipped for safe fast driving.
For those who appreciate cars and what goes into them, the IS 350 is satisfying on many levels because so much evident thought and expertise went into every detail. The design team worked out every aspect of the experience, from approaching the car, unlocking it, getting in and out, adjusting the seats, starting, parking and unparking, driving, navigating, even washing it, changing a tire, servicing the engine, and so on. Every control is purposefully where you expect it to be, and it makes sense where it is. Nothing is there just because it had to be somewhere and there was some free space to put it. The driving experience is totally natural and relaxing, even at blistering speeds.
Zero to 60 mph (~100 km/h) is quoted at 5.7 seconds, which maybe 20 years ago was supercar territory. But you wouldn’t buy this car for that reason. What you might buy it for is its blistering 80-120 km/h acceleration, which I did not measure (lacking the equipment), but must have been in the 3-4 second range. This is extremely useful on Philippine highways, allowing you to leave behind the inevitable morons who block the overtaking lane by lumbering along at 80 km/h.
When I did take it out on the highway, it happened there was a Bentley behind…. I let him…. The IS 350 was able to keep up effortlessly
When I did take it out on the highway, it happened that there was a Bentley somewhere behind me, driving quite aggressively in the sparse traffic. I let him overtake me, and then followed him at a distance for the next 50 km or so. The IS 350 was able to keep up effortlessly, despite short bursts well beyond the speed limit (not quite twice, but you get the idea) to overtake.
Nowadays, 3 seconds or less 0-100 km/h is considered the supercar standard. The IS 350 F-Sport falls in the category of fast production car, in the territory of the Europeans like Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes, as well as brands like Acura and Infiniti.
The IS 350 F-Sport is a car you drive yourself. You can bring a driver to help you park and such, but it’s obviously meant for people who enjoy driving and appreciate a well-designed, well-made and well-tuned automobile. The car was a joy to drive, not only on the highway, but even in the city. The main characteristic is the car’s tremendous power, precise handling, and efficient systems. The driving position provides excellent visibility to the front and sides. Rear visibility is slightly abbreviated, but that’s a necessary compromise of having an excellent aerodynamic profile. Unlike other fast cars, it drives well in slow city traffic, docile, quiet and effortless.
The “office” is comfortable, and satisfyingly simple, comfortable, and ergonomic. It’s easy to set up a good driving position. Everything is where you expect it to be in a modern automobile, and is of course, completely digital or power-assisted. The gearshift lever (and shift paddles) are switches, not mechanical linkages. Perhaps the sole purely mechanical control is the brake pedal, although even that seemed to have an electronically calibrated response. The analog quartz clock at the center of the dash is a nice decorative touch, common to all Lexus models I’ve driven, and the quality of the interior materials is excellent.
Like with any good workstation, you don’t really need to read the manual to figure out the basic functions; they just happen, and if you need something a little more detailed, like how to connect your music feed to the stereo, the controls are fairly obvious. I did have trouble figuring out how to turn the car’s “Eco” mode on and off, not that I desperately needed to, but I just let it operate on whatever the default setting was. In general, it was evident that whoever designed this car spent a lot of time figuring out driver behavior, haptics, and ease of use.
The center top of the dash is dominated by a monitor that is just the right size—big enough so you don’t have to squint, but small enough that it doesn’t block anything. Oddly, it looks mounted in such a way that you could fold it away if you wanted—but you can’t, or I never figured out how to do this. The monitor tells you where you are, and what the car’s systems are doing, and you can presumably use it to navigate, although I am not sure it gives you real-time information like Waze or Google Maps, which I used instead.
The ride is firm, and the handling fast and precise. The IS 350 does a lot more than go where you point it, it does so smoothly and at exactly the level of speed that you need. The suspension has a lot of travel in it, but is, in my opinion, far from soft. Some articles have actually criticized the car’s comfort, saying that the suspension is too compliant and comfortable for really aggressive driving. I dispute this, but Lexus offers a much firmer F-Sport suspension package as an option, as if you’ll be racing the car on a track more than navigating the real-world corrugated roads. That, I guess, is for the same sort of driver who buys a 4×4 and never once takes it off-road. You might as well stick spoilers and a full aero kit on it, while you’re at it.
Let’s talk about why this car even exists.
The car market is very complex, with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of customer segments. A “customer segment,” in marketing terms, means a group of people defined by their “careabouts,” as demonstrated by their purchasing behavior. A “careabout” (I have seen no better word available since I learned this one in business school) is more than a simple preference. It is a value, either quantifiable, or intangible, that a customer is willing to pay for.
Once upon a time, products were designed by engineers or inventors, who defined the product according to what was possible, given the available technology. In other words, they made no effort to figure out customer careabouts. They defined the product, in effect saying, “this is what [this product] should be,” thus telling customers what they ought to care about.
Henry Ford famously said, ‘Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it’s black’
Henry Ford, who invented the moving assembly line and mass production of low-priced automobiles, famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it’s black.” In fact, there was no customization available. This worked spectacularly, and at one point, over half of the world’s automobiles were Fords.
Soon, however, increasing competition made manufacturers offer more and more options and packages. Nowadays, the market extends all the way from those who just need transportation, others who need utility and capacity, to those who somehow need particular cars to define their identity (or show off), to those who are enthusiasts, and buy cars they don’t really need, but just want to have. The design and configuration of cars is determined by manufacturers’ perception of these segments.
The very existence of the IS 350 is not an accident. Lexus did not simply say, hey, the Europeans are selling a lot of compact performance sedans, let’s make one to compete with them. If history has taught us anything about Lexus, and its mother company, Toyota, it’s that they always do their homework. They did not simply copy an existing segment. They made this car to redefine the segment, based on what the segment really wants and is willing to pay for. They studied the careabouts, and it shows.
The performance sedan started out as a specifically European segment. Fewer car owners in Europe employ chauffeurs, compared to Asia; Europeans drive themselves. They tend to prefer more compact personal cars, and prioritize safety and efficiency over luxury and display. If you’ve ever driven—or had to park—in any major European city, you would see instantly why a land yacht like a traditional full-size Chevrolet or an SUV like a Ford Expedition is more liability than it’s worth. I imagine the same is true in Japan.
The compact size is all about efficiency and utility. In today’s world, you can have a great driving experience, not to mention get from point A to point B, without dragging around an extra ton of metal, and extra seating and luggage space you will never use.
For the Philippine market, compact size has traditionally been an issue of price sensitivity. In all of Asia, people seem to buy the biggest cars they can afford, because we travel around with not only our families, but our extended families. Hence, we see things like the Asian Utility Vehicle and family luxury vans. In Europe, vans are almost exclusively used by tradesmen and delivery companies, or as taxis and company shuttles. The premium compact sedan is historically a bit of an anomaly, because in the past, you wouldn’t spend that much money to buy a car just for yourself, and even if you would, you could get a much larger non-premium one for about the same price.
It’s not a car to show off in, which to me is a huge plus
The existence of the IS 350 means that the segment of the premium owner-driver is now firmly established, and that it is not a price-sensitive one.
If you were to base buying a premium sedan just on compact size alone, the typical algorithm would suggest a Toyota Altis or a Honda Civic, for example. Both of those cars have better than adequate performance and handling. If you had a bit more money to spend and wanted better style, as well as a little more performance and quality, you would be looking at Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, and a few others. Why would you then choose an IS 350 over these mainstream cars? One, because it’s a Lexus, with all that implies in design excellence, build quality, world-class service and support, and to me, taste. Two, because it’s faster than you will ever need, and a barrel of fun if you go out of town in it. Three, because it is a supremely satisfying car on all the levels I can imagine.
I would add that it’s not a car to show off in, which to me is a huge plus. The styling is restrained, and the brand is sensible and delivers value. The performance, while excellent, is not broadcast by the car’s looks. It’s a stealth fighter. If you need a car just to demonstrate how much money you have, look elsewhere. The only thing this car demonstrates is that the owner knows what an excellent car is.
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