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Driven: 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD rises into BMW's shadow

Today we wrap up our test of the 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport, a car Lexus aims squarely at the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class. Akin to the BMW M Sport or Mercedes Sport packages of the past, going for F Sport package is one you can add to the IS350 which gives you a number of appearance items in addition to moderate performance enhancements.

2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD rises into BMW's shadow
2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD rises into BMW's shadowSam Haymart
2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD rises into BMW's shadow
2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD rises into BMW's shadowSam Haymart

The most noticeable visual is the deep and aggressive front fascia and unique grille. It has a much more manacling look to go with its sharper performance personality. 18” ten spoke F Sport wheels are unique and have a dark satin finish that really looks striking with our tester’s Matador Red Mica paint.

The overall style is crisp and artful, and I particularly like the way the lower rocker line does a pirouette into the rear three-quarter view. It’s a daring stylistic move that isn’t over the top enough to take away from the businesslike sport sedan theme.

Its 3.5 liter V6 features both port and direct fuel injection. The computer can choose between either the port or direct fuel injection depending on the driving conditions and even summon both for maximum power. This enables eliminating compromise as both systems have downsides on their own.

This yields 306 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 277 lb.-ft. @ 4,800 rpm and affords and EPA rated 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. We achieved 22.5 mpg combined in our testing. Our tester had a six-speed automatic transmission with sport shift mode, the gearbox you get when you option all-wheel drive. An eight-speed automatic closer to that of the LF-A comes with the standard rear-wheel drive IS350.

The good news is that the engine and six-speed transmission are well sorted and downright intoxicating to play with. The engine makes some symphonic sounds that make you glad you aren’t in the cheap seats, the transmission being a conductor with a tight lead.

The sport mode on the transmission works wonders at holding your gear as you go from corner to corner as well as throwing you timely downshifts braking into them. Once on the throttle it seems to just know when you are ready for the up-shift.

Power is of course adequate to generous. It’s not the V8 of the IS-F, but it is a willing friend in the motions of mountain climbing at speed. While not as smooth and sewing machine like as a BMW inline six, it’s as good as a V6 gets in sound and power delivery.

The interior of the IS also gets a dose of F Sport goodness starting with special perforated leather seats with more aggressive side bolsters. They really hold onto you tight, so much in fact I would suggest if you were 225 lbs or more they might feel a little tight.

The steering wheel gets a thick perforated leather treatment as well, complete with metal paddle shifters and full function button controls. Trims in the F Sport are soft-touch all around with genuine aluminum accents on the dash along with some satin silver accompanying pieces.

The instrument cluster gets a page from the LF-A super car, with a customizable center dial position. Hit a steering wheel mounted button and it moves to the side and becomes even more purpose driven. In both cases you can easily customize the information set available on the TFT screen.

On the console, the F-Sport gets a drive mode selector which goes to 11, well ok not really but it does have Sport + which takes everything up an extra notch including the suspension, steering feel, behavior or the transmission, and throttle response. When you get all-wheel drive, a snow mode is added also.

The dash is well designed and I love the down to business style of the controls, no overly gimmicky notions here. The center display screen and Mark Levinson audio system are easy to use and learn on the go with the center console puck and HVAC controls work splendidly.

That Mark Levinson sound system with its 835 watts and 15 speakers is a bit pricey at $3,225 but the sound is oh so worth it. That price however includes a number of other package items including navigation, backup camera and the Lexus Entune app suite just to name a few.

The critiques come in the form of the infotainment screen which looks obviously a downsize for the space in which it resides, with just a filler panel around it. Also the drive modes and instrument panel settings always default back to normal once you power the car down.

The rear seat is roomier than you might expect in this size of sport sedan, offering up adult size leg room. Also not always found in this class is the ability to fold the seats down for skis or storage of larger items in the trunk.

Handling in the IS350 F-Sport is obviously very rewarding and fun. Grip is excellent and the chassis precision is everything you expect from this class. When you dial the drive mode up to Sport + you get a noticeable step up in stiffness and damping.

Having also driven rear-wheel drive IS sedans, I didn’t notice a lot of difference on public roads between the all-wheel drive when it came to chassis balance. Perhaps in a track setting this would be more noticeable.

If I were ordering up an IS350 F Sport I’d probably skip the all-wheel drive as it adds weight, slows the car down and sucks up fuel economy. Additionally there is a hump in the floorboard that rubs your right leg to make room for the transfer case. If you live in snow climates it makes sense perhaps.

Compared to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3-Series, the IS 350 F-Sport is of course much more sporting and sorted than the Benz on a mountain road. The 3-Series is still a formidable target in terms of refinement, but has lost its brash visceral edge in the past couple evolutions.

The 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport continues to get sharp, get serious, and get it on when it comes to serving up this driving enthusiast what I hunger for in a sport sedan. It feels like a fine grade tool in my hands that follows orders and asks for more.