It’s so predictable, isn’t it? Especially in our market. Lexus launches a new car and it’s immediately hauled out to the high jump to see how close it can come to clearing the bars set by the imperishable German three.
Here’s the new Lexus IS 350 F-Sport. It’s of similar dimension to the 3 Series, A4 and C-Class, but it’s Japanese so, of course, it has a different flavour. An unmistakably Japanese one, which is difficult to describe in words. But, if the German trio are woodwind instruments with a warm, analogue feel, the Lexus is like a Casio keyboard set to making similar timbre but with microprocessors and transistors instead of resonating reeds and palpable harmonics. Is one better? No. Personal preference.
Don’t read too much into that - we’re not talking about actual exhaust noise or comparing electronic systems here. I’m merely offering perspective on the difference in mood, or atmosphere, between Lexus and its teutonic rivals.
So it’s quite digital in feeling then?
Well, yes. But not at all in a bad way. An electronic onslaught begins before you’ve even selected a gear, and in place of actual needles and dials in an LFA supercar-inspired binnacle there’s a full-colour display overflowing with animations and moving graphics that would perk even Lieutenant Spock’s ears.
Push a menu button on the steering wheel and a plastic central ring inside the virtual cluster slides to the right to make space for even more colour displays. This very Star Trek feature comes only in top F-Sport models, but on its own almost justifies the R104 000 premium over the most basic of three IS 350 derivatives. I said almost.
More hi-tech quirks come by way of the new IS’s temperature adjusters. Two thin metal slivers on either side of the climate-control panel react to “electrostatic” finger swipes that will have first-time passengers acting like inquisitive chimps with a new plaything.
Suddenly hot and cold sliders or knobs seem so last season.
Lexus also answers the problem of complicated infotainment menu navigation with its latest Remote Touch Interface that works like a normal computer mouse and cursor, but on a 180mm screen in the dashboard. The control unit (which is operable with your left hand in our market) is quite clever in the way it gives clicking feedback when it hovers over a selectable icon but, in typical Lexus fashion, many functions are deactivated when the car’s moving. An irritating safety feature that German systems have somehow avoided.
You’ll also know straight away that the steering is electronically assisted, but it still sends all the necessary information through to driver’s hands, and its weight, albeit quite light compared to a BMW for instance, makes for an easy driving experience. In top F-Sport models, the steering adjusts in sensitivity with a turn of a driving mode control knob in the centre console but, top be absolutely honest, I hardly noticed the difference.
This mode selector, which changes between Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+ (in F-Sport models only) does, however, make big changes to throttle sensitivity and shift points in the eight-speed gearbox.
Eco mode, which I avoided almost entirely for fear of dozing off at the wheel, basically makes the car feel as if it weighs four tons and has less torque than a blender. Sport+ on the other hand, is like a whiff of smelling salts through the 3.5-litre V6’s intake system, with a hair-trigger accelerator pedal and aggressive gear changes. I found Sport mode the happiest medium, but the car reverts back to its Normal setting with every restart.
With 228kW and 375Nm the IS 350 is well within the power realm of its bigger-engined German competitors, but with natural aspiration it’s handicapped a bit at Gauteng altitude.
Our test equipment recorded a 0-100km/h best of 7.2 seconds and the quarter-mile came up in 15.1. Average fuel consumption (granted I didn’t employ Eco mode to its full potential) was disappointing at more than 13 litres per 100km.
This engine, which is a direct transplant from the previous and now eight-year-old IS, does sound the part though and up near its 6 500rpm redline the interior is filled with a delicious airbox resonance.
This howl also reverberates right through the throttle pedal and seat back, creating a discernible connection between man and machine. Much like German cars have done for years. Maybe their secret’s out.
Top F-Sport trim means special seats, 18” alloys and a racier front end design. It also includes little extras such as seat memory, electrochromatic mirrors and metal interior trim bits, but at R553 900 it comes at a hefty premium over the base IS 350 E (R449 900) and EX (R499 900). The F-Sport’s flashy instrument cluster is marvellous though.
Lexus has tapped its geeky electronic side and is now using it to an advantage instead of trying to mimic European flavour. The new IS is impeccably built and extremely comfortable. It’s also as fun to drive as any of the three Germans it will inevitably be compared with, but let down ever so slightly by a naturally-aspirated V6 that’s choked from its full potential at reef altitude.
No, it doesn’t clear bars set by the Germans. But it is setting high scores over at the computer fair. - Star Motoring
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