2011 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport: Increasing the fun factor

Handling package pushes the performance image of Toyota's luxury brand
by: Courtesy of Lexus Subtle trim upgrades only hint at the potential of the 2011 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport.

Since Toyota first introduced American to Lexus in 1989, the company's luxury brand has built a reputation for offering well-made but slightly boring cars and crossovers. That began to change in 2008 when Lexus unveiled the IS F, a V8-powered version of its compact sedan upgraded with numerous suspension, exhaust and other performance parts.

The result was a superb-handing sport sedan that did zero to 60 in under 5 seconds. But it also cost around $60,000, which limited sales. So Lexus recalibrated and came up with the IS 350 F-Sport. It comes with a slightly tweaked version of the company's standard 3.5-liter V6 and an F-Sport package that includes many of the suspension and other performance parts found on the more powerful IS-F, all beginning at around $38,000.

The result is a slightly slower but still superb-handling sport sedan that is fun to drive and easier on the wallet, including offering better fuel economy than the thirsty V8. Our bright blue test car was quick off the line, fast to pass on freeway, nimble around town, precise through sharp corners, and a blast on twisty roads.

Much of the enjoyment comes from the excellent interior, which included ten-way power leather bucket front seats, a leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel, and a responsive six-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted shifters. The only shortcoming was having to work the dash-mounted touch screen to change air flow and fan speed. The temperature was still set by conventional push buttons.

Of course, our test car came with the almost universal array of high-tech devices and electronically-controlled driving assists found on virtually every cars these days - especially the premium ones that Lexus competes against. Reviews of such cars are getting very redundant these days as writers list the various forms of connectivity and traction control systems on each vehicles. Suffice to say, they all worked just fine, the IS 350 F-Sport has them and they all work just fine, thank you very much.

Like all compacts, rear seat room and trunk space is a little limited, but not enough to completely rule out carrying four adults or a weekend's worth of luggage. Lexus make a larger sedan - the GS - is you need more room on a regular basis. And it is now available with F-Sport accessories, part of an effort to increase the company's performance offerings.

If fact, although our test car came with a specific F-Sport package, enthusiasts can dial in different levels of performance by ordering specific parts that include different wheels, front brake and rear upgrades, Bilstein shocks, lowering springs, sway bars, a rear chassis member brace, a low-restriction air intake, a custom exhaust, a stronger clutch, a quick shfiter for the six-speed manual transmission and more. The sheer variety of options shows how seriously Lexus is taking its entry into the performance car market.

If there is any flaw in this strategy, it is that the styling differences on IS and GS F-Sport models are subtle. The most obvious clues on our test car were the dark graphite 18-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires, but they could have been an after-market buy. The small F-Sport badges on the front fenders were very subtle. In contrast, the V8-powered IS F has huge front fenders and other body moldings that make it stand out from all other IS offerings on the road.

Cars are rolling product advertisements, after all, and Lexus could do a little more to call attention to the F-Sport package - especially considering the appealing price.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 IS 350 F-Sport.

• Manufacturer: Lexus.

• Class: Compact sport sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door car.

• Engines: 3.5-liter V6 (306 hp).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual;six-speed automatic with Sport mode and steering wheel mounted paddle shifters (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/27.

• Price: Beginning at $38,570 ($44,487 as tested).