For the connoisseur, few automobiles have disappointed so often as the Lexus. What started as a reskinned Toyota in the 1980s became a hip-hop punchline in the Nineties, and in the new millennium has cemented its status as the ultimate ride for a tennis racket-toting grandma, the bane of passing lanes from North Miami to Tampa. The Lexus was bland, tacky, reliable.
And then along came the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport, an eye-popping sportster that with a few minor caveats may singlehandedly rejuvenate this musty marque. It has a striking nose that takes Lexus' "L-Finesse" philosophy and elevates it far enough off the clay courts of Hollywood, Florida that most grandparents will wonder who put LSD in their Metamucil. With an exaggerated grille and gaping intakes that direct air to the brakes – and cool down the 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine – the F Sport is not a bashful design.
It's not just a cushy ride to the grocery store, either. Its engine is "sound optimized," and when we select the Sport S+ mode on a country road in upstate New York and throttle up, the intake resonator pipes the sweet music of the V6 into the cabin and enhances driving pleasure measurably. The adaptive dampening system in the suspension lets the F Sport grip the hell out of the corners, while having a more supple response to the bumps themselves. This is the best driving Lexus since the 2010 LFA, the auto manufacturer's $375,000 supercar entry. And body tweaks have actually made the IS 350 more aerodynamic than the LFA. It has the power to make a passenger nervous and give the driver a testosterone jolt.
Off the twisties, the IS 350 is smooth and forgiving as, well, a Lexus. A smooth highway ride is the one thing Lexus has done with unyielding consistency for many, many model years, but it eventually becomes an albatross for a performance marque.
The interior is a sublime collection of well thought out gauges and a seat that fits us like a Saville Row suit. At $44,000 fully loaded, the F Sport is priced right, and the 7-inch display system accesses audio sources, including standard Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, AM/FM and satellite radio, and USB/iPod connectivity. It's operated by a frustrating control knob on the center console.
For us, Lexus still has a long way to go before it proves it's interested in embracing a demo beyond that of snowbirds and Sunday drivers. But the bold and sophisticated IS 350 F Sport is an eyeopener.