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2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

There are few things in this country more American than a NASCAR race. Sure, apple pie and baseball might outrank it, but neither of those can compete with stock cars thundering around a track at 200 mph while continually riding on the brink of catastrophe as they race just inches away from a concrete wall and other drivers gunning to win. So when the opportunity arose to become deeply immersed in the culture during the recent All-Star race, I jumped at the chance.

It all started a few months ago with an email invite from Toyota. It read something along the lines of, “how about joining us at the NASCAR All-Star race and tours of the Joe Gibbs Racing Center and NASCAR Hall of Fame?” My reply went something like, “Heck yeah, I’ll be there!”

I decided to skip the crowded airports for a 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport and a seven-hour drive through the heart of the eastern seaboard. I viewed this almost like a pilgrimage; setting out on a roadtrip for a destination of racing importance located in the rolling hills of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Once on the road, my choice of chariot was immediately affirmed. Unlike my last Lexus experience, the front seat was perfectly molded, padded, and bolstered. The more I drove, the more the car seemed to shrink around me, making tight maneuvering a thing of ease. The stout 3.5-liter V-6 offered plenty of grunt while the tight steering and sport-tuned suspension made each corner a memorable event.

Click past the jump for the full review of the 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport and about my time spent at Joe Gibbs Racing Center

The Trip and Festivities

It’s apparent the F Sport is set up for more sporty intentions, as its suspension was more direct

I programmed the Lexus’ GPS system for the Joe Gibbs Racing Center, my first stop of the weekend and the epicenter of the Gibbs Racing outfit. The IS350 seemed particularly at home on the highway. I selected Eco mode and left the cruise control off, opting to do my own driving. The car is fairly well insulated from major road and wind noised, though tire thump gets loud on broken pavement. It’s apparent the F Sport is set up for more sporty intentions, as its suspension was more direct and allowed nearly every bump and road imperfection to find its way into the seat bottoms. It wasn’t overly harsh or wearing over the many miles, though it might not appeal to everyone. But being a young twenty-something, I found the car well suited for the extended trip and didn’t find myself wishing for the finish line.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Inevitably the finish line came as I pulled up to JGR. The massive facility is the birthplace of every Sprint Cup and Nationwide car each Joe Gibbs team races. It spans over half a million square feet and houses state-of-the-art equipment to produce each one-off car. CNC machines, pipe benders, jigs, cranes, and a team of more than 200 engineers and fabricators help to build each car from nothing more than raw parts over the course of a few weeks.

Hearing one start up with its open pipe-exhaust system is a life-changing experience

About the only part not made in-house is the 900-horsepower, 5.8-liter, V-8 engine powering each car. They’re built in California by Toyota Toyota Racing Devel Devel opment and shipped in. Once unboxed, they’re mated to a four-speed manual transmission and lowed into the tube chassis. Hearing one start up with its open pipe-exhaust system is a life-changing experience.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

The next day, we headed off to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte. It’s filled with memorabilia dating back to the early days of the sport when mountain men used to bootleg moonshine and other spirited beverages from town to town while evading and often outrunning the police. The more modern exhibits included driving simulators and car cut-aways showing all the detailed internal pieces. But perhaps the single best exhibit was the timeline of stock cars. It started with the Hudson Hornet (yep, just like the one from the Pixar movie Cars), ended with the latest Generation Six car, and showed the progression of racing technology throughout the years. What’s more, each car was the original racer.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Being only feet way from a 900-horsepower burnout from the pit box was spectacular

After eating more chicken wings than I care to count, we headed to pit road at the famed Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch qualifying. Each team had three laps to set their fastest time, though it wasn’t all up to the driver. After the first lap, each car had to pit for four new tires and fuel before continuing on. Being only feet way from a 900-horsepower burnout from the pit box was spectacular. As the sun began to set over top the grandstands, we made our way to the box seats for the race.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

As the race commenced below, the loud exhaust rattled my bones as the cars whipped around the corners at over 180 mph followed by wide-open throttle to hit 200 mph in the straights. Regardless of knowledge level or interest in the sport, seeing a NASCAR race in person has got to be a bucket list item for any self-respecting gearhead.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Rolling down highway 21 through the cotton fields of South Carolina is when the Lexus started coming alive

With the weekend’s festivities drawn to a close, I prepared for the long drive home. I picked up a full tank of fuel, set my destination in the GPS, and started driving. About an hour after starting, I decided to ditch the interstate in favor of a more scenic drive. Rolling down Highway 21 through the cotton fields of South Carolina is when the Lexus started coming alive. I selected Sport mode and shifted the leather-wrapped gear selector into manual as I tackled the long, banking turns. The tighter suspension, weightier, more direct steering, and edgier throttle pedal made my inputs happen almost instantaneously. The paddle shifters behind the steering wheel call up gears from the eight-speed automatic in good time, though it’s no dual clutch.

Of course, a proper back-highway roadtrip isn’t complete without a few impromptu stops at interesting locations like this old abandoned railroad station in the little town of Branchville, SC.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Video Review

Exterior

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

I say aesthetics are subjective and to each his own, though I seem to be the only one who likes the new look

The IS is basically all-new for 2014, as the new Lexus corporate face now dominates the car’s front. The spindle grille is definitely a polarizing feature with nearly everyone having a different opinion, but mostly negative. I say aesthetics are subjective and to each his own, though I seem to be the only one who likes the new look. Besides the grille, the rest of the car is completely refreshed as well. The lower rocker panels flair out as they pass the rear doors and the accent line they create flows up into the rear taillights. Mirroring that line is the lower valance with the dual, chrome-tipped exhaust pipes. Both lines help give the car a very sculpted look.

The grey, 17-inch wheels are well-designed though they seem small in comparison to the 19- and 20-inch wheels that underpin the majority of the competition. Though smaller, it’s hard to imagine a larger wheel fitting within the tight wheel wells.

Interior

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip
Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Like the outside, the interior is all new for 2014. A driver-centric dashboard keeps important information within sight and highly visible. The same mouse-like infotainment controller I grew to like in the ES 350 is found here too. It works well at controlling the Lexus Enform system by only allowing the mouse to hover over options that are currently available. The large in-dash screen offers customizable views that display navigation, radio, fuel, or other information in a split-screen fashion.

Like I mentioned before the jump, these seats are worlds better than those found in the ES 350. The lower cushion has much more padding and the side bolsters held firm through tight corners. The tan soft-touch leather looks great and feels even better, but I worry about its long-term appearance. Other interior materials feel premium and fit and finish is spot-on.

The center console is a rather crowded place with no storage

I do have several complaints about the cockpit’s ergonomics. First, the center console is a rather crowded place with no storage and the two shallow cup holders are placed too far rearward. I found myself reaching across my chest with my left hand to grab a drink. My right arm just couldn’t bend that way. I also had to place my cell phone between the mouse controller and the center stack. It’s definitely not designed to hold a cell phone, but besides the cup holders or my pocket, it was the only real place.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

My second complaint lies with the door panel armrest. With the rest of the cockpit feeling very fitted, that armrest was too shallow and too far away. Another two inches closer and it would work well.

In back, the rear passengers have just enough room. Sitting behind myself, my legs have enough space to be comfortable for short drives, though anything more than a few hours would likely be tiring. Headroom is also somewhat compromised with the sloping roofline. For the occasional passenger on shorter trips, the back seat would be a fine place to sit.

Drivetrain

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Perched behind that ominous spindle grille is a 3.5-liter V-6 mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Thankfully, the IS 350 sends power to the proper place — the rear wheels — for an extra bit of fun. The V-6 produces 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque that sends the car to 60 mph in a scant 5.6 seconds with a top speed of over 130 mph.

Dropping the gear selector in manual mode and slapping the paddle shifters incites the most fun as the transmission will hold gears till redline and rev match while downshifting

The car features variable drive modes that include Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+. Even in Eco and Normal mode, power comes on strong and shifts happen quickly. The steering is light with good on-center feel and the accelerator has a fair amount of forgiveness for inadvertent inputs. Select Sport+ mode, and everything tightens up. The variable ratio steering feels more direct, the accelerator reacts to every flinch of the foot, and the tranny works to keep the engine in its powerband. Dropping the gear selector in manual mode and slapping the paddle shifters incites the most fun as the transmission will hold gears till redline and rev match while downshifting.

The traction control system never seems to be overly active as it keeps the 225/45R17 summer Bridgestones from breaking lose. I never pushed to car past eight/tenths, but the smallish tires held on well, especially considering the car’s 3,500-pound curb weight.

Over my trip, I averaged right at 25 mpg. That included my time on city surface streets and cruising at legal highway speeds. Considering the EPA lists this car at 22 mpg combined, I feel that’s 25 mpg is respectable.

Pricing

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

The Lexus IS350 starts out at $39,615 for the standard model. Checking the F Sport box brings the starting price to $43,585. My tester came equipped with Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert ($600), Variable Gear Ratio Steering with power tilt and telescoping steering wheel ($400), the Navigation and Mark Levinson Premium audio system ($3,225), and a cargo net inside the trunk ($64).

Add in a $895 delivery fee, and my tester’s total comes to $48,269.

Competition

2014 Cadillac ATS 3.6

Cadillac ATS

The Cadillac ATS is a solid competitor in the midsize luxury performance category that puts up a good fight for the Lexus and longtime stalwart BMW 3. Powered by a 321-horsepower V-6, the ATS ATS hits 60 in 5.4 seconds – two-tenths of a second faster than the IS3 50 F Sport. A six-speed automatic gearbox controls the power to the rear wheels unless all-wheel-drive is selected.

The ATS also benefits from GM’s Magnetic Ride Control that allows the driver to customize the ride setting. What’s more, the system is generally heralded as one of the best ride management systems currently on the market.

The ATS has a base price of $33,990 while the V-6 performance stickers at $44,590 for RWD and $46,590 for AWD.

BMW 335i M Sport

BMW 3 Series Sedan

BMW is like the schoolyard bully that refuses to lose his place above the peons below him. This position is reinforced by BMW BMW ’s unwavering ability to combine luxury and performance into a single package. Powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter, inline six-cylinder making 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, the 335 M Sport is able to hit 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds, despite its horsepower disadvantage.

Though the BMW holds that bully spot, it seems its latest iteration has a few issues with its suspension control. Those who’ve piloted the M Sport complain that both the IS and ATS offer much more solid chassis feel and exhibit more control in the corners.

The base price for a BMW 335i starts at $44,045, though prices can rise quickly with extras and options added on.

”The Rest of the Story”

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Leave it to the late, great Paul Harvey to coin a phase so simple yet that means so much; here’s ’The rest of the story.’ All told, my time with the 2014 Lexus IS Lexus IS 350 F Sport was an enjoyable one. The majority of my complaints revolved around the interior ergonomic while the remaining 90 percent of the car is well received. The IS offers a good combination of sport and luxury with what feels like the right amount of each. It never felt too soft or too harsh – always finding a good balance in the middle.

The IS offers a good combination of sport and luxury with what feels like the right amount of each

Unfortunately my time with the IS 350 wasn’t without incident. On my way up to Charlotte, what seemed like a boulder flew from a semi carrying gravel and smashed into the passenger side windshield. Though the truck was in the slow lane with three cars separating us, its guided missile honed in on me. The impact literally sounded like a gunshot. As the day went on, the spider cracks kept growing across the glass.

Lexus IS 350 F Sport & a NASCAR Roadtrip

Thankfully that was the only negative of the trip. Things could have been much worse, especially since the car was painted in cop-magnet Matador Red. I returned home with fuel and time to spare — a combination that’s hard to deal with considering the IS’ easy road-going manner and my love of roadtrips.

LOVE IT
  • Solid V-6 performance
  • Just-right suspension
  • Overall fit & finish
  • Good fuel mileage over 1,200 miles
LEAVE IT
  • Interior ergonomics a little challenging
  • Exterior is polarizing
  • Windshield isn’t bolder-proof



What is your take?

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