Review reveals why the 2015 Lexus IS 350 AWD is such a smashing success
The 2015* Lexus IS 350 AWD brings out the hooligan in you. It seems like a normal enough compact sports sedan until you floor the throttle for the first time. The immediacy with which the car explodes forward is a credit to Lexus’ powerful V6 engine. No turbos to spool up, and no excuses. This thing is a rocket on public roads.
The IS line starts with a rear-wheel drive platform. This is key. Many automakers can’t afford a rear-drive sedan platform anymore including Acura, Audi, and Lincoln. The IS line adds to this cornerstone the amazing handling that took Lexus 3 generations to get right. On the IS 350, the brakes are solid and feel like those on a near-super car. Our particular tester came with the addition of all-wheel-drive. Lexus loves to add this to any car it will ship north of the Mason-Dixon line. It is unnecessary, burns more fuel, and adds weight and cost, but it does have its upside.
Sitting in the passenger seat, the IS 350 AWD feels intimate, but not small. The driver is not cramped and everyplace the driver touches the car the car is soft and welcoming. For example, the spot where the driver’s right knee rests against the center console tunnel. The front passenger has even more space and in that spot the car is very comfortable. In back, room is tight, but full-size adults can ride to dinner back there without any fuss. Kids fit fine with no front seat adjustments necessary.
Our test car had the most common packages including the all-weather package, luxury and technology package, and navigation package. The price point for our fully-loaded premium sedan was $50,165*. By comparison, a similarly equipped BMW 335ix costs about $62K. These are the best compact sports sedans in the US market, and the price reflects that fact.
Author’s note - I currently own an IS 350C and I am partial to the brand and the model, so my bias is not a secret. The cars are very easy to fall “in like with” and I make no apologies.
The Lexus IS 350 AWD and its siblings, except the convertible coupe, were all updated in late 2013 as model year 2014 cars. Lexus added the spindle grill, the much more aggressive side look, and fixed the rear end look. Sales doubled. The look comes two ways. In the IS 350 AWD the front spindle grill is apparent but not excessive. In the F Sport version, the car has a more aggressive front grill treatment some might find a little much.
The side view is where the Lexus IS really sets itself apart from the BMW 3 Series. It is more “swoopy.” There is a curved, upward sweep to the body work that starts near the middle of the car and sweeps up to the rear wheel arch.
The front lights have multiple angles and are smaller than the current trend. My test car had chromed headlight washers that stood up proud of the bumper. They seemed out of place. In prior years, these were recessed and body colored. Lexus is going far out of its way to add some type of excitement to the look of this, and all its cars.
The rear of the prior generation was a bit of a letdown. In the new Lexus IS the rear is now more pleasing. The trunk has a built-in small spoiler lip, which is nice because it discourages an add-on wing. The rear lights look good and fit the look of the car. The trunk has a small opening, but is a decent size for a car in this class.
Interior and Infotainment Details
The interior of the 2015* Lexus IS 350 AWD is now also much more visually exciting than the prior generation. The dash has many cut lines and levels. Some might say it is “busy.” I like it. The BMW and Audi cars have their very conservative looks, and Lexus wants to offer some excitement in the look and feel of its cars.
The controls all work well. Lexus uses its remote touch interface to control the Nav, audio and other vehicle settings. It works just like a mouse. I have become accustomed to this new way of using the IS, but my older IS with its simpler touch screen had its merits. I find that the Lexus models with Remote Touch seem to distract me. Make your own judgment on this.
Lexus has added an analog clock, and there isn’t a digital one anyplace I could see. This was an Infiniti styling element for a long time. One feature I did really like was the “average mileage” display. It can be reset easily anytime the driver wishes, rather than just when the tank is filled. The blinkers (turn signals for those not from Boston) are the new Euro style. One easy tap gets you three blinks. A firmer tap sets them until you turn or shut them off. I like it, but it took some getting used to.
The IS seats are firm and supportive. They are heated, ventilated, and cooled. The perforated leather is some of the best in the business. They adjust all the ways you would expect, and finding a comfortable setting is easy. They also retract when you shut off the car, and you can adjust how far they do this. The idea is that it makes it easier to get in and out.
The steering wheel was heated on my tester, something you will love if you have not tried it. The wheel is also power-tilt and telescope, and it works in conjunction with the seat. When you turn the car off, it goes up and pulls toward the dash so you can exit easier. When you turn the car back on it comes back to your setting. Three seating presets are available in case you share your IS with other drivers.
One feature I really likes was the rotary knob that allows for Eco, Normal, or Sport driving. The knob is easy to access being on the center console, and is much more effective than the previous generation’s drive selector switch. I have read good reviews of that prior generation in which the reviewer didn’t even notice the drive mode selector. In this car, it is front and center – literally. When you set it to sport, the car is expecting you to floor the gas. When you do, it is already in the best acceleration gear. The effect is that this already fast car now seems almost silly-fast.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine in this car has both direct and port fuel injection. Producing 306 horsepower, it is one of the most powerful engines in this car class. At its price point, the Lexus has much more power than you can buy in a BMW or Audi. The power is also smoother in its delivery and more immediate. I have driven both the Audi and BMW price equivalents to this car and the turbo lag is apparent and a hassle. I’ve also tracked the BMW 335i back to back with the Lexus IS 350 and the Lexus engine, though having less torque on paper, responds much faster.
Handling in the Lexus IS 350 AWD is more than confidence inspiring, it almost inspires recklessness. The flat cornering and direct steering allows off ramps to be taken as speeds that kill you in a lesser car. Last fall I had the chance to drive this exact model on the track at the Monticello Motor Club. Only on a racetrack will you find the handling limits of this car. At the limit the car understeers. The AWD system makes it hard to make the car slide neutrally. By contrast the rear drive Lexus IS 350 is much more neutral and the F Sport would be the model one could track on weekends, though almost nobody will. The convertible, which is on the older platform, is fine on-road, but it is not a track car.
The IS 350 AWD has great brakes. Beware the IS 250 which has lesser brakes. In the 350 cars, the brakes are powerful and firm. They are not overly grabby, and if they were porridge you would call them “just right.” There is no brake dive when you apply the brakes firmly. The nose of the car stays in place and ready to turn sharply.
Price, MPG, Safety, and Value
As mentioned above, the price of this premium sports sedan is just above $50K. Were one to forego the all-wheel-drive the price drops by about $2,300. As an owner of a rear-drive IS, I can tell you that the car would need snow tires for winter driving, but AWD is not a must-have. Snow tires are effectively free since they cost less to buy than all-season or summer tires, and when you use them, your other tires are resting. Snow tires will help you stop and turn better on snowy days than will the AWD system.
I configured a BMW 328ix, which has only 240 horsepower (compared to the 350’s 306 horsepower) as closely as I could to this test Lexus and the price was $50,950*. Jump up to a similarly powered, similarly equipped BMW and you will pay 20% more. The Lexus is the better value and is also the better car.
The EPA estimates that the 2015 Lexus IS 350 AWD will achieve 19/21/26 MPG city/combined/highway. My fuel mileage in mixed driving over about 200 miles was 23 MPG. On a dedicated highway loop of about 200 miles, I saw 27 MPG. By contrast, my rear wheel drive IS 350 C has a running average of 25.5 MPG over 38,000 miles, and I regularly see 28 to 30 MPG on the highway. All IS 350 cars require premium fuel. For a detailed overview of how the ‘350 compares to the IS 250 line, see our related story below.
Lexus does pack a lot of value. The cars come with two years of scheduled maintenance included and the bumper to bumper warranty is 4 years/50K and the drivetrain warranty is 6 years/70K. During that time, you will enjoy perhaps the best dealership experience of any car brand in America. Dealerships vary somewhat, but you should expect a free café, free car wash anytime, and loaner cars whenever your vehicle needs service taking longer than 60 minutes. At my local dealer, there are 45 service bays and 90 loaner cars. They are all new Lexus models. When my Lexus has received warranty or recall work in the past, the car came back to me with a full tank of gas. Certified Pre-owned customers (me) and those with cars out of warranty receive the same treatment. In fact, I get that same level of customer service when I bring my Highlander in for service. If you are considering a Lexus vs. another premium brand, you should consider the benefits of the dealership experience. Based on my own efforts to buy 3 Lexus vehicles, I have found that the buying part of the Lexus ownership experience is not special. Expect the same dealer documentation fees, and same negotiation style you will find elsewhere.
The Lexus IS 350 AWD is an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus. It beat out rivals in the forward crash prevention system testing conducted by the safety group, and it did well in every crash test including the small frontal overlap test. The car weights nearly 4,000 pounds, and is therefore heavy enough and large enough to be called safe without any hesitation. Do keep in mind that some of the safety equipment is optional. I would strongly recommend it given the dark side of one’s personality this vehicle conjures up.
The Lexus IS 350 AWD is the most popular configuration for those shopping in Lexus dealers where the snow sometimes flies. It is a much better value than the equivalently priced BMW 3-Series, and it is at least equal to the BMW 3-Series with its same level of performance. The car is a huge success, and it is easy to see why. Lexus has shed its conservative image with this car, and buyers are trending younger and wealthier.
If you decide to shop the Lexus IS 350 AWD, consider carefully the ownership experience. It is part of what makes Lexus special. Consider the fact that Lexus is usually number one in any quality survey and that this car is as safe as any its size. Some may like the other brands’ style or name badge better, but any objective consideration of this car will reveal that it is now the industry’s leading premium compact sports sedan.
The Lexus IS 200t will strike the perfect balance
Comparison test of the 2015 Lexus IS 250 AWD vs IS 350 AWD reveals important differences
Study finds Lexus about twice as dependable as BMW
2014 Lexus IS 350 beats BMW 335i in comparison test - again
*Model tested was a new 2014 model year vehicle. No changes to the vehicle we tested will occur in 2015 except minor pricing adjustments.