Which will it be, a glass, or a pint? If I say “premium sport sedan” where does your mind go? To BMW probably, which means those billboards are working. That class of car usually draws us to Germany, because it created the market and maintains a large ownership of it.
But an unsung hero of that group is the Lexus IS F-Sport; willing chassis, limited slip diffs, revised transmissions, RWD, and Lexus reliability. In any engine trim (250, 350, or F) this car is a leather-covered hammer that provides miles of comfortable fun, sideways, if you’d like. If I was going to buy a car in this class with the intention of owning it for 10 years (i.e. beyond warranty), it would be an IS.
The question is: which one do you buy? They come in 3 trim levels: IS250, IS350, and IS-F, with power and price increases accordingly. Today I’m going to compare the first two, the more responsible and frugal (in terms of gas and price) of the three; brothers F-Sport, IS250 and IS350.
We’ll start with the 2013 Lexus IS250 F Sport. The regular Lexus IS250 starts at $35,000 (MSRP), and for that you get a reliable 4-door with a 204HP 2.5-liter V6. It’s a good car, but it’s nothing special.
However, check the “F-Sport Package” ($2,440) and the car is transformed. Tighter suspension, bigger wheels and tires, heated sport seats, a sportier steering wheel and a wardrobe of add-on body pieces. The base car looks a bit tall and placid, but the F-Sport trim fills it in and gives it some attitude. It turns heads. The steering wheel gives you mischievous ideas and the power seats are comfortable on trips and grippy in the corners. If you’re buying an IS, this is how it should be.
No changes are made to the engine, which, when compared to the turbo 4 of the new 328i, is slow. Smooth, but slow. But as I ran it up and down the canyons of Malibu, it was forgiven. This car is a very competent driving machine. It feels the way the BW 3-series used to: tight, darting like a sheep dog. The car feels light on its toes, the steering rack is quick, and there’s lots of grip. Access to a skid pad taught me that the 250 moonlights as a drifter. Handsome, comfortable, and a hoon; it makes the most of its small (engine) stature.
Now, if the world were satisfied by light power and good chassis, we’d all be driving Mini coopers and Miatas. But where a small engine sits, a bigger one is available, hence the 2013 Lexus IS350 F-Sport. The engine is almost 50% bigger (3.5-liters), is 50% more powerful (308HP/277tq.) yet the car is only 100lbs heavier. The MPG is still good too: 27hwy to the 250’s 30.
The 350’s F-Sport package mirrors the 250’s exactly (incl. price), even using the same tires. The interior is the same as the 250, aging controls activating modern tech (The sticker says “2013”, but the buttons tell friends “2010”).
And yet it feels quite different. Not just faster (it is), but more substantial. 300HP doesn’t mean a lot to Internet trolls, but on planet earth, it’s plenty of speed, enough for smoky burnouts and uphill charges. But it’s not just that. It feels like another layer of metal has been laid over the entire car. It’s a little quieter, a little more solid. It feels bigger, even though it isn’t. It feels more, Lexus?
As the 2014s roll out, both these cars become smart used buys. I will not buy a BMW out of warranty, but a Lexus? No problem. Put oil in when you feel like it.
At $46,000, the IS350 was $4,000 more than it’s smaller sibling, but I bet that margin has shrunk on the used market, making it a bargain. The IS250 is smart fun, a commuter you can drift, but one taste of the 350’s power and you can’t go back. For a 3MPG donation, you get 100HP, without any real loss of fun or reliability. Sold.
(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Lexus.)