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Quick Drive: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Prototype

Well, things are not going entirely according to plan. The car splashes through a big puddle and the steering suddenly gets light, and it comes to us that maybe our enthusiasm has sucked us a little too far and a little too fast into this big bend on slick, rain-swept pavement with the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport.

Fortunately the boundaries here are set not by big trees but instead by little traffic cones, so the consequences of busting out of this autocross course on very wet pavement will involve only small embarrassment instead of a large fireball. And then suddenly it doesn't matter, as the 18-inch Bridgestone tires find some bite, the gentlest of steering corrections picks up the drift from the rear tires, the chassis gives a little wriggle as the car hooks up, and then the direct-injection V-6 is warbling as the car finds its way into the straightaway and the eight-speed automatic transmission begins firing off the gear changes. Let us all praise the opportunities for learning experiences offered by wet pavement.

Lexus IS chief engineer Junichi Furuyama laughs off our subsequent report, of course. Lexus has been going to the Nurburgring in Germany to test its cars for a decade now, and Furuyama is a lot more concerned with the way the forthcoming 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport feels on the long, long, roller-coaster straight down to the Tiergarten at 150 mph than in our little adventures at 60 mph in a big parking lot. What Furuyama really wants to know is if we can feel the F Sport version of the 2014 Lexus IS sports sedan communicating with us through the steering wheel.

Well, yes we can. But we can also tell you that what we feel most in this car is the struggle that's going on within Lexus to rediscover its soul.

The company has made no secret of its desire to put more emotion into its identity, and this has been expressed of late by the way Lexus has embraced the notion of pure speed. Evidence is right here in the F Sport, a new trim level for both the 2014 Lexus IS 350 and 2014 Lexus IS 250. The F Sport lies between the cooking versions of these cars and the unabashedly high-performance Lexus IS F. We'll see the final form of the heavily revised 2014 Lexus IS sports sedans at the 2013 Detroit auto show, but right now Furuyama is giving us a chance to drive some optically challenged prototypes of the F Sport cars.

The key technical improvement here is quicker response and clearer, more tangible messages from the steering, and indeed Furuyama's benchmark has been the BMW 335i coupe - the previous-generation version of the 3 Series, which he regards as a better car than the new-generation car (we're right there with him in this). The first step in delivering this kind of steering lies in a body that's ten percent more rigid thanks to the use of structural adhesives and more high-strength steel among other things. The second measure is carefully tuned steering gear for quicker response, smoother action, and enhanced on-center feel.

When you're at the controls of the IS 350 F Sport, you really feel like you've got hold of something substantial. Part of the reason can be found in a much better driving position thanks to a steering wheel that's more vertical and a seat that's located 20mm lower, plus a high-bolstered seat that feels like a deep, racing-style bucket of the 1970s. But what you really notice is the direct-injection V-6 and eight-speed automatic transmission from the current Lexus GS sedan, plus brakes that really bite hard when you lean on the pedal.

As we weaved through the winding corners of San Gabriel Canyon in Azusa (not too far from well-known Glendora Mountain Road, where street racers gather late at night), the IS 350 F Sport proved to be the kind of car that you could steer with your fingertips. There's enough body roll to let you know what the F Sport is doing, yet the car is always poised on top of its tires. A quick flick of the steering wheel also instantly gives you more bite from the front tires, so you get a second chance down there at the apex if you need it.

In the Lexus fashion, there's an extensive cast of electronically controlled features to help the F Sport deliver on its promises in every kind of situation, notably a four-position chassis calibration (Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport+) that you dial in with a rotary knob on the center console. When you select Sport mode, you get a different shift schedule for quicker acceleration. When you select Sport+ for the IS 350 F Sport, you get the different shift schedule plus quicker response from the electric-assist power steering and firmer suspension damping. And when you slide the eight-speed automatic into manual mode, you get faster upshifts plus engine blips for faster downshifts.

In the Lexus fashion, this is a lot of stuff, all of which is synonymous with speed. Yet you're always aware of the refinement that's also at the core of the Lexus identity, and the fundamental feel from the new car - the smooth swell of power from the V6 and the ride motions from the chassis - is familiar. In fact this makes us always aware that refinement has always been the key measure of a Lexus, not speed. And every thump from the rear suspension as the F Sport's Bridgestone Turanza ER55 summer-performance tires (225/40R-18 99Y in front; 245/35R-18 103Y in the rear) slap against a seam in the pavement makes us fret about whether such compromises in refinement are appropriate for a Lexus.

The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport wants to speak to you of speed, yet it also wants to retain the refinement that sets apart the cars this company has always made. The question lies in blending these two things together, and the F Sport makes us keenly aware of the way we struggle with finding the right balance point just like the engineers struggle with the same thing.

Part of the answer lies in not asking the F sport to do too much. If you want refinement in a sport sedan, we're confident that the conventional trim levels of the 2014 Lexus IS will deliver just as always. We're glad that Lexus continues to set itself apart in this way, even though it doesn't always get the respect it deserves for doing so.

Meanwhile the F Sport represents a more mature approach to speed from Lexus, one that's more civilized than the Lexus IS F. The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport is apparently the kind of car that you can drive to the Nurburgring, roar around for an afternoon, and then drive home again and go to the supermarket along the way. Furuyama tells us that he's not after an ultimate lap time at the track, but instead he hopes to deliver the kind of car that every driver will find natural and even effortless to drive in such demanding circumstances.

To us, this seems like the right kind of ideal from Lexus. We'll see if it's truly our kind of thing once we get hold of these cars for a drive, and we're booking rooms at the Hotel am Tiergarten even now.