AUSTIN, TX – Lexus wants a bigger slice of the sales pie in the compact luxury segment, now dominated by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Just as it tackled these formidable competitors in the full-size segment with the LS, it has now set its sights on the A4, 3-Series and C-Class. The brand's weapon of choice for this battle is the 2014 IS.
To play in this league, Lexus realized it had to abandon its conservative ways so the new IS, in either 250 or 350 guise, is a considerable departure from its plain Jane predecessor in both looks and performance.
Longer and wider it carries the “L-finesse” design language already seen on the LS, GS and ES introduced last year.
As with so many current-generation cars, the grille is the IS's most prominent feature. Like it or not, the Lexus-signature “spindle” grille dominates the car's appearance.
Looking much better in lighter and brighter colors, all character lines of the new car flow from that grille to the rear where all models sport dual exhaust outlets flanking a “diffuser”.
The interior has been similarly updated. New seats, steering wheel and instrument panel have been oriented for a more driver-oriented position and the hip point is lower, as is the angle of the new steering wheel.
The usual Lexus-levels of materials, fit and finish are evident as are a batch of new technical developments and features, including a remote-touch navigation system, Lexus's first electrostatic climate control switches, automatic high beam assist, lane departure and blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and a 10-channel, 835-watt audio system.
The instrument panel boasts a trio of highly legible displays including separate liquid crystal displays for the “Adaptive Meter” and audio, climate and navigation information.
All models come with a standard 11-cm “main meter” display centered in the instrument cluster.
Longer and roomier
The new IS is 85-mm longer and 70-mm of that lies between the front and rear wheels, allowing for more people space.
There is 40 mm more shoulder-room up front and 19 mm more in the rear. Front seat leg room has grown by 23 mm while that in the rear is up by 41mm.
Headroom has also been increased by 24mm in front and 4mm in rear. A 60/40 split rear seat is also now available.
A new laser welding technique and extensive use of advanced adhesives has resulted in a lighter, yet stronger body shell. But because of the added length and content, overall mass is up about 20 kilos.
The new IS benefits from pieces borrowed from the new GS including a new multi-link rear suspension, Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) system and 20% stiffer front anti-roll bars.
Models wearing the F-Sport designation will be the halo vehicles for the IS line. They feature a number of unique features including their own front and rear styling, instrumentation, wheels, heavily-bolstered seats, an adaptive variable suspension and on the rear-drive IS 350 a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
That same model also gets what Lexus calls G-Force Artificial Intelligence control – a fancy way of saying lateral load sensors are used to detect enthusiastic driving, delaying upshifts during corners and increasing engine throttle sensitivity.
Junichi Furuyama, chief engineer for the IS has a background in chassis design. He told us during the global launch of his new “baby” here that the target during the three-year development period was to make the IS the most “fun to drive” vehicle in its class.
He and his team used a BMW 3-Series as the benchmark to help determine where change was required. ”At each step we tested. If we did not find what we wanted, we changed it,” he said.
The team conducted more than one million miles of testing on public roads and demanding tracks from Fuji to the Nurburgring. They spent more than 437 hours on the chassis test rig.
“Ultimately we reached a point where we defined “fun to drive” as the feeling you get when the car immediately and precisely responds to the driver’s will,” Furuyama said.
Putting theory to the test
A few hours later we were on the Driveway Austin Motorsports Track putting new and outgoing versions of the IS to the test, back-to-back against a Mercedes-Benz C350 and a BMW 335i. The fact Lexus provided competitors of this calibre was the first hint something new was afoot with the brand.
From the tight and twisty bits modelled after Ferrari’s Fiorano facility, through the downhill plunge copied from Laguna Seca and the very long back straight similar to that at Road Atlanta, the IS impressed, most noticeably against the outgoing model but also against the Beemer and the Benz.
During the on-road portion of the day we played with the Drive Mode Select (Snow, Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport S ) but left it in the latter on the track where it optimized steering weight, throttle response and shift patterns.
What stood out most was the responsiveness, not of the engine or transmission, but the way the car reacted to steering, throttle and brake inputs – especially in the case of the rear-drive IS 350 F-Sport. Junichi-san deserves a raise.
When it arrives this summer, the 2014 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 will be available in a dizzying array of models and trim levels. There are four basic models: IS 250 and IS 350 in rear- and all-wheel-drive versions.
But there are 22 other possible configurations and upgrade packages, 10 of them F Sport derivatives.
The 204-horsepower, 2.5-litre V-6 (IS250) and 306-horsepower 3.5-litre V-6 (IS350) engines, six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive system are carried over from last year. The rear-drive IS350 F-Sport gets a new eight speed automatic with paddle shifters.
The IS already trails only the RX and ES in terms of sales at Lexus. Look for it to move up the ladder with the arrival of the 2014 version.