The entry level luxury sport sedan game is mad fierce, y’all. In that segment the Lexus IS has always been the kind of car that finishes solidly in the middle of the pack. With a (mostly) new IS for 2014, Lexus aims to change that.
(Full disclosure: Lexus needed me to drive the 2014 IS so badly that they flew me to North Carolina and put me up in the Pinehurst Resort, which is famous for something called “golf.” I’m not too familiar with “golf,” but it’s on TV a lot when I’m trying to watch racing. Also, they paid for all my booze and fed me a ton of delicious locally grown food, and let me hang out with PBS’ Roy Underhill, who's a really cool guy.)
This time around, they say their goal is to make the most fun to drive car in its class. I know what you’re thinking: Fun? Drive? Lexus? Ffffwhaaaaa?
It sounds ludicrous, but under the direction of Akio “Not All Of Our Cars Have To Be So Goddamn Boring” Toyoda, Lexus seems intent on spicing things up visually and dynamically.
And the new IS has much to make up for. The first one was a conservatively attractive, compact rear-drive sedan and wagon notable for the fact that it had the straight six from the Supra (minus the turbos) under its hood. It's a popular tuner car these days, but it never really caught on with the luxury-buying masses back when it was new.
The next one got bigger and blander, and while the jazzed-up IS-F could be a hoot to drive, the car still wasn’t truly a winner in the segment. To date, the IS’ most notable contribution to the automotive landscape has been the Altezza light, and is that really anything to be proud of?
But with this new IS, Lexus finally made a real competitor. It’s a car that’s better than its predecessor in every conceivable way, and one that I enjoyed driving a lot more than I thought I would. The IS is no longer an also-ran in the luxury sport game.
Like its predecessor, the new IS comes in one of two flavors: the base IS 250, with a 2.5-liter V6 rated at 205 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, and the IS 350, which has a beefier 3.5-liter V6 putting out 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Both are carryover engines from the outgoing car.
With these direct-injected V6s, Lexus is bucking the trend of using a turbocharged four-cylinder as the base engine like BMW, Cadillac, Audi and others, but Toyota as a whole has been hesitant to embrace forced induction. As before, the IS can be had in rear- or all-wheel-drive, though the convertible IS-C version is now gone, much to the chagrin of probably no one.
To put the new car through its paces, Lexus brought us to the Rockingham Speedway, where they used to run NASCAR Sprint Cup races until about 10 years ago. It proved to be a great place to test the IS, and for comparison purposes, they let us toss around a near-new 2013 Lexus IS 350 AWD too.
The old IS' squirrely steering, awful driving position and extremely questionable brakes meant it had absolutely no business being on a racetrack, although in some ways it was more fun to drive than the new car in a weird “I’m about to crash and die LOL” kind of way, if that makes sense. YOLO.
The 2014 IS was vastly more competent on the track, as well as on the lovely North Carolina backroads nearby. The car's great balance of performance, comfort, luxury and tech toys make it one hell of a contender in this segment.
But will these improvements sway buyers from the perennial favorite BMW 3-Series or the hot new kid on the block, the Cadillac ATS? That’s the million dollar question.
Gotta hand it to you, Lexus, you made a fine looking car. This may not be readily apparent from the photos, but the new car is quite striking in person. It's got kind of the same basic shape as the outgoing IS, but the overall package is much more aggressive and interesting to look at. When was the last time you could use the words "aggressive" and "interesting" when talking about a Lexus?
I especially like the creases running along the beltline and the rear half of the car that merge into the rear taillamps, the lines of the rear door windows, and the way the headlamps and LED strips seem integrated into the body itself rather than plopped on as an afterthought, although that is up for debate with many people on staff here. It's a controversial design, so this is expected. And I know we like to make fun of the Predator face, or "spindle grille" in Lexus parlance, but I think it looks great here, especially the honeycombed version you get on the top F-Sport models.
There are a lot of reasons to splurge for the F Sport, and I'll go into all of them here.
As good as the outside is, it's even better inside.
Ever sat in the old IS? It's dreadful. It's about as generic as a luxury sedan can get, and the driving position was suitable only for your grandma's trip to church on Sunday. The interior is night-and-day different in the new car.
There's a ton of things to love about it: the low, aggressively-bolstered seats; the huge raised center console that keeps the important controls well within reach of the driver; the large interface screen that's close to the windshield so you can scan it and still keep your eyes on the road; and the big, meaty, well-laid out steering wheel, which is a delight to use.
The new IS has more of a "cockpit" than just an "interior". This is how you do the inside of a sport sedan. It's got too many cheap-feeling, Toyota-y plastics in some areas, but overall, it's a package that works.
And here's where things depend on how much you paid for your Lexus IS.
The IS 250's V6 will be, for many Lexus buyers, perfectly adequate. But as far as sport sedan engines go, it's got no heart. Lexus puts zero to 60 mph at 7.7 seconds, or a whopping 8.3 seconds for the AWD version. It's also down quite a bit on power compared to its rivals with turbo fours, like the ATS, 3-Series, and Audi A4. The baby V6 just didn't feel terribly fun to drive to me.
What you need to do, if you care about performance at all, is get the 350. It may be a carryover engine, and it may lack the turbos of some rivals, but it's a blast to use. Lexus says it will do zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, but it feels quicker than that, and it feels underrated at 306 horsepower — more like 330 or so, according to the butt dyno. Burying the accelerator pedal gives you a nice, satisfying blast of acceleration that will put you at extralegal speeds in no time.
The old IS' brakes faded quickly at Rockingham and never really felt up for performance driving to begin with. Not so with the new IS' brakes. The IS 250 has 11-inch discs and the IS 350 has 13- and 12- inch brakes front and rear, respectively, and they do a great job at stopping. The pedal has a nice, solid, confident feel, appropriate for a go-fast sedan.
On a 1 to 10 scale of firmness, with 1 being hard as a rock and 10 being taking a nap on a cloud, the new IS would be about a 6. Being a Lexus, the ride quality errs on the side of comfort, but it's still sporting enough to transmit a good amount of road feel through the car. The thoroughly revised double wishbone front/multilink rear suspension makes for a competent ride during fast driving and a comfortable one during relaxed cruising, just like a good sport sedan should have.
The steering feel has a nice weight to it. It's a tad bit more numb than I would have liked, but its heft is appreciated here. There's no trace of the light, floaty, loose steering on the old IS, and that's a good thing.
On the track, the IS showed a great deal of grip at high speeds as we went hard around a rain-soaked Rockingham. Turn-in is quick, and you can kick the rear end out if you switch off the nannies and try hard enough, but the car does feel a bit more calibrated towards composure understeer than drifty shenanigans. Still, it's an adept handler, especially with the F Sport package, which further improves the suspension.
Gone from the 2013 IS models is the ability to row your own gears. The only transmissions here are a 6-speed automatic and an IS 350-only 8-speed automatic lifted from the IS F. Both come with paddles. Lexus tells me the take rate on manual transmission IS-es was less than one percent, so you can't really blame them for not offering it on the new car.
The 6-speed box is decent, but paddle shifts don't feel especially quick or direct. The 8-speed version is a far superior transmission that addresses both these problems and is rather fun to use. As far as conventional automatics go, it's hard to imagine many gearboxes better than this.
Both work very well when just left in drive, too. But Lexus gets dinged here for the stick's operation in manual mode. It has the incorrect "up for up, down for down" shifting pattern, rendering it essentially useless.
It's supposed to be the other way around, everyone! How many times do we have to tell you this?
I got kind of a nice surprise in the audio department: the IS 350 engine was much more impressive than I would have imagined. Hard acceleration fills the cabin with a really deep, throaty engine noise that has just a hint of a mechanical undercurrent. It's quite addicting and rewarding, and it makes for a great soundtrack during hard driving. It's also better than the competing VQ V6 in the Infiniti by a long shot.
Once again, you'll want to go for the F Sport, because it has one of those sound tubes that better pipes the engine more directly into the cabin. The 250 has a similar engine noise, but it's more muted.
The 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system on our cars was a pleasure to listen to as well, with nice bass and a good full-bodied sound. The new Daft Punk album was great in the IS.
First and foremost, let's talk about the sweet gauge panel above the steering wheel. It's a combined digital speedometer and tachometer, and it's got a great design. BUT WAIT THERE'S MORE.
Hit a button on the steering wheel and it sliiiiiides to the right to reveal another screen with more menus. Hit it again and it sliiiiiides back to center. It's all inspired by the kit from the LFA, and it makes all other speedos and tachs seem lame and boring and stupid in comparison. Once again, it's only on the F Sport, and it's reason enough to spend the extra money on that package.
Much of the central screen's functions, like navigation and the infotainment system, are controlled by the clicky-mouse-joystick thing known as Remote Touch. Its menus are laid out in an intuitive way, but it's still a bit clunky to use, and it's definitely something best relegated to the passenger rather than the driver.
I think Lexus has finally built an entry-level sport sedan that's great to look at, wonderful to sit in, and a lot of fun to drive. It's the kind of car that its buyer will enjoy for years to come. But things do get tricky here because the competition is so tough.
The IS 250 starts at $35,950, and the IS 350 starts at $39,465. Add about $2,500 to each if you want all-wheel-drive, and about $3,000 if you want the F Sport package (which you will for its suspension, trick LFA gauges and beefier seats.)
The problem here is that the best IS — the 350 with F Sport — is also the most expensive. Unlike, say, the BMW 328i or the base ATS with the 2.0-liter turbo four, the bottom-level IS 250 isn't terribly satisfying.
But the IS 350 F Sport still undercuts the similar BMW 335i M Sport by thousands of dollars, and it has the reliability and customer service Lexus is famous for. That value is hard to argue with.
Engine: 2.5-liter V6 or 3.5-liter V6
Power: 204 hp at 6,400 RPM, 185 lb-ft at 4,800 RPM (IS 250)/ 306 hp at 6,400 RPM, 277 lb-ft at 4,800 RPM (IS 350)
Transmission: Six- or Eight-Speed Automatic with paddle shift
0-60 Time: 7.7 seconds (IS 250 RWD)/5.6 seconds (IS 350 RWD)
Top Speed: 143 mph
Drivetrain: Rear- or all-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 3,461 lbs (IS 250 RWD)/3,593 lbs (IS 350 RWD)
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 21 City/30 Highway/24 Combined (IS 250 RWD)
19 City/28 Highway/22 Combined (IS 350 RWD)
MSRP: Base price $35,950 (IS 250 RWD)/$39,465 (IS 350 RWD)
*Note: Pre-production prototype model tested for this review.