The entry level sport sedan segment is arguably one of the most hotly contested arenas in the auto industry and not without good reason. The expectations are high and buyers expect a veritable Swiss army knife with wheels. Modern sport sedans must do it all: haul adults, haul kids, haul ass, return respectable fuel economy, impress with their looks inside and out and keep its passengers happily ensconced in a leather-clad, speaker thumping interior.
Sounds easy, right? The leader of this segment, BMW, have been at it since the mid-1970’s and all luxury manufacturers from Audi to Mercedes-Benz to Acura have tried to crack the formula that has kept BMW on top of this segment all of these years. Lexus has taken their turn at fighting the 3 Series with its IS range in the United States for just over a decade now and for MY2014 is bringing out the big guns with the third generation IS.
Lexus was so eager to prove how good the 2014 IS…errr..is…that I was invited to the historic Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina for a launch that was one part luxury lifestyle event and one part performance driving. Juxtaposed to the soft, undulating roads around the well-kept Pinehurst golf course, we would see what sort of performance scruples the new IS250 and IS350 by flinging it ‘round Rockingham Speedway – a former NASCAR oval track.
After a night of dinner and drinks with local artisans to discuss craftsmanship as it ties into the new IS, our group arrived the following morning in the paddock of Rockingham under a veil of rain – not quite ideal conditions to put a new car through its paces. After a brief wait to let the rain clear and water to drain from the tarmac, we were given an introductory lap before being turned lose to our own machinations of how best to pilot the sport sedan around the damp circuit. Interestingly, for the sake of comparison Lexus were kind enough to provide an example of the outgoing second generation IS350.
The New Design
Prior to jumping behind the wheel, the contrast of new versus old was more than striking. Side by side, the 2014 IS feels more distinctive and carries a more purposeful stance as opposed to the somewhat generic and, frankly, bland outgoing IS. The distinction of the new IS comes by way of the new trademark Lexus “spindle” grille up front flanked by optional LED-laden swishes which double as both accents to the HID headlamps as well as function as running lights. The front of car is a bit of a nod to the front of the current generation GS (and much of the rest of the styling of the rest of the Lexus range) with a similarly aggressive, angular front air dam on the F Sport-equipped cars. Moving down the side of the IS a cut line moves from the tail lamps down through the lower valence interrupting the slab-sided doors simultaneously giving a slimmer appearance to the IS and connecting the front to rear. Speaking of the rear, this is the only element of the car that feels as though it’s a nipped and tucked version of the outgoing model – stretched a bit here and there to look newer if not more graceful.
Slipping behind the wheel the interior feels as refreshingly different as the exterior. The most notable elements are heavy design cues in the center stack and dashboard lifted straight from the LFA, Lexus’ mind-bending hyper car, and that’s a great thing. The central gauge is also lifted from the LFA and while a bit silly, had everyone ogling it as it would illuminate based upon the “mode” dialed into the car.
Going from old to new, the contrast is massive with the driver-centric feel of the 2014 IS interior the front seat feel very much like a cockpit versus the slab-like seats of the old car. All controls are visible and never more than a small reach away. The cockpit feeling is amplified as Lexus has dropped the seating position by 20mm for the driver’s hips, simultaneously improving access to controls as well improving the overall seating position. At 6’4 I found the new IS to provide far more headroom while I was nearly touching the headliner in the old model. In all honesty, I welcomed the fact that the fighter jet-style interior shrank around me compared to most cars in this class that have large, open expanses of unused interior space. The IS’s interior feels well-aimed at a younger demographic which could potentially be off-putting to fans of the outgoing IS.
Upon getting seated at the leather-trimmed wheel of a crimson IS350 F Sport, I flicked the small knob to the right of the gear lever and dialed the car’s throttle, suspension and steering up to 11. Flagged through, I began to explore the limits of adhesion of the still-damp track as well as the limits of the IS350 F Sport. Expectedly – the steering was numb and fairly vague though it carried a nice weight to it at speed as I began to dial the nose into puddle-ridden corners. Unexpectedly, while the steering wasn’t as tactile as I would like I found the chassis to be quite communicative.
By having a bit of faith in my steering angle – the rest of the car would communicate via the seat of my pants to tell me how the car was responding to my inputs giving the car a very gradual, predictable feel before the rear would begin to let go. The dynamics of the car were aided by the fact that Lexus took the rear suspension of the latest GS F Sport and tucked it under the rear haunches of the 2014 IS. Jumping from new to old was terrifying, though. The outgoing IS350, by comparison, (in fairness it was an all-wheel-drive car!) was a sloppy, understeering mess around the track – almost to the point that journalists enjoyed testing the limits of how out of whack they could get the old car through a corner.
For those concerned about the dynamics of the new IS, especially the F Sport, rest assured as the IS feels up there with the best of the cars in this segment and doesn’t put a wheel wrong when hooning you’re it around a track or twisty back road.
After a morning of sliding the IS up and down the banking at Rockingham under a gloomy, foreboding sky; we took a somewhat more sedate pace back to Pinehurst. Post-lunch, the clouds parted and the sun gods smiled upon us, bestowing us with warm light along with an ample helping of Southern humidity. Thankfully, we dropped into the bolstered, ribbed seats of an IS350 F Sport and I immediately thumbed the air conditioned seats and settled in to enjoy the luxurious side of the 2014 IS350.
Wrapped in my self-cooling seat, we used the USB plug in the console to plug in an iPhone 5 and start pumping the latest Daft Punk album through the 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson speaker system. Navigating the back roads of central North Carolina, proved to be a very relaxing experience in the IS350’s interior. At low speeds the car, was quiet and comfortable (not to mention more spacious as 1.6 inches of legroom were added to the rear seats) but when requested with a prodigious right foot, you could easily summon a metallic bark from the exhaust as the 3.5-liter V6 hustled us along an open expanse of asphalt.
My only disappoint with the interior came in playing with the optional navigation system and its dreadful mouse-like navigator used to input commands into the car. Juxtaposed to the more simplistic dial used on Audi’s MMI system or BMW’s iDrive, the Lexus controller felt like a cheapish joystick that made adding a location more difficult and frustrating than it should have been. That, coupled with the lackluster interface of the system was disappointing – though not to take away completely from its merits such as a free permanent subscription to HD Radio and Real-Time Traffic and Weather updates. Lexus also threw in cool, if not a little gimmicky, features like a gauge that tells you how near or far you are to the next turn or, when the gas tank is running low, helps identify nearby gas stations. Overall, the system works well but could greatly benefit from a second look at how the user interacts with it.
In trying out the variety of cars present – the IS350, with or without the F Sport package, makes the most sense from a cost vs. reward perspective. While the IS250 is a great car but in the entry level model segment it will find very stiff competition from BMW’s split 320i/328i pricing and performance thus making the IS350 worth the nearly $5,000 premium while still a few grand less than the 335i. Beyond the options, the 8-speed automatic found only in the IS350 (rear-wheel-drive models only) proves a far better alternative to the not-so-intelligent legacy 6-speed automatic. In most cases the 8-speed gearbox, sourced from the outgoing IS-F, proved more than capable of actuating spot-on gear changes than those of the 6-speed. It’s a shame that the IS250 and all-wheel-drive models are excluded from using this wonderful ‘box.
Stepping out of the 2014 IS and looking back it is clear that Lexus has made incredible leaps forward to keep the new IS competitive within the entry level sport sedan segment. It has aggressive, younger styling while on the inside relying on a chic overhaul of the previously dull interior. The overhauled styling is matched by revitalized chassis dynamics thanks in part to the rear suspension of the GS F Sport and the trick VDIM system tying in all stability and control systems.
While Lexus missed the mark on some things like the middle-of-the-pack fuel economy (combined MPG of 24 for the IS250 and 22MPG for the IS350) and the somewhat lacking onboard system overall the car will prove an excellent counterpoint to the stalemate German rivals. The 2014 IS has a bit of something for everyone whether you’re looking for a tech-laden car to wow you or just something that can spice up the daily commute. Regardless of what you’re looking for in the new IS, it’s great to see Lexus stepping out of the shadow of its stuffy, boring persona and the 2014 IS proves Lexus’ ability to do so.
[Photos by Andrew Murphy @FlatOutMotoring]