By Jim Bray
Automotive technology and fashion never stops moving for long and so it was probably past time for the Lexus IS (Click on the image to open a slide show) to go through a Doctor Who-type regeneration.
Not that the previous generation of the IS sedan wasn't a fine car but, other than the introduction of the supposed 3 series beater IS-F, it hadn't been upgraded seriously since its introduction for the 2006 model year. It was aging gracefully, though, so gracefully that when it came time for a regeneration, the meat under the skin wasn't changed too much.
Just like Doctor Who. The famed, half century old British sci-fi series changes lead actors periodically, but the core of the character doesn't change. It's the same Time Lord, just zipping around space-time in a different body with some different personality quirks.
So it is for the IS, mostly. For 2014 the IS sports an all-new and more athletic skin that's not nearly as conservative as the still-quite-fetching last gen. Available in a dizzying 22 different versions, including the F SPORT package of Lexus Canada's sample vehicle, it appears there's an IS for everyone.
The main configuration choices are between the IS 250 and the IS 350, the names of which reflect the size of their respective V6's. You can also order rear or all wheel drive.
The new skin is apparently designed to showcase a feeling of passion, and it's a good looking car overall. Alas, it starts up front with an awful "spindle" grille that looks kind of like the face of the alien villain from Predator when it opens up wide near the end of the movie. Well, maybe not quite that frightening, but it's a bizarre look Lexus is inflicting on all its vehicles, but no other Lexi are so in your face as the IS. Yet, anyway.
The LED daytime running lights look great, however. Add in some creasing on the side and attractive but unusually-shaped taillights and you have a car that's recognizable as an IS, but fresh and clean at the same time.
Under the skin there's new steering and rear suspension Lexus says was "inspired" by the larger GS, which is no slouch itself.
Inside the IS is a whole new interior as well, and it's Lexus state of the art, including (with the F Sportpackage of Lexus Canada's sample, anyway) the company's Remote Touch that lets you control stuff via the LCD the way you'd control your computer with a mouse. It works, but it requires attention spent better on the road. Fortunately, there's also voice recognition, though that state of the art isn't yet where it should be regardless of manufacturer.
You still can't beat a good touch screen with big, logically programmed virtual buttons! On the other hand, that would require putting the LCD close at hand, which would require a drastic rethinking of many vehicle interiors, including the IS'. As designed now, the IS' LCD is nice and high and close to your field of view, but it wouldn't work as a touch screen because it's too far away from the driver.
The neatest thing about the new IS' "driver-focused" interior is its LFA-mimicking instrument panel, which is gimmicky but very cool. It features a sliding aluminum-trimmed bezel and digital readouts; you can slide the integrated "analog" tacho/digital speedo over to the right to reveal more digital readouts, and if you put 'er into Sport mode, the circumference of the tachometer changes color. It's nifty as all get out, though you could just as well leave the thing "slid" all the time and have all the readouts available constantly.
But if you're looking for something whiz bang to show off to your friends, this is it.
Lexus has lowered the driving position, which makes you feel more a part of the driving experience, and other than the LCD, all controls and instruments are easily at hand. The seats are very comfortable and the rear seat can be ordered as a 60/40 split/fold version for extra versatility. The front seats offer eight-way power adjustment and, of course, heating. Lexus claims there's more interior room in this generation of IS as well.
You can choose from user-selectable drive modes (normal, eco, and sport) and, naturally, the sportiest setting creates the most invigorating drive; it adjusts the throttle control and the electric power steering to give a more performance-oriented response to your input. The IS 350 F Sport apparently ups the sport ante with a Sport Plus mode that does even more tweaking.
The F Sport package offers a lot of other wrinkles, too, some of which are cosmetic and some which are performance-oriented. In the cosmetic department is an exclusive front grille (it's the same awful spindle, but with mesh) and a front bumper that features an enlarged lower opening to help cool the brakes. In the performance department are such stuff as a performance-tuned suspension and (available) Adaptive Variable Suspension. You also get special 18 inch wheels that are darn attractive.
F Sport front seats are lightweight "NuLuxe" and they hold onto you nicely in the twisty bits.
The multi-level dashboard isn't an F Sport exclusive, but it looks really nifty anyway and it also sports "Lexus first" electrostatic controls for the HVAC adjustment. They work well.
Other interior features include dual-zone automatic HVAC, a decent eight-speaker Lexus premium audio system with satellite radio, USB audio input, Bluetooth connectivity (phone and tunes) and steering wheel-mounted controls. Lexus SmartAccess key system offers push button start/stop and there's also an integrated garage door opener for those with integrated garages.
There's even a classy analog clock.
The IS 250 is a terrific car but, direct injection and other state-of-the-art enhancements notwithstanding, the 2.5 liter V6 just doesn't cut it. Its horsepower/torque ratings of 204/184 just don't provide enough oomph for a V6-powered sports sedan in 2013/14. Compare it with the Acura TSX, one of its direct competitors, which gets 201/170 hp/torque out of a four cylinder engine, and you get the idea.
There's an easy solution to this, of course: the IS 350, whose 3.5 liter V6 is rated at 306/277 horses/torque. That's definitely competitive: the V6 TSX put out 280/252 hp/torque, while the new Infiniti Q50, cranks out an even more interesting 328 horses and 269 ft.-lb.. The BMW 335i's inline six puts out 300/300, which means the IS 350 is smack dab in the middle, where it probably should be.
IS 250's get a six speed automatic transmission, with paddles, and it's good - though it tended to hunt and peck a tad when we drove it into the Rocky mountains. IS 350's get the slick eight speed tranny from the old IS-F, and that transmission was a delight. Lexus says the F Sport package can also be ordered with "G-AI control," which matches shifts to the G-forces generated during cornering.
Naturally, the brakes are discs on all four corners, with ABS and the rest of the usual aids. Headlights are of the HID persuasion, with washers.
Safety features other than the automatic headlights and Bluetooth include eight airbags, an onboard first aid kit and six active safety technologies including "Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution."
The 2014 Lexus IS starts at $37,300, which is pretty good as long as you aren't looking to peel away from stop lights. The IS 250 AWD has an entry price of $39,900, and Lexus Canada's sample also included the F Sport Premium Package worth $6,250. It added stuff such as heat for the special F Sport steering wheel, voice-activated hard disk-based navigation system with the Remote Touch thingy, backup camera, power moonroof and more.
On the other hand, the IS 350 starts at $44,500, with the AWD version kicking off at $44,000. You can option them up from there.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
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