Every car company hates the BMW 3-Series. It’s always the benchmark, always the sales champion, always the golden boy. BMW shifted nearly 100,000 3-Series models in America last year and they did so not by being “the best” luxury sedan, but by pandering to the shopping public’s desires. Buyers have shown they want a comfy ride with a luxury logo on the front, they want good fuel economy and they want to hear journalists say how well the car handles on a track. The average buyer will never be on a track, but it’s critical to know your car belongs there. The old IS was a good car on the track, but its demure looks sold more on Lexus’ reliability and dealer reputation than the car’s track diaries. As we know from Volvo and Lexus’ sales numbers in this segment, two things don’t move metal: reliability and safety. For 2014 Lexus went back to the drawing board completely redesigning the IS sedan to be their most dynamic sedan ever. Does it have what it takes to take on the Germans and Infiniti’s new Q50?
Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way up front: the IS-F and convertible IS C are continuing as-is for 2014. Lexus wouldn’t comment on any time-frames for their refresh, but you can bet nobody in Japan wants to keep stocking parts for both generations of IS vehicles.
Lexus’ exterior styling has always stuck me as graceful, sophisticated and reserved. While that mantra holds true for the side profile of the IS, the front reveals the largest and most stylized grille, not just for Lexus, but for the whole small luxury segment. The photos above are of the F-Sport model which has a more aggressive “squiggle” grille rather than the more reserved horizontal lines of the regular IS. Regardless of the model you choose, this is one big maw. Lexus tells us the sloping profile and demure grill of the old IS, got no respect on the autobahn while this ginormous opening makes Germans run for their lives for fear of being devoured. That I believe. I tried to keep my distance for fear of being consumed myself. Whether you like the grille or not (I find it quite attractive on the F-Sport, a little unbalanced on the regular) our drive around Texas proved the grille received more looks than the old IS.
Out back, less has changed with the rear being more reserved than the front but it’s the side profile where things really change. The 2014 IS is a whopping 3.5 inches longer than the 2013 model and rides on a 2.7 inch longer wheelbase. Combined with the blunter nose which makes the hood look longer, the IS has gone from stubby to elegant. Remind you of anyone else in the segment? Yep, the BMW 3 grew by leaps and bounds last year. Unlike the Caddy designers who didn’t expect their target to shift so much, Lexus outpaced the 3 landing about an inch longer than the BMW.
Rather than evolving the IS interior, Lexus has gone for a revolution appearing to have changed absolutely everything about the IS’ interior. I’m not 100% sold on the design yet, mainly because of that enormous airbag bump on the passenger side. Unlike the Germans and Swedes that seem to enjoy using exactly the same interior design scaled up or down in every model, Lexus opts for similar cues but unique components. I give them credit for going this extra design mine but for my tastes I think I prefer something less avant-garde. But then again I own an X308 Jaguar XJ, the antithesis of modern.
Most companies would shy away from discussing their standard pleather seats but Lexus is a different sort of company and spoke at length about their NuLuxe faux-cowhide. In a further twist, F-Sport models eschew real leather for the fake. Thankfully this is one of the best leather look-alikes going and if you didn’t have a leather model on hand to compare it against you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference by touch. Smell is another thing, the NuLuxe interiors don’t have an unpleasant aroma, but its obviously not a leather smell. On the flip side Lexus tells us these are the first seats where the foam padding is molded into the upholstery fabric making the padding and the surface one unit. This supposedly will result in a longer lifetime and less “bunching” over time.
It’s hard to say what the IS would be like to live with since we had such a limited time with the car, so be sure to check back with us when we can snag one for a week. During our limited time in all varieties of IS, the front seats proved supportive with a nice range of motion although the seating position may be low for some drivers. Rear seat room has increased a much needed 1.6 inches while front legroom has gone up nearly an inch allowing a 6′ passenger (yours truly) to sit behind a 6’2 driver in relative comfort, a significant change from the last generation IS. Sadly however all that room had to come from somewhere and while some came from the wheelbase stretch, plenty came from the trunk as well with the cargo hold dropping from 13.3 cubes to 10.8 which is about 40% smaller than BMW’s cargo hold.
Infotainment & Gadgets
One item that hasn’t changed for the better (in my opinion) is the infotainment system. 2014 brings a raft of new features from traffic maps on non-navigation equipped models to predictive traffic, improved voice recognition and some slick smartphone app features. Alas, the lord giveth and he taketh away. Along with the new software comes Lexus’ Remote Touch input device, or as I prefer to call it: the Lexus joystick. Sadly I find little joy in the mouse-like controller. Don’t get me wrong, it is intuitive, I just don’t find it as easy to use as the competition’s knob interfaces and I think it takes way more eye-time off the road to use than Lexus’ old touchscreen systems. To counter this problem, the 7-inch LCD is placed higher the the dash where it looks small thanks to a housing that would appear to be designed to accommodate a larger screen. BMW’s wide-screen 8.8-inch display may not be that much bigger, but its up-close-and-personal location make it look large in comparison. In an odd twist if you don’t buy navigation you keep the 7-inch screen but trade the joystick for a rotary knob.
Since the systems we experienced were not production ready and not all the features were available for us to test but we were able to preview a number of features that may help soften the blow if you’re not a joystick fan. First up, the base IS models without navigation now get weather reports and a static traffic map updated via free HD Radio broadcasts so you don’t have to shell out for an XM subscription.You also get smartphone app integration standard with pass-though voice commands to supported phone apps. The optional navigation system sports improved graphics, redesigned menus making it easier to use the jotstick, more frequent live traffic updates and the ability to predict future traffic. The future traffic prediction feature uses historical data to show you what traffic will be like later and allow you to alter your travel plans accordingly. If outdated POI databases raise your hackles, the nav system will not simultaneously search the car’s POI database and an online POI database via your paired smartphone simultaneously and use the more recent search results.
Lexus doesn’t offer any sort of heads-up display ala BMW, but you can gadgets like radar cruise control, Mark Levinson branded audio system, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning. No pricing on how much the IS or any of its gadgets will cost, but you can bet that Mark Levinson system won’t be cheap. The F-Sport package adds one more standard gizmo that makes it an absolute must-have package: the best LCD disco dash I’ve ever seen. Based on an 8-inch LCD the display uses a physical ring (you can see it in the picture above) to frame the tachometer so it looks more like a real gauge. The F-Sport also has a party trick up its sleeve, the moves. Sliding left in perfect synchronization with the display software it “reveals” the trip computer, configuration menu, infotainment displays and vehicle info on the right. Based on a similar display in Lexus’ supercar (the LF-A), this has to be the coolest cluster available this side of the Tesla model S. Lexus, I almost forgive you for the joystick.
IS models still use the same smooth V6s as last year with the IS 250 getting (logically) a 2.5L 204HP direct-injection V6 and the IS 350 gets a 3.5L 306HP direct-injection V6. As you would expect from naturally aspirated engines, full power is delivered at 6,400RPM for both engines and torque comes to the boil at 4,800. Compared to the 3.0L turbos in the Audi, BMW and Volvo, the IS 350′s 277lb-ft is a distinct disadvantage. Meanwhile the IS 250′s 185lb-ft pale in comparison to the 255-266lb-ft from the small turbos in the same Euro trio. If that sounds like Lexus is at a disadvantage you may be right, however BMW is chasing Lexus down the power market with the 180HP 320i.
The IS 250 RWD uses the same A960E 6-speed automatic as last year while IS 250 AWD and IS 350 AWD models still use the same beefier A760H 6-speed. The big change is in the RWD IS 350 which gets the 8-speed cog-swapper from the fire-breathing IS-F bringing the IS350 up to gear-parity with BMW and Audi and one cog ahead of the Infiniti Q50 and Mercedes C. The extra gears grant the IS 350 RWD an extra MPG on the highway (28) but the city and combined numbers remain the same (19 and 22.) The IS 250 RWD enjoys a bump of 1 MPG, but only in the combined score bringing it to 21/30/24 (City/Highway/Combined.)
The reason for the slight change is that the 8-speed transmission and final drive ratios have performance in mind with a very low 16.59:1 effective first gear ratio compared to the 14.36:1 in the 2012 IS 350. 8th gear manages to be only a hair taller than 6th in the old unit at 2.47:1 vs 2.38:1. Gears 3-6 are all close ratio gears which help the naturally aspirated V6 stay in its [comparatively] narrow power band. Helping the IS 350 feel a bit more responsive the transmission fully locks the torque converter in gears 2-8 and the whole system is programmed to blip the throttle on manual downshifts.
For reasons known only to themselves, Lexus has decided not to offer the hybrid IS 300h for sale in America. The cagey answer we were given is that Lexus is “continually reviewing their product planning.” Pity, it is the IS I would buy tomorrow if I could.
Most of my time with the IS was spent on an intriguing track with tight corners, little banking and two straights where we hit 110+ in the IS 350 F-Sport RWD, a BMW 335i M-Sport a C350 with the AMG sport package and of course, last year’s IS 350 as well. The lack of an Infiniti G37 was understandable since the new Q50 is replacing it soon. The lack of an ATS 3.6 was interesting considering Caddy’s recent sales success (the ATS ranks fourth in sales YTD, behind the C, 3 and G.) Out on the track the IS 350 F-Sport RWD proved to be a very responsive sedan with excellent grip and suspension tuning that is near perfection. The variable gear ratio steering is well weighted but just about as numb as anything you’ve driven. Of course numb steering is nothing new to this segment as both the BMW and Mercedes were devoid of feedback as well. ]
The responsiveness of the IS in tight corners really demonstrated Lexus’ dedication to making every system in the IS work well together. The dynamic suspension, variable gear steering and the intelligent downshifting logic in the transmission made the IS feel incredibly nimble. The Mercedes felt just as I had expected on the track: heavy and soft. Despite this the Merc has a decent amount of grip and is well matched to the IS 350 in terms of power. Hop in the BMW 335 however and the IS 350′s major deficiency is obvious: thrust. Despite the BMW feeling less buttoned down than the IS 350, my laps were faster and the experience was more entertaining because you had to have more skill to handle the heaps of torque put out by the 3.0L turbo. While my overall lap time was faster in the 335, I noticed I wasn’t as fast overall in the sweeping straights in the BMW, and that’s because the IS feels more connected to the road, more stable and a bit more predictable. While there wasn’t an Audi S4 in the pack, I can tell you what it would be been like. The S4 and the Volvo S60 T6 put some incredible power to the ground and I love AWD, but (and this is a big but on the track), they are both fairly nose heavy and that’s really obvious on a track like this. The ATS 3.6 however I suspect would have won “journalists” choice at the event owing to Cadillac’s efforts to replicate the driving dynamics of the old 3-Series, you know, before the 335 became “American-sized.”
While the IS 350 F-Sport felt like one with the track for the most part, high speed braking is a problem area for the IS. Because of a hairpin turn at the end of the straight you have to drop from 110+ to 35 as quickly and smoothly as possible while maintaining control. The Mercedes and the 335 accomplish this maneuver without a problem but the IS 350 felt light under hard braking and on some road surfaces a little squirrely as well. In fact the IS 350 may be slightly lighter in the rear than the Germans but it’s not a huge difference with the IS coming in around 52/48 and the IS 350 51.5/48.5.
Does any of that matter out on the road? Nope. The IS 350 is a perfectly competent luxury sedan in either setting. While the IS 350 gives away something to BMW under high-speed braking, the IS 350 never felt out of control. The feel behind the wheel is excellent, albeit slower than the 335. Without pricing available from Lexus it’s hard to form a final opinion on the 2014 Lexus IS, but since it is unlikely to have changed much it should pose a good value slotting in under the 335 in price. If you can give up thrust for a more connected feel, reliability for a smaller infotainment screen and high-speed-braking feel for something more nimble in the corners, the IS 350 is your car. Until Lexus’ brand image shifts (or they jam some turbos on their smooth V6), the 3-series will continue being hated and secretly loved by the competition.
- Excellent road manners.
- The F-Sport nose job makes it the most aggressive looking vehicle in the segment.
- Coolest LCD instrument cluster. Ever.
- Down on power.
- The infotainment screen is small and the joystick is a pain.
- Fewer electronic gizmos available than the competition.
Lexus flew me to the IS release event in Austin where they stuffed me full of food and beer.