Quality is the foundation on which the Lexus brand has been built since 1989. Parent company Toyota is a leader in this area but Lexus takes things even further, they’re almost obsessive-compulsive about. All of their handwringing… make that hand-washing, has resulted in some impressive accolades.
|1. The 2014 Lexus IS 250 is powered by a 2.5L V6 that delivers 204 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque.
2. A 6-speed automatic transmission is standard, with an eight-speed unit offered on the rear-drive IS 350 F-Sport.
3. Fuel economy is 21/30 mpg (city/hwy).
4. Pricing starts at under $37,000 including destination.
But reliability is never exciting; it’s about as much fun as a liquid diet on Thanksgiving. However it’s an extremely important part of the vehicle ownership experience, and a major reason for the brand’s sales success. To sidestep being perpetually typecast as bulletproof but boring, the people at Lexus are looking to add some excitement their product lineup. Consider it mission accomplished because the 2014 IS jolts like a space heater in the bathtub.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
The first thing anyone will, or should notice about this sporty little sedan is its expressive new bodywork. Today’s version of the IS is attractive enough, but it looks like a partially melted stick of butter in comparison to the 2014 model.
If a picture is worth a thousand words then seeing something in person must be worth a billion. Unfortunately that’s what it takes with the new IS; photos just don’t do the car justice. Still images make it look a trifle overstyled and seem to accentuate its gaping, hour glass-shaped front end, a flourish Lexus designers call the “spindle grille.” Looking at it “in the steel” so to speak is the only way to go. There’s a lot of detail in the body surfaces and they don’t really show up in a picture.
“The main thing this whole design focused on was ‘fun to drive’” said Owen Peacock, National Product Marketing Manager for Lexus. With newfound attitude the car is aimed at bringing younger buyers into the brand’s showrooms. Peacock said the average IS customer is “right around 45 years old.” They’re looking to drop that by a whole year with the 2014 model, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s a huge difference. The average Lexus buyer is in their mid to late 50s.
One particularly nice flourish on the car is a twisting swoosh that starts in the rocker panel trim and curves up along the fender and carries through into the tail lights at the rear. It adds some tension and excitement to the design and really pops in different lighting conditions. It hints at the car’s dynamic nature.
If the 2014 Lexus IS’s exterior is a grand slam its interior is merely a home run. The cabin is certainly a nice place, with lots of soft materials and stitched trim, but the design seems a little over the top. There are all kinds of surfaces, cut lines, nooks and crannies. Like the cockpit of a fighter plane there’s a lot going on.
In spite of its carnival atmosphere the gauges and secondary controls are easy to decipher and manipulate; the ergonomics seem exemplary, but that’s tough to judge that after a relatively brief test drive. Dear Lexus, can we snag a long-term IS for the AutoGuide test fleet?
The cabin’s most interesting feature is found on high-end F-Sport models. It’s a unique digital instrument cluster that comes directly from the brand’s LFA supercar. Unlike inheriting your older siblings worn-out Air Jordans this is a hand-me-down actually worth having. Its highlight is a moving center ring that slides left and right to reveal additional information in the display. Now you see it – things like the trip computer and fuel economy – and now you don’t, focusing the driver’s attention on a giant center-mounted tachometer.
There’s big news in the back seat as well. Legroom has been increased by 1.6 inches adding about 1,000 percent to passenger comfort. The car’s rearmost accommodations are now actually usable by real adults, and they’re genuinely comfortable. The front chairs are nearly an inch lower, lending to the car’s sporty feel.
The new IS is also somewhat of a pioneering vehicle for Lexus. Unbelievably, it’s the company’s first sedan with a 60/40 split-folding rear seat. And you thought there was nothing special about your 2000 Oldsmobile Alero!
THE DRIVE: ALL PLUSSES, ONE MINUS
To put the car through its paces Lexus invited AutoGuide out to Michigan International Speedway.
Compared to today’s model the 2014 car’s body has been stretched slightly; the wheelbase is nearly three inches longer, adding to trunk space and passenger comfort. Additionally, the various panels it’s constructed of are held together with more spot welds, extra body adhesive and something called laser screw welding. These changes result in a more rigid chassis and better handling.
“With a strong platform our suspension can do what it’s supposed to do” said Bill Camp of Lexus College. Engineers worked their magic, coaxing a smoother ride from the chassis along with better handling.
On track this car is a blast to toss around, especially the IS 350 model. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine is identical to the one in today’s car, putting out the same 306 horsepower, but it feels considerably smoother. A 2013 model was on hand for comparison purposes and surprisingly vibrations percolate through its floor pan like bubbles in a kettle of boiling water. These unwanted harmonics are completely absent in the new model. The smaller engine in the IS 250 also carries over.
It’s a bit surprising Lexus decided to forgo any under-hood upgrades, but it was a case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Still, the market is rapidly moving to downsized and turbocharged engines. One has to think, and hope, Lexus is developing similar powerplants.
The only downside to the driving experience provided by the IS has to do with the transmission, or rather lack thereof. Much to enthusiasts’ chagrin a manual cog-crate is no longer offered; it’s automatic only. A six-speed serves as the volume model while an eight-speed is the performance option that’s available on rear-wheel-drive versions of the IS 350 F-Sport or the Howitzer-caliber IS F.
With only around 1 point of IS buyers opting for three-pedals it’s hard for Lexus to justify the option. Thankfully shifter-junkies can still get their fix in a BMW 3 Series or Cadillac ATS; still, we’re fighting a losing battle my friends.
OBSOLETE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY
On the track IS 350 models feel fleet and frisky, but the IS 250 is a different story. These cars are powered by a miniscule 2.5-liter V6. Unlike its “big-block” sibling this unit puts out a much more pedestrian 204 horsepower. Torque is 185 lb-ft, compared to nearly 280 from the 3.5.
Putting it in motion the IS 250 is considerably slower than its big brother, exactly as one would expect. Like many small-displacement, naturally aspirated engines this one is torque-challenged. It doesn’t start to pull with any real vigor until the tachometer needle passes 4500 RPM. After that it sprints to a little less than seven-grand, then the transmission grabs the next gear and the process starts all over again. It’s enormous fun, but it all seems to be happening in slow motion on the track.
IS 250s should take about 7.7 seconds to sprint from zero to 60 miles an hour. Rear-wheel-drive versions of the IS 350 can accomplish the same feat in a claimed 5.6 seconds.
Despite the 250’s velocity deficit its chassis is every bit as playful and willing to dance. Chuck it into a corner and it responds promptly. When it’s time to slow things up the brakes chomp down like a crocodile, converting forward momentum into heat and stink. After a few laps the pads started to smell, though surprisingly the binders did not fade to any noticeable degree.
It may sound like the IS 250 was a bit of a letdown compared to its more powerful stable-mate. It was a bit lacking on the track, but drive it like a normal human being and everything falls into place. In real-life conditions the little V6 is plenty quick; you’ll probably never be wanting for power, or economy.
When it comes to efficiency rear-wheel-drive IS 250s should be able to travel 21 miles on a gallon of 91-octane gasoline in urban conditions. On the highway that number increases to 30. Those are both short of turbocharged 4-cylinder options from BMW and Cadillac. According to the EPA it should average 24 in mixed motoring. Understandably the optional all-wheel drive drops those scores by a couple MPG.
BUILD AND PRICE
Base price for the 2014 Lexus IS 250 is a little less than $37,000, including freight charges. The inclement weather advantage of all-wheel drive will set you back about $2,500 more. For the money you get a smooth-running V6, more than adequate acceleration and host of standard features. Some of those freebies include high-intensity discharge headlamps (HID), LED daytime running lights, dual exhaust tips, a moonroof and many other items. Upping the value factor, more than $1,400 worth of formerly optional equipment has been made standard on the 2014 model.
Since its introduction in 2001 the Lexus IS has always been a capable sports sedan. While never really the best product in class, it’s always been a worthy competitor. With the 2014 redesign Lexus is coming perilously close to dethroning the segment leaders. This model blends comfort and fun with refinement and personality. It exudes swagger and confidence, something the boring BMW 3 Series and conservative Cadillac ATS lack. When’s the last time you could describe a Toyota product like that? Oh right, probably back in 1989.