Maybe someone used to chide you while you did your chores. “Keep scrubbing, it builds character,” they might have said. You probably never knew what that meant. Most don’t. But ‘character’ means a lot to Lexus. So much so, in fact, that it reversed all the character lines on the 2014 IS sport sedan to flow away from the nose rather than in towards it.
|1. Two familiar engines are offered, a 204 hp 2.5L V6 and a 306 hp 3.5L V6.
2. Available in AWD and RWD, a six-speed automatic is standard on all cars except the IS350 RWD, which uses an 8-speed auto.
3. Fuel economy ranges from 21/31 mpg (city/hwy) for an IS250 FWD to 19/36 for an IS350 AWD.
4. F Sport models include a larger front grille and front bumper air intakes, 18-inch wheels, upgraded brakes, a Sport+ mode that can adjust the variable ratio steering and adaptive suspension, an LFA-inspired gauge cluster and numerous other interior trim upgrades.
Like in so many Lexus products, an available F Sport package adds a more gaping grille, large lower intakes and special wheels. There’s also more on tap with the F Sport package depending on which powertrain you opt for — but that will come into play later.
The rear end also gets the same shapely redesign with taillights that wrap around the car’s flared wheel arches. Even if you don’t pick the F-Sport package, there’s still a lot to love about newest Lexus.
Standard exterior equipment includes HID headlights, although those can be swapped for LEDs to match the accents underneath. You’ll also get 17-inch alloys with the option to trade up to 18- or even 19-inch wheels.
Standard styling for the grille isn’t bad, but sitting beside the F-Sport version it starts to look stodgy.
DRIVETRAIN DISAPPOINTINGLY UNCHANGED
For a car with such radical bodywork, hoping for more under the hood would seem reasonable. But Toyota, Lexus’ parent brand, seems to love letting engines stagnate.
For example, it unveiled the new line of Toyota pickup trucks in Detroit with nary a nick of a change.
Similarly, you’ll get the same 2.5- and 3.5-liter V6 engines as the old cars with unchanged output.
That means 204 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque for the 2.5-liter or 306 hp and 277 lb-ft with the 3.5-liter unit.
Sprinting from 0-60 mph happens in a solid 5.6 seconds with the larger engine, though it takes an uninspiring 7.9 seconds with the small V6. That’s a disappointment, especially when you consider that Lexus seemed so intent on unseating the BMW 3 Series.
Those engines are OK, but they can’t compete with the torque from the turbocharged BMW powerplants – or their fuel economy. While the 335i’s thrust makes it noticeably faster, both six-cylinder competitors are so fast it almost doesn’t matter.
The base engines offer the most obvious gap, with the IS250 a downright bore, dropping 75 lb-ft of torque to the 328i.
As for fuel economy, it’s not even close, the BMWs, on average, getting 3 mpg better on the highway and a touch better in the city.
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DRIVE MODES HELP CUSTOMIZE YOUR RIDE
The new IS does, however, gain enhanced drive modes, the first of which is the Sport setting.
For the first time, that mode includes Lexus’ G force Artificial Intelligence shift control. When engaged, it chooses the optimal gear based on measuring the car’s G forces.
Enthusiasts will probably prefer to pick their own gears in manual mode via the paddle shifters, though even they will be pleasantly surprised by the system.
Ramp it up to the IS 350 F Sport and you’ll get “Sport +” mode that puts the adaptive variable suspension at its firmest. Calling the car hardcore is a bit of a misnomer but the rear-wheel drive model would be the hardest, and it also gets variable gear ratio steering — something the all-wheel drive version doesn’t.
Choosing to use or ignore the “Sport +” mode is a lot like being an athlete and skipping dinner before game day. You’ve got all the same parts there, but they aren’t in use.
Ripping around a racetrack, there’s no mistaking how significant that extra wind is in your sails. Side-by-side with one car in Sport and the other Sport + mode, the two cars simply don’t compete despite being mechanically identical.
You get the 3.5-liter V6 in its fully potent state. Acceleration is smooth and the exhaust pipes shout a satisfying report as you climb to redline.
The note in the cabin is pleasing too thanks to an intake sound generator on the IS 250 F-Sport model and on all IS 350s.
Of course, there’s also an eco mode too, but do you really care?
TRACK CAPABLE BUT STILL NOT A RACE KING
Going fast in a straight line is nothing if you can’t slow down or steer. Thankfully the 2014 IS does both to high levels.
Sitting in a side-by-side-by-side comparison with a Mercedes C350 sedan, the rear-wheel drive IS 350 F Sport and a BMW 335i, the IS slots squarely in the middle.
Driveway Austin, the track Lexus selected for slews of journalists to test its new sport sedan, offers an almost straight sprint leading up to a double apex turn before doubling back. It’s more than enough room to climb past 110 mph approaching the double apex before dancing through the turn and hopping back up to speed.
Lexus outpaced the rather un-dynamic C-Class around the track with ease. Cornering is firm and steering stiff, although it isn’t rambunctious like the 3 Series.
It’s unfortunate that Lexus dismissed the manual transmission option with this generation, due to poor market penetration, though considering it was only offered on the 250, it’s no real loss.
VASTLY IMPROVED, HIGH TECH INTERIOR
Solid interior quality and the Lexus brand name are almost synonymous, and the new IS builds on that reputation.
The cabin is intuitive and the controls are simple to use. Two touch-sensitive vertical metal strips govern dual-zone climate control and changing the temperature is precise.
Those familiar with recent Lexus products will find the same computer mouse-style pad to navigate through multimedia features. It’s easy to use and delivers haptic feedback as you pass over clickable items on the screen.
Weather and traffic updates are piped in subscription free via HD radio; even in models without navigation — the updates just don’t come in as frequently and you can’t zoom in on the map.
Heated seats are offered as standard equipment on all-wheel drive models while cooled seats are always an option — except for F Sport cars, which can’t come with chilled bum buckets.
F-SPORT IS F-ING COOL
That might be a disappointment for buyers who see the F Sport as the top-trim package, but there’s a silver lining.
Those cars also come with an LFA-inspired gauge cluster that physically slides over at the push of a button to show more of the eight-inch TFT display. Watching it in action you can’t help but feel as though you’re behind the wheel of something very special.
F-Sport models deliver what might just be the best interior in this class with special sports seats, metallic accenting, aluminum pedals and door scuff plates, a custom F- Sport steering wheel and an available Rioja Red “NuLuxe” material — leather upholstery is unavailable on F Sport models.
Safety features like blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic alert systems are all available, but as options. Required safety features like traction control and airbags are there, but Lexus isn’t tossing in any fancy safety tech for free.
An eight-speaker sound system comes with the car, but there’s an optional Mark Levinson system that crams 15 speakers and is part of the luxury package.
That also adds LED headlights, blindspot monitoring, memory seats and rain-sensing wipers; other items like wood trim and cooled seats too.
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Should you buy one? Without pricing, it’s tough to say. While most models are certain to be close in line with last year’s car, the real question is if the “gotta have it” F-Sport model with its rear-drive setup, 8-speed transmission and extra toys is excessively pricey.
With money still a murky question, there’s really only one conclusion to come to. This is the most dynamic, best equipped IS to date.
It doesn’t compete with cars like the BMW 335i from a performance perspective, but the Lexus is still plenty fun to drive, has some dramatic road presence and is significantly more luxurious.