The completely new Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 models are so full of technology that it might be easy to overlook how well they function as fun-to-drive sports sedans.
Lexus is eager to bust out of its role as a maker of luxurious but conservative automobiles. They want to make performance and style as much a part of the marque's appeal as finely tailored cabins and cutting-edge amenities. Therefore, the target for the new IS models is no less than the BMW 3 Series. Of course, BMW is a proclaimed target for many car makers, but Lexus and parent company Toyota are not given to idle boasts or hopeless goals, and now they want to become known as the best driving machines from anywhere, not just Asia.
With that in mind, Lexus has introduced two all-new models, the Lexus IS 250 and IS 350, featuring a choice of V6 engines and available all-wheel drive.
The new IS 250 and IS 350 are considerably larger than last year's IS 300 models and they're stuffed with creature comforts. They look sporty, with bulging muscles and a purposeful stance. Their looks are backed up with genuine sports sedan attributes: rear-wheel drive and handling and performance aspirations tuned more for driving than, say, the softer, front-drive Lexus ES 330. For the most part, the new IS models deliver on the promise. We enjoyed driving them, particularly the more powerful IS 350. It's fast, it sticks in corners and it stops with authority. The IS 350's VDIM electronic stability control steps in very early to keep the driver out of trouble. The IS 250 AWD model's all-wheel drive makes it a good sports sedan for the Snow Belt.
Lexus calls its new direction in design "L-Finesse," which the company says is defined by "simple yet elegant" forms and a muscular exterior that is "sporty yet sophisticated."
We'll leave those descriptions to the eyes of the beholders, but there's no question the new IS looks sporty, carrying forward the themes first seen in recent Lexus concept cars and in the production GS models. Its stance is purposeful, with hips elevated like a sprinter in the blocks, muscles tensed, ready to spring. The nose presents the fierce glare of a car that wants to be first in line. The steeply angled hood, made of weight-saving aluminum, is framed by the determined glower of projector beam headlamps and a deep front spoiler and large intake. It's unmistakably Lexus but visually fresh.
Despite being 3.5 inches longer, 3.0 inches wider and with 2.4 more inches of wheelbase and 1.9 inches of rear track, the additional size was used to good effect, allowing extra interior room as well as a more substantial platform on which to integrate the complex suspension and numerous subsystems.
Long sessions in the wind tunnel ensure the IS slips through the air with quiet stability. In addition to the distinct aerodynamic wedge of the overall shape, a number of small details contribute to the exceptional coefficient of drag (0.28). A front underbody structure creates downforce between the front wheels, a small air kicker integrated in the taillamps helps separate turbulence from the rear corners and reduces drag, and a small trunklid spoiler increases rear downforce.
Lush with creature comfort, trimmed with upscale materials, and crackling with electronic wizardry, the interior environment of the new IS models is pure Lexus. Nothing escaped notice in the totally new environment. Even the front sunvisors were redesigned to help absorb noise.
The new keyless entry and pushbutton ignition is so handy we wish this system were standard on every car. It also removes a potential safety hazard, a dangling set of keys, from the steering column and eliminates one of the most abused components from any future repair orders.
A bit roomier than the outgoing model, the cabin is still more sports car than family sedan. A prominent central console clearly establishes the driver and front-passenger zones. The controls wrap around the driver with every gauge and switch within easy scrutiny or close reach. The new Optitron gauges are larger and easier to read than the previous cluster, and their light-saber indicator needles, "ignition on" meter movement and dynamic redline indication are cool modern.
Leather upholstery comes standard on the IS 250 and IS 350 with metallic accents appropriately placed around the cabin. The IS 250 AWD comes with perforated leather trim and beautifully crafted bird's-eye maple accents. Each piece is hewn from a single chunk of wood to ensure a perfect match from panel to panel.
The heated and ventilated front seats are a must have. They come standard on IS 250 AWD and are available on the other models. Like keyless entry, once you've tried these seats, there's no going back.
The new, more efficient climate control system features a sophisticated temperature calculation system called Neural-Net, a new humidity sensor, a micro dust and pollen filler and, in IS 350 models, a smog sensor that detects excessive hydrocarbons and automatically reverts to a special recirculation mode until the atmosphere clears.
Still, for all its quality materials and refinement, the interior left this writer a little cold. It wasn't a case of inferior design or materials, but the cockpit seemed to lack a signature element, such as Volvo's floating center console, that could have made the IS cockpit as distinctive to sit in as it is to watch race off into the distance.
Once underway, there's little to criticize. The new Lexus IS, in both rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, can do everything the safe and sane driver might ask of it. It's fast, pulls enough g's in the corners to make a seasoned sailor carsick, and stops with authority.
The IS 250 AWD is the best choice if winter weather invades your neck of the woods, when the all-wheel-drive system's increased grip is most welcome. The AWD model is heavier than the IS 350, but it hauled us over the San Gabriel Mountains on fabled Angeles Crest Highway without exposing any dire penalties due to its weight.
On a racing circuit, the IS 350 is the way to go. At Willow Springs International Raceway, the "fastest racetrack in the West," the IS 350's muscular torque and free-revving engine pulled the car around the hilly course with almost lackadaisical ease.
We drove several examples of the IS models at competition speeds relentlessly in temperatures that rose above 110 degrees and not one of them stumbled or misfired. Because of the hot, slippery track surface, the tires constantly fought for grip, but the advanced chassis electronics kept everyone on the pavement. The car's inherent balance made it easy to push it to the limit, causing the electronic aids to step in and dampen the thrill.
We prefer the automatic over the manual. Though our traditional side still likes clutch pedals and manual shift levers, the new generation of manual automatics is so responsive that it takes a really good manual gearbox to draw us away from the auto-shifter. The IS 250's manual six-speed doesn't quite fit that description and isn't quite good enough to make us opt for it in lieu of the optional automatic. The paddle-shifted automatic is mostly wonderful, though driver control is never complete to help protect it against damaging shifts.
The all-new Lexus IS models are a quantum leap forward for the Lexus brand in terms of cutting-edge style and higher levels of performance. But BMW still has an edge when it comes to claiming itself the ultimate driving machine.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg N. Brown filed this report from Southern California.
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