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When you're a luxury car brand trying to make it in the ultra-competitive sport compact segment, you can't afford to rest on your laurels. Especially if you aren't German.
Nobody knows this better than Lexus. New for the 2014 model year is the latest iteration of the Lexus IS, the sporty sedan that's all too often dismissed as a runner-up to the BMW 3 Series. With a bold new look, sharper driving dynamics and the bevy of electronics that we've come to expect in new luxury cars, the 2014 Lexus IS holds its own on winding roads and racetracks alike.
Most noticeably, the new third-generation Lexus IS adopts the hourglass-shaped front spindle grille that first debuted on the latest-generation GS flagship, and which is, for better or worse, becoming a signature styling cue across the entire Lexus family. The Lexus IS is further differentiated by new LED daytime running lights akin to angular Nike swooshes that sit below the headlamp cluster.
Beneath the sheet metal, the 2014 Lexus IS is built on a new, rear-wheel-drive platform. The chassis has been strengthened with additional bracing and other technologies like adhesive bonding (also used on the Lexus LS), which in total make the 2014 Lexus IS more than 20 pounds lighter than the old model.
Suspension has been redesigned for 2014 for added stiffness and reduced body roll. A new multi-link rear setup not only keeps the car more planted, but, according to Lexus engineers, it allows for a bigger trunk (which is curious, considering cargo space in the new IS has shrunk). Updates have also been made to the all-electric power steering, including a revised gear ratio and improved steering feel. Brakes are still four-wheel discs, and have been tweaked for better performance.
Under the hood, the 2014 Lexus IS 250 is powered by a 2.5-liter V6 engine that makes 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It's good for an estimated 0-60 mph time of 7.9 seconds and gets an unofficial manufacturer-estimated 21/30 mpg city/highway on RWD models and 20/27 mpg on AWD models. That's nearly identical to the outgoing model's EPA ratings of 21/30 mpg for RWD and 21/27 mpg for AWD.
2014 Lexus IS 350 models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 306 hp and 277 lb.-ft., with a track-worthy 0-60 mph time of only 5.6 seconds. Preliminary fuel economy estimates are 19/28 mpg city/highway with RWD and 19/26 mpg with AWD, one mile per gallon in city driving compared to the official EPA estimates for the outgoing IS 350.
A hybrid version of the IS is available in Europe and Japan, but Lexus has no plans to bring it to the U.S.
Toyota's 6-speed automatic transmission carries over on IS 250 models and the IS 350 AWD. The IS 350 gets the 8-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission found on the current-generation IS-F performance sedan. Lexus dumped the manual transmission available on the last generation, and one marketing exec proclaimed that manuals are dead, arguing that lightening-fast shift times and predictive ability of electronics systems make old-fashioned gear-rowing obsolete.
For now, the IS-F performance sedan remains unchanged, and carries over with the previous body style.
Interior updates include a new instrument panel design, including a revised climate control panel that uses electrostatic controls for the temperature. On cars with the F-Sport package, a cool TFT display from the IS-F replaces the standard instrument cluster in front of the driver. Standard upholstery is NuLuxe polyurethane, which interior designers say holds its shape over time better than leather. Leather is optional.
Competitors to the 2014 Lexus IS include the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, although one could argue these are different animals in the same zoo. The C-Class is a more relaxed luxurious cruiser, whereas the BMW remains a true driver's car, provided the driver knows what she's doing. The Cadillac ATS is a new, but worthy challenger.
Standard features on both models include NuLuxe polyurethane upholstery, automatic climate control, power door locks/windows/mirrors, a manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with multifunction controls, cruise control, analog clock, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, first aid kit, Bluetooth handsfree phone and streaming audio connectivity, 7-inch display screen with complimentary traffic and weather information, an 8-speaker audio system with CD player, HD radio, satellite radio capability and voice recognition, USB port, power moonroof and 17-inch wheels. All-wheel-drive models also get standard heated front seats.
Options include a Navigation system with the Lexus Enform telematics system, rearview camera and real-time weather, sports, stocks and fuel prices with one-year included subscription ($2,085); a Mark Levinson premium sound system ($3,225) that includes the navigation package. The Premium Package includes heated/ventilated seats and twin-projector LED headlights; the Luxury Package includes heated/ventilated seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, memory driver's seat, leather and wood-trimmed interior, rain sensing wipers, blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert and twin projector LED headlamps.
Standalone options include Backup Monitor ($350); front and rear Intuitive Park Assist ($500); and 18-inch wheels ($935) with summer or all-season tires.
An F Sport Package is available for IS 250 ($3,115), IS 250 AWD ($2,675), IS 350 ($3,620), and IS 350 AWD ($3,180) that features special suspension tuning, 10-way power driver's seat and 8-way power passenger's seat with contrast stitching, perforated leather steering wheel, TFT instrument cluster, unique front fascia and grille, F Sport badging and 18-inch wheels. Rear-wheel-drive models include adaptive variable suspension with Sport S+ driving mode. Optional on RWD models with the F Sport package is a variable gear ratio steering, which also includes a power tilt/telescoping steering column ($400).
Safety features include driver's and front passenger's airbag, driver's and front passenger's knee airbag, front seat-mounted side airbag, front and rear side curtain airbags, Antilock Brakes (ABS) with Electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control. All-wheel drive can enhance stability in slippery conditions. Optional rearview camera can help the driver spot a small child behind the car when backing up.
The big-mouthed spindle grille is the most noticeable design change on the 2014 Lexus IS. Love it or hate it, this new face is becoming a signature across the entire Lexus lineup. Models with the F-Sport package have a particularly gaping maw, covered with mesh and uninterrupted by horizontal lines, unlike the classier, more understated fascia of the base models. Then again, much of the grille will be covered in states requiring front license plates, at least for owners who abide by these laws.
Daytime running lights shaped like Nike swooshes, or leaning check marks, sit below the headlights, which is unusual these days; most manufacturers favor integrating the DRLs into the headlamp assembly to reduce costs. On base models, round fog lamps are set into deep, angular housings. Curiously though, Lexus deleted fog lamps from U.S. versions of F-Sport models, even though they appear on cars earmarked for Japan and Europe.
From the side, the IS has a high, deep beltline that runs straight from the hood seam to the trunk lid. Rocker panels sweep up toward the rear fender. Standard 17-inch wheels look plenty big on this car, in part thanks to wheel arch hemming, or tucked-in seams along the wheel arches. This allows the wheels to be set further out, making the wheels look more prominent. Still, the F-Sport's 18s look even better.
In back, the bumper line is high, with black plastic covering the dual exhaust pipes. Angular wraparound taillamps start narrow on the inside and grow wider, with lower outside corners that sweep down and into the rear quarter panel like butterfly wings. A triangular line frames the license plate holder, topped with the high, sharp-lipped deck lid.
In the cockpit, it's instantly apparent that everything on the redesigned instrument panel is set high-up. It's so high, in fact, that, unless you're quite tall, you can't see the car's hood from the driver's seat. The logic behind this is to keep the driver's eyes from drifting too far below the windshield.
The standard 7-inch display sits at the top of the center stack and is set far back. While some carmakers are switching to touchscreens, Lexus opted to keep its hands-off setup with a separate control button located on the center console. Although this design might frustrate iPad junkies, it does cut back on reaching over and fidgeting around while driving. Not to mention it keeps the screen free of fingerprints that can make touch-screens hard to read in bright sunlight.
Real-time traffic and weather via HD Radio are included on all models subscription-free, unlike other systems that require a monthly fee. In addition, the system uses predictive traffic information, which will give you an estimate of traffic based on historical data. On cars equipped with navigation, the map will automatically display nearby gas stations when fuel levels are low.
Beneath the screen and flanked by air vents sits an analog clock, which looks a little silly for a car that's supposed to be at the forefront of technology. Underneath is an upward-slanting panel of air conditioning controls that take up a vast amount of space a plethora of buttons. Sadly, this control panel already looks dated and doesn't match the otherwise futuristic cabin design. Temperature can be changed via electrostatic controls; simply tap, or drag your finger up and down the narrow metal lines. But we found it strange that fan speed isn't also controlled this way.
The shifter, drive mode selector and arm rest sit on the driver's side of the center console, while the passenger's side gets the rectangular knob that controls the infotainment system, as well as two cupholders that will average-sized cans and bottles.
A new steering wheel comes with buttons that control a driver information display, audio functions, Bluetooth, the voice recognition system and more. F-Sport models use a configurable TFT meter cluster, the same one found on the Lexus LF-A performance sedans, which can be configured for two different drivers.
Standard seats on all models are upholstered with NuLuxe polyurethane, which designers say holds its shape over time better than leather. Lexus is so confident in the faux stuff that they don't even offer a genuine leather option for the performance F-sport version. Those who really want to plop their backsides down onto cowhide must opt for the Luxury Package on the IS 250 and IS 350 models.
Seats on all models are well-bolstered and comfortable, and a larger colleague remarked that they seem wider and roomier than the last generation. F-Sport models have bigger bolsters for even more support.
Front legroom has increased a smidge to 44.8 inches, versus 43.9 inches in the old IS. It's sufficient for drivers of nearly any size, although the low-sitting airbag compartment will force many front passengers to keep their feet flat on the floor; no leisurely crossing of the ankles.
In back, rear legroom is improved but still tight. At 32.2 inches, the 2014 IS gains slightly more than an inch and a half over the old model, but it's still nearly three inches less than the BMW 3 Series sedan. Slimmer seatbacks on the IS do allow for slightly more rear knee room. Headroom remains the same at 36.9 inches, compared with 38 inches in the Bimmer, keeping the IS back seat off-limits for anyone taller than most Formula 1 drivers. The center rear seat is best for small adults or children, or left empty altogether. In addition, the attached rear headrests make for tight rearward visibility.
Cargo space measures 10.8 cubic feet, down from 13 cubes on the last generation. Still, that beats that Cadillac ATS at 10.2 cubic feet, but falls short of the C-Class and the 3-Series sedan at 12.4 and 13, respectively. However, the standard 60-40 split folding rear seat helps open up more space for luggage and other gear.
Perhaps the best thing about the Lexus IS is that it's easy to drive. Three selectable modes on base models adjust throttle control, steering and fuel management to suit your mood: Eco, Normal and Sport. Sport mode uses Lexus's G-force Artificial Intelligence (G AI-Shift) technology, which will select the optimal gear based on information from sensors that read lateral G-force. F-Sport models have Sport S and Sport S+ modes for an even more aggressive setup.
Suspension has been redesigned for 2014 with a new multilink rear setup and sway bar for reduced body roll. F-Sport models have an available adaptive variable suspension. Updates have also been made to the all-electric power steering, including a revised gear ratio and improved steering feel. A variable gear ratio steering is also optional for IS 350 models with the F-Sport package and RWD.
The top-seller will most likely be the entry-level IS 250, powered by a 2.5-liter V6 engine that makes 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It's good for an estimated 0-60 mph time of 7.9 seconds and gets an unofficial manufacturer-estimated 21/30 mpg city/highway on RWD models and 20/27 mpg on AWD models.
On winding roads, our IS 250 handled the sweepers and off-camber turns with ease. The 6-speed automatic transmission was smooth and shifted in the right spots. The ride was relatively smooth, although we did notice road and wind noise, especially on rougher streets.
IS 350 models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out 306 hp and 277 lb.-ft., with a track-worthy 0-60 mph time of only 5.6 seconds. We found the IS 350 had plenty of acceleration and low-end thrust. Braking is firm and instant, courtesy of four-wheel ventilated discs with brake assist.
On the track, the IS 350 with the F-Sport package can make you feel like a pro, even if you dive into the apex a little early or don't track out all the way to the rumble strips. The revised electric power steering is crisp, and provides plenty of feedback without feeling overly heavy (the latter is a characteristic often favored by some boy-racers). The updated suspension keeps the car firmly planted, while allowing just enough body roll to feel where you are in space while cornering.
A comparison run in the Mercedes-Benz C350 couldn't come close. The soft brakes, light steering and comparatively sloppy handling (even in sport mode), confirmed that the Benz is best left to street cruising. That's not a bad thing, it just serves a different purpose.
The BMW 335i was a different matter altogether. One lap in this perennial favorite, and we remembered why it's the benchmark by which other performance cars are measured. With its fat steering wheel, deep rumble and turned-off traction control in Sport-plus mode, it's a machine meant for someone who really knows what she's doing. But the Bimmer isn't nearly as forgiving, as one automotive journalist from another publication discovered when he went off-roading in the 335i coming into the front straight.
The IS, on the other hand, is nearly effortless. It keeps you in check. It lets you push the boundaries but won't get out of hand. It's tossable, despite being about 40 pounds heavier than the BMW. Weight distribution is estimated at 54/46, versus the Bimmer's near 50/50 setup.
A sound generator on all models except the AWD 250 pipes in engine sound from an intake chamber. While we could hear the IS 350 F-Sport plenty well around the track, its exhaust note is distinctly different from that found on any other car in its class, and is much higher and whinier than the BMW's deep, distinctive rumble.
The 2014 Lexus IS is an enthusiast's car. Its electronic aids and easy drivability makes one feel like a better driver, on or off the track.
Laura Burstein wrote this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Lexus IS models near Austin, Texas.