Cars

2014 Lexus IS takes a joy ride

With its redesigned third-generation IS sedan, Lexus throws down a familiar gauntlet: It wants to build the most fun-to-drive sport sedan in its segment. Yeah, but so does everyone else—and every major luxury brand, from Acura to Volvo, has a gladiator in this arena. The IS has its moments, but Lexus doesn’t drub the class on the fun-to-drive scale.The car’s strengths extend beyond that, however.

The 2014 IS 250 and IS 350 sedans go on sale this summer. As before, either car comes with rear- or allwheel-drive, with sportier F-Sport packages optional for either car. At a press preview in Austin, Texas, I drove various rear-drive configurations of the IS 250 and IS 350.

The IS’ headlights steal attention from Lexus’spindle grille, which now graces almost every car in the brand’s lineup. The headlights sort of melt into the front bumper, with a swoosh of LED daytime running lights strung a few inches ahead.

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The IS cabin features overlapping layers and splashes of upscale stitched vinyl—a welcome improvement over the Toyota Camry-grade molded faux stitching in the Lexus ES. Materials are decent, with consistent graining toward the center console and optional real wood trim. The shoe drops on materials below knee level, but the IS has eye candy where you see it.

Atop the dash, a standard 7-inch display governs the CD stereo, which includes HD radio, USB/iPod integration plus Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Lexus’ available Enform system integrates various apps—Bing, Facebook Places, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora, and Yelp—from compatible smartphones.

Lexus’ NuLuxe vinyl upholstery is standard, with leather seating optional. Most sport sedans have gone that way for years, though the Audi A4 and Acura TL beat the norm with standard leather. Lexus fakes it well.Minus the faint smell of cowhide, the NuLuxe looks and feels like its pricier counterpart. Eight-way power seats are standard, with a longer adjustment range this year. They should suit drivers of all sizes; my 6-foot 6-inch co-driver even said he had enough room.

Overall cabin volume is now 90.2 cubic feet; that’s up a significant 4.5 cubic feet from the last IS. Lexus cites a full inch of extra headroom and 1.5 inches of extra shoulder room up front, plus 1.6 inches of additional rear legroom. Adults should find backseat legroom fine.

A standard 60/40-split folding backseat replaces last year’s fixed seat, a welcome addition given that competitors like the Acura TL still have a fixed seatback. It’s a high point for an otherwise diminished cargo situation. Trunk room measures 13.8 cubic feet, an increase over last year’s 13 cubic feet and high for the segment.

The F-Sport Package has highbolster sport seats that are supportive and comfortable. Citing leather as too slippery for performance driving, Lexus offers them only in NuLuxe. Slippage be damned; Lexus should offer leather in the F-Sport. Other differences include a unique steering wheel, more faux-metal accents, and an LCD gauge cluster inspired by Lexus’shortlived $375,000 LFA.

The segment has largely moved toward turbocharged four-cylinder engines, as in the A4, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and BMW 3 Series. There’s something to be said for a normally aspiratedV-6, evenasmall one. The 204-horsepower IS 250 has linear, if modest, power delivery. It’s pokier than the torque-rich competition, but you always know what you’re getting with the V-6; some turbo fours deliver peaky, uneven power. (I’m looking at you, Mercedes.) The IS 250’s six-speed automatic has to work harder to keep up the pace; it’s sometimes hunting gears to make the most of the engine’s modest 185 pounds-feet of torque.

Lexus expects just one in five IS buyers to choose the 306-hp IS 350. That’s a shame. It’s a capable car with strong acceleration and overall EPA mileage just 2 mpg worse than the IS 250. All-wheel-drive IS 350s have a six-speed automatic, and the rear-drive IS 350 now gets an eight-speed auto. The engine employs both direct and port fuel injection—two injectors per cylinder— and the result lends strong, muscular acceleration through the eight-speed’s short middle gears.

Suspension changes should have liberated the third-gen IS from its predecessor’s choppy ride, but I question whether they did. Driving the new Lexus and its predecessor back to back, I observed no clear differentiation. The C-Class and softer versions of the 3 Series ride better, and the cruising-oriented Volvo S60 beats the whole crowd.

But Lexus shines in rapid elevation changes, staying poised in up-and-down pavement where some float. All IS models get Lexus’ Drive Mode Select system with Eco, Normal, and Sport modes that affect power-steering response, drivetrain sensitivity and, in the case of Eco, air conditioning.

The IS has not yet been crash-tested. Ten standard airbags include a twin-chamber front passenger airbag, which aims to reduce facial contact. The required electronic stability system and antilock brakes are also standard. Safety options run the luxury gamut. Blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic highbeam headlights, and lane departure warning are optional. So is adaptive cruise control with a forward collision warning system and automatic braking at the point of no return. Like all such systems, it aims to mitigate, not necessarily prevent, collisions.

Lexus will release pricing closer to the IS’ on-sale date this summer. Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon highintensity-discharge headlights, keyless access with push-button start, a moonroof, power front seats with NuLuxe vinyl upholstery, and a USB/ iPod-compatible stereo with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Leather, heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel with power tilt/telescoping adjustments, a backup camera, front parking sensors, a navigation system, and the aforementioned safety tech are optional.

Lexus claims the IS has younger customers than the 3 Series, A4, or C-Class. The car’s practical improvements should boost its appeal to that crowd, which may weigh the drivability aspects less. Lexus won’t conquer the segment with the new IS, but the results should still find enough new buyers.

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