New Lexus IS aims for luxury performance fans

 READY TO RUMBLE: The 2014 Lexus IS, including the FSport version (shown above), has a wider look, expanded spindle grille, and performance enhancements that make you hit the straightaway. (Bill Griffith)
READY TO RUMBLE: The 2014 Lexus IS, including the FSport version (shown above), has a wider look, expanded spindle grille, and performance enhancements that make you hit the straightaway. (Bill Griffith)

ROCKINGHAM, NC—Imagine you’ve got the accelerator pedal to the floor as you glance to your right and see a North Carolina state policeman riding alongside.You just know you’re in serious trouble.

This was for real, not a scene from a TV show like the iconic“Dukes of Hazzard.”

Naturally, sometime in my youth I doubtless dreamed about driving a muscle car like The General Lee, the Dodge Charger used in the show, and wondered what my chances would be of escaping the clutches of Boss Hogg’s sheriffs.

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But there was no getting away this time. Especially since Detective Robert Heaton of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in Rockingham, NC, was in the passenger seat of this pre-production version of the coming 2014 Lexus IS F Sport. Heaton was doing his best to teach me how to get the most out of the coming IS, a car Lexus hopes can bite into the BMW 3 Series’share of the sports sedan market.

We’re driving on the Rockingham Speedway, formerly known as North Carolina Speedway.These days the top NASCAR racing series, the Sprint Cup, has abandoned Rockingham, one of its long-time stops, in favor of biggerTV markets. But there’s still a top-level racing facility here featuring lower-tiered series.

First Drive: Det. Heaton and Capt. Jay Childers took the wheel of this IS fleet to give us familiarization laps over the course before we are turned loose.We’ll be driving a current model 2013 IS 350 all-wheel-drive and a half-dozen of the coming 2014 models.These include both IS 250 and 350 RWD and AWD, along with an F Sport performance version.

I was riding shotgun when Capt. Childers asked his three passengers: “Do you want a comfortable lap or a fast one?”

We opted for the fast trip, and Capt. Childers obliged.

He was driving the 2014 IS F Sport—the best-handling of the new IS lineup—and toured the layout a lot faster (and safer) than I thought possible. Maybe that’s because he and Det. Heaton are driving instructors for the department and train new officers coming out of the police academy.

After chatting with the officers for a short time, I had one of those eureka moments.

There were two factors at play here.

1. I’m not an experienced racetrack driver or evenaregular autocross participant.

2. These guys are professional teachers who’d just be watching us splash through the puddles as the track dried out from overnight rains.

“Why not admit you’re a rookie and ask one of the officers to ride along?” that little voice in the back of my head offered. Why not, indeed?

That’s how Det. Heaton wound up riding with me. The course wasn’t difficult.We started midway along the pit lane (on the extended start/ finish line), followed the pit lane exit out on the apron ofTurns 1 and 2, then merged onto the back straightaway (heading up towards a sign on the wall that said Thunder Road).

Just before the end of that back straight we took a 180-degree left turn onto the road course, heading back towardTurns 1-2, then did a 180-degree right turn down the middle of the track’s infield, before a right-left combination brought us back out to the apron on Turn 4 and back into the pit lane.

Det. Heaton was great at advising how to set up the corners, when (briefly) to brake, and when to hit the throttle (way sooner in the corners than I’d have done on my own).

It all added up to a very un-Lexus-like experience.Lexus has a recognizable DNA with the dominant traits being luxury, reliability, cutting-edge technology, and strong-but-understated performance. Track competency hasn’t been on that list. Nor has a nice exhaust growl, though in this case the Lexus’s legendary quiet cabin even insulates passengers from that until the accelerator is hit hard.

The new IS 250 and 350 models are designated by their engine size, either the 2.5-liter 204 horsepowerV-6 or the 3.5-liter (210 cubic inch) 306 horsepowerV-6. Either can come with a RWD or AWD configuration.

A big styling change is the move to HID or LED headlamps, which are quite narrow. Seen coming at you from behind, the IS appears to be squinting and meaning business. In front, there are the now-signature L-shaped (for Lexus) running lights.The tail lamps also now contain an L-shaped LED array.

Clearly, the King of the Lexus Hill, and the designated 3-Series challenger, is the IS 350 with the $3,180 F Sport package that adds adaptive variable suspension (AVS) with a Sport S+ drive mode.

Prices will vary, from the $37,000 range for a lightly optioned IS 250 RWD to near $47,000 for an F Sport.

Lexus fans will recognize the F Sport configuration by a full-mesh version of the marque’s large spindle grille. However, it’s the electronically controlled adaptive suspension that makes the F Sport so drivable for an average driver under such extreme conditions.

Switching to Sport S+ driving mode alerts the electronics that you may be putting them to work, adjusting the AVS, throttle, and transmission shift response as well as steering feel—especially if its equipped with a $400 option called variable gear ratio steering (VGRS).

The average person, one who considers the BMW to be the“Ultimate Driving Machine,” won’t be quick to recognize the F Sport, at least for a while.That might encourage the CPA who lives next door to you (and likes a low profile) to come home with a new Lexus IS.

“Nice, appropriate, reliable car for a conservative fellow,” the neighbors might think.

Meanwhile, he’ll smile and hope he doesn’t run across Det. Heaton or Capt. Childers riding alongside him—with blue lights flashing.