Lexus IS First Drive
Despite hero models such as the LFA and exciting prototypes like the LF-CC, Lexus is yet to shed its cardigan-wearing image. The question is: will the new IS range set the world on fire, asks Paul Murrell.
The Lexus IS was a real eye-opener when it first debuted in two-litre form in 1998. Here was an entry-level luxury car from Japan you’d actually want to drive. Of course, you’d have to overcome your Euro-bias and ignore the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, and if you wanted a Benz, you’d have to find a chunk of extra cash. Times have changed, and Lexus, once a bright newcomer, has become a bit predictable. So the third generation IS has been reinvented to take the fight up to the Europeans, and the market is a lot tougher now than it was then.
First impressions count for a lot and the new Lexus corporate “spindle” grille immediately puts a lot of people off. So will the confused and unresolved front end, although it works better on darker coloured cars.
Pricing probably won’t help to make the IS a volume seller either. In contrast to many European brands, the Lexus IS prices have nudged upwards, although there is more standard equipment so the price has come down in real terms. Forget “real terms”. All you should worry about is how much your bank account will be depleted. Price of entry is $55,900 (plus ORC) for the IS250 Luxury, a comparatively modest $100 more than the IS250 Prestige it nominally replaces. The mid-level IS250 F-Sport starts at $64,900 (down $1400 on the previous model) and the Sports Luxury is from $79,900 (an increase of $3200).
The larger-engined IS350 starts at $65,000 for the Luxury, $73,000 for the F-Sport and $84,000 for the Sports Luxury.
Big news in the range is the IS300H petrol electric hybrid which will have to do battle with the European diesel models. The hybrid models carry a modest $3000 premium over their IS250 petrol-powered siblings. The IS300H runs a 2.5-litre Atkinson cycle four cylinder petrol engine as used in the CT200 and LX270, in tandem with a synchronous electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a continuously variable transmission that employs a simulated sequential gearchange effect. In-gear acceleration in the 300H is actually quicker than in the IS250. In Sport mode, a knob to the right of the steering column can be used to increase the volume of active sound control – it doesn’t really make the aural experience noticeably better. The 300H puts out 164kW and achieves a competitive 4.9 l/100km and CO2 emissions of 113g/km, both on a par with comparable European turbo diesels.
As Japanese chief engineer for the IS project, Junichi Furuyama admits, somewhat ruefully, the life cycles of the model and the powertrains are not quite in sync. As a result, despite all the good work done to improve handling, body stiffness, aerodynamics and many other important areas, the engines are much as they have been for some years. The 2.5-litre V6 in the IS250 puts out 153kW at 6300rpm and 252Nm at 4800rpm. The brawnier IS350 manages 233kW at 6400rpm and 378Nm at 4800rpm. So, nothing new there. On the other hand, while the IS250 carries on with a standard six-speed torque-converter automatic, the IS350 gains a silky smooth new eight-speeder. Neither engine will set new records for economy: the 2.5-litre engine uses 9.2 l/100km (and it’s 95RON) and the 3.5-litre engine 9.7 l/100km.
The previous model IS was criticised for its bland interior. The new one fixes that with an LFA-inspired design. There is a strong horizontal theme. The 7-inch colour display sits high on the dash and is no longer a touch-screen – just as well since it is well out of reach. Instead it is controlled with a joystick on the console, apparently meaning less time looking away from the road. F-Sport models get an 8-inch LCD display ahead of the driver, as in the LFA. The tacho can be moved aside to reveal audio, navigation and trip computer data. Now, what was that about spending less time looking away from the road?
Standard equipment is generous, although the Luxury model has been a little short-changed. Sat nav, cruise control, keyless entry and ignition, digital radio, bi-xenon headlights, heated and ventilated front seats and high quality leather are standard on all models. Base level sound system is a Pioneer 299 watt system with eight speakers. Standard on Sport Luxury models is an 835-watt Mark Levinson 15-speaker system that in blind tests, apparently fooled professional musicians into thinking what they were hearing was being played live.
An additional 70mm in the wheelbase has finally freed up some rear leg room but head room is still far from generous. There is a split fold rear seat and boot space, at 480 litres, is up by almost 100 litres over the old model. The hybrid’s battery pack (weighing 100kg) sits under the boot floor, reducing boot capacity by a mere 30 litres.
The IS250 simply doesn’t have the power or torque to overcome its 1645kg weight in anything like a sporting fashion, and this is compounded by peak torque not being available until 4800rpm. The IS300H, on the other hand, feels much more capable, with loads of torque available from low in the rev range. Then we tested the IS350 F-Sport and finally, the sport sedan label was fulfilled. The eight-speed transmission from the IS-F delivers a far more rewarding drive. Steering and chassis are taut and 10 per cent stiffer thanks to additional spot welds, extra body adhesive and laser screw welding. Working up through the various driving modes, each brings about an evenly graduated improvement over the one before, linear and easy to predict, all the way to Sport + mode.
PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS
The new Lexus IS, old engines apart, is a clear improvement over the old model and there is no doubt it will attract a younger demographic to the brand. The traditional Lexus quality is still evident, and we can only assume the bullet-proof reliability hasn’t changed. But it still just fails to stir the soul the way some of its competitors do. Maybe the new engines, when they finally arrive, will fix that.