The Wheel Deal takes to the race track and the mean streets of the US to the get lowdown on latest Lexus IS sedan
IT IS A steer-scorching Texas morning here at Driveway Austin. A bespoke motorsport training facility situated just outside the state’s capital, this Stig-baiting loop of asphalt has fielded all manner of performance exotica over the years. Ariel Atoms. Formula Mazda race cars. Even the odd Ferrari Enzo or two.
Yet today it is playing host to a completely different animal — a Japanese thoroughbred that traditionally places an emphasis on luxury rather than circuit-slaying levels of performance. Yeah, it seems like a brave move if you ask me. But Lexus is confident its new IS sedan has the mettle to do this track justice.
Especially Junichi Furuyama, the IS project’s chief engineer, who is busy pacing the paddock, his interpreter in tow. According to him this is the most-fun-to-drive Lexus. Which, when you recall past masters like the IS-F and LFA, is properly a bold statement. Fortunately, if looks are anything to go by, the all-new IS definitely has the swagger to do these words justice.
Once seen as nothing more than a bloated Corolla in an insipid business suit, this third-generation IS now packs serious Texas-sized attitude. Especially up front, where the firm’s trademark “spindle” grille looms large between a set of evilly slanted HID or full-LED headlights. It is an edgy and futuristic design that suddenly makes comparable German rivals seem, well, somewhat ordinary. Wow, I never thought I’d write that about an IS.
There is further nose-job pantomime to be had in those radical L-shaped daytime running lights that underscore the main units; like luminescent war paint below the eyes of some katana-wielding ninja. Yet the most contentious architectural feature of the latest IS only reveals itself once you tackle the car’s profile.
Twisting up from under the side skirt, a crease line slices through the rear wheel arch and leads your eye into one of the most charismatic rear lamp clusters we have seen in a very long time. Complemented by bulging wheel arches, sizeable alloys (up to 18-inches in the range-topping IS350) and giant twin exhaust tailpipes, this machine is well-versed in the language of speed. Heck, it even packs an optional F-Sport kit if you’re hankering for an extra shot of street cred.
But there’s no more time for ogling. The sun is clawing its way up the horizon and Furuyama-san is gesturing for us journalists to get our drive on. So I climb into a silver IS350 and start familiarising myself with Driveway Austin. Commissioned by an ex-Ferrari sports car racer, Bill Dollahite, the circuit emulates parts of the world’s most revered racetracks; Fiorano, Imola and the Nürburgring to name just a few.
And after just a few laps I can already feel a noticeable difference in drive quality. Being constructed out of hot-stamped high-tensile steel sheets bound together by — stay with me here — laser screw and adhesive body bonding techniques, the new IS feels considerably more rigid. Especially when blasting down a replica of Laguna Seca’s infamous Corkscrew. Also, thanks to the addition of a wider track (+10mm in total) plus a revised suspension system (the rear gets an all-new multilink setup), there’s more grip and less body-roll.
Stolen from the IS-F, an eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic gearbox fires through the cogs quicker and doesn’t feel as flustered as the transmission that was bolted into the old car. Even the trick new Electric Power Steering System, albeit heavier, telegraphs more of how the front wheels are interacting with the asphalt.
Now all of this should make the new IS a much finer steer around a circuit like Driveway Austin. But it doesn’t. For some strange reason Lexus brought along a previous generation IS350 and, after switching seats for nostalgia’s sake, it feels infinitely more chuckable, more at home being manhandled through this circuit’s demanding curvature.
And this is purely down to one thing: weight. You see the new IS, as is the case with most vehicular evolutions, has grown up. Grab your tape measure and you’ll notice it now sports an extended wheelbase (+70mm) as well as a slightly longer (+75mm) body.
This has been done to make the cabin roomier. Indeed, slide inside and you’ll notice there is more space for hips, legs, heads and luggage. Most new cars achieve this feat without packing on any extra pounds but here, and you won’t read this in the press release, the new IS faces the scales some 30 to 40kg heavier, depending on the model.
And you can really feel it on a circuit like this. For despite having all that new chassis technology, the bloat has blunted this car’s reflexes somewhat. Yep, bad news if you’re track day fundi. But which IS owner takes the car to the circuit?
Exactly. The great majority of Lexus owners will never stray off the public road network. And this is where the latest IS really impresses when you’re behind its steering wheel. Way more than its predecessor did. Away from the struggle of constant radius corners and high-speed switchbacks, this new IS350 F-Sport is an accomplished steed.
Suddenly the heavier kerb weight is no longer a thorn in its dynamic side. Steadfast composure takes the place of rubber-squealing understeer and I begin to relish every loop of asphalt that the Texas countryside throws my way. Well until a State Trooper in an ominous Ford Crown Vic rolls into sight. Then I tone it down some, dab the brakes and thumb the cruise control.
So, basically what I’m saying here is that in real-world driving conditions the third-generation IS does come across as a fun-to-drive sports sedan; one that neatly bridges the gap between the racier BMW 3 Series and slightly softer Mercedes-Benz C-Class rival. No longer having to wrestle all that mass around Driveway Austin means I can also sit back and sample some the car’s other attributes. Like that smooth 3.5-litre engine.
Carried over from the last IS350, this all-aluminium V6 comes spliced with D-4S direct fuel injection and dual VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing-intelligent) for improved fuel consumption and reduced emissions. While peak power and torque are slightly down, Lexus claims that those all-important performance figures remain unchanged.
Whatever. Threading my way past cattle ranches and lonely truck stops, it feels good thanks to lots of lowdown torque. It sounds awesome too: Lexus equipping F-Sport models like mine with a special sound resonator that feeds lots of growly induction noise into the cabin. You can also tweak this unit’s personality by playing with the Drive Mode Select system.
Switching between five preset modes (Eco/Snow/Normal/Sport/Sport+) will influence everything from throttle response, power output and shift points. Interestingly, this system also adjusts the limits of the traction control and firmness of the suspension in all F-Sport cars fitted with Adaptive Variable Suspension.
Then you get the interior. Just like its bigger GS brother, the new IS has been beautifully pieced together. Seriously, it feels like it is hewn out of designer granite. It also, in the case of the IS350 at least, and unlike most of its German rivals, comes packed with tons of standard kit. Most of which I simply don’t have enough space to write about. Electronically adjustable sport seats. A multimedia system (with Google Street View-enabled navigation) connected to a seven-inch full-colour display.
To help you control it all, Lexus has grafted in its iDrive mimicking Remote Touch Interface. But one of the most interesting features has to be the new Electrostatic switches that adjust the dual-zone climate control. Swipe your finger up or down a metallic strip on the centre console and the cabin temperature changes to within half a degree. It’s straight out of Star Trek. So too is the clever TFT digital display cluster. Tap into Sport Mode and, just like inside the bonkers LFA supercar, it suddenly rearranges itself to form a large centre-weighted tachometer.
Later in the day, back at our hotel, Furuyama-san wants to know what us journalists think of his latest creation. We all have own opinions and mine basically boils down this. Out on a track, one like Driveway Austin, the new car feels somewhat out of its depth. Especially when compared to tighter and more responsive machines like the BMW 335i.
But everywhere else, where it really matters, the third-generation IS manages to make one hell of a case for itself. I love the edgy new exterior styling. The interior is clean and luxurious and built as well, if not better, than anything bearing a Teutonic nameplate. A glance over the spec sheet reveals astounding bang for your executive buck. And on everyday mean streets, the bitumen you and I circumnavigate 24/7, that new chassis technology and enhanced refinement helps to deliver a top-class driving experience.
All of which should see the latest Lexus IS shake up the local D-segment when it lands on South African shores in June this year.
Fast Facts: Lexus IS350
Engine: 3456cc V6
Power: 228W at 6400rpm
Torque: 375Nm at 4800rpm
0-100km/h: 5.6 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 230km/h (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 10.6l/100km (claimed combined)
Price: TBC when launched in June
Edgy new looks, Well-specced interior.A good drive on everyday roads
In no way a track performer, IS250 and IS350h not confirmed for SA, heavier than its predecessor