There’s a corporate phrase that gets thrown around at Toyota and Toyota-derived launches: kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement.” That’s certainly more true with some products than others, but the phrase really applies to the new Lexus IS, leagues better than the old version, which seemed a bit stale and imitative even when it was released in 2007, and hasn’t been much redeemed by the occasional refresh. It was always the definition of a middle-of-the-pack vehicle. But now the IS appears ready to move forward in line.
When you’re talking about the IS, you’re really talking about two separate cars: The IS250 and the IS350. Both have rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive remains optional) and V-6 aluminum block engines, but the 250 only generates 204 hp, while the 350 gets up to 306 hp. The IS350 also opts for a sportier 8-speed transmission, while the IS250 settles for a less engaging 6-speed automatic; both boxes work via the now obligatory paddle shifters.
The 350 remains a far more dynamic, sharp, and fun machine, though the 250 does get better gas mileage. They’re like identical twins, but the 350 is the naughty one, a real growler, while the 250 is docile and smooth, the sensible, steady one that gets good grades. And no, that wasn’t a Sweet Valley High reference. Or maybe it was.
Regardless, I drove the 2014 Lexus IS around a racetrack in Austin last week. It wasn’t the Austin racetrack, the Circuit Of The Americas, rather Lexus took us to Driveway Austin, a humble track built by a retired racecar driver, on the site of a former industrial scrapyard. The racer told us he had the intention of turning it into “the number-one training facility in the world.” That’s a questionable claim, but Driveway Austin does have its charms. The owner has constructed features based on the Festival Corner at Monaco, the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, and a straightaway at Nurburging. It’s challenging enough, but it’s not going to eat your soul. Because of that, it served as a perfect showcase for the new IS, which is not a racecar, or anything approximating such. But it’s still a really fun car to drive.
The new IS “has more of a sports car feel,” the former racecar driver told me as the Lexuses circled his land. He seemed particularly enthusiastic about the new suspension dynamic, augmented by softened coil springs and the “increased rigidity of the sway bar.” If you upgrade to the “F-Sport” package on the 350, the dampening rate gets electronically controlled. All of it adds up to increased cornering grip and a whizzy, go-kart-like feel to the ride. They told us to keep it at 70 mph and lower, but I had the IS350 up to 100 on the twisty track, and it jumped from cone to cone as efficiently as a frog hopping across lily pads. It was fast and wicked. The 250 was less so, but it held its stance with dignity, if not with as much speed and bone-rattling joy.
We also did some casual road driving, both in the IS250 and IS350, which gave me plenty of time to evaluate the consumer aspects of the car. The exterior design is uncontroversial, except for an unimaginably triangular front grille, which makes it look like a Cylon and will probably be divisive among people who care about such things. With Lexus’ stunning LF-CC Concept teasing the design of the new IS before its eventual reveal at the Detroit auto show, this relatively conservative approach marks a mild disappointment, although the F Sport variant does push the boundaries more prominently.
Inside, the tech and convenience features weren’t mind-blowing, either, but were certainly up to industry standards. The seats were legitimately cozy and the cabin beautifully designed, particularly the F-Sport, with its faux-carbon-fiber trim and “Rioja Red” leather interior, every bit the equivalent of the BMW 328i Sport’s interior.
That’s appropriate, because Lexus has clearly tried to target BMW with the new IS. At the track, I spoke with one of the IS engineers, who confirmed as much. “The 3 Series is always what we strive for,” he said, “but I think we got close this round.”
Well, “close” is the operative word. Lexus boldly presented us with competitive vehicles at the track. The Mercedes C-class, by comparison, was a grandma car – its suspension pillowy enough to induce nausea. But the 335i clearly outperformed the IS. Not by a lot, mind you, and the Lexus was actually a tad more comfortable. But if you’re going to gauge a sports sedan by its racetrack performance, the BMW was tighter, tougher, and more technical than the IS. Lexus isn’t going to dethrone the king that easily.
For now, though, the IS, whose base price starts at $36,000 but goes all the way up to $45,000, can handle the chicanes and deliver a little sporty luxury alongside the rest of the segment as an equal. But before long, updated German weaponry beckons, and Lexus will have to activate all its kaizen power if it wants to keep pace.