Wednesday, June 5, 2013

First Look: 2014 Lexus IS Sedan

For Atlanta Auto Beat

PINEHURST, N.C. -- The entry level sport sedan segment is one of the most hotly contested arenas in the auto industry, and with good reason. Modern sport sedans must do it all: haul adults, haul kids, haul ... well, let's say go fast, and return respectable fuel economy and impress with their looks inside and out.

Lexus has had its IS model in the United States for just over a decade and for model year 2014 is bringing out the big guns with the third generation of the car.

Lexus was so eager to show off the 2014 IS that I was invited to the historic Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina for a launch that was one part luxury lifestyle suarez and one part performance driving event. We would see what sort of performance chops the new IS250 and IS350 have by flinging them around Rockingham Speedway - a former NASCAR oval track.

Prior to jumping behind the wheel, the contrast of new versus old was more than striking. Side by side, the 2014 IS feels more distinctive and carries a more purposeful stance as opposed to the somewhat generic and, frankly, bland outgoing IS, which was on display. The distinction of the new IS comes by way of the new trademark Lexus “spindle” grille up front flanked by optional LED-laden swishes which double as both accents to the headlamps as well as function as running lights. The front of the car is a bit of a nod to the front of the current generation GS (and styling of other Lexus models) with a similarly aggressive, angular front air dam on the F Sport-equipped cars.

Slipping behind the wheel, the interior feels as refreshingly different as the exterior. The most notable elements are heavy design cues in the center stack and dashboard lifted straight from the LFA, Lexus’ mind-bending hyper car, and that’s a great thing. The central gauge is also lifted from the LFA and while a bit silly, had everyone ogling it as it would illuminate based upon the “mode” dialed into the car.

In the 2014 IS interior, the front seats feel very much like those in a cockpit versus the slab-like seats of the old car. All controls are visible and never more than a short reach away. The cockpit feeling is amplified as Lexus has dropped the seating position by 20mm for the driver’s hips, simultaneously improving access to controls as well as improving the overall seating position. At 6’4”, I found the new IS to provide far more headroom, as I was nearly touching the headliner in the old model. I welcomed the fact that the fighter jet-style interior shrank around me compared to most cars in this class that have open expanses of unused interior space. The IS’s interior feels well-aimed at a younger demographic, which could potentially be off-putting to fans of the outgoing IS.

Taking to the track in the IS350 F Sport, the steering was numb and fairly vague though it carried a nice weight to it at speed. Unexpectedly, while the steering wasn’t as tactile as I would like, I found the chassis to be quite communicative. The dynamics of the car were aided by the fact that Lexus took the rear suspension of the latest GS F Sport and tucked it under the rear haunches of the 2014 IS. Jumping from new to old was terrifying, though. The outgoing IS350, by comparison, was a sloppy, understeering mess around the track, though it was an all-wheel-drive model.

For dynamics, the IS feels up there with the best of the cars in this segment and doesn’t put a wheel wrong when scooting around a track or twisty back road.

On back roads, at low speeds the car was quiet and comfortable, not to mention more spacious, as 1.6 inches of legroom were added to the rear seats. But accelerate and you could easily summon a metallic bark from the exhaust as the 3.5-liter V6 engine hustled us along an open expanse of asphalt.

My only disappointment with the interior came in playing with the optional navigation system and its dreadful mouse-like navigator used to input commands. Compared with the more simplistic dial used on Audi’s MMI system or BMW’s iDrive, the Lexus controller felt like a cheapish joystick that made adding a location more difficult and frustrating than it should have been. That, coupled with the lackluster interface of the system, was disappointing.

But Lexus offers a free permanent subscription to HD radio and real-time traffic and weather updates. Lexus also threw in cool, if not a little gimmicky, features like a gauge that tells you how near you are to the next turn or, when gas is running low, helps identify nearby gas stations. Overall, the system works well but could greatly benefit from a second look at how the user interacts with it.

In trying out the variety of cars present – the IS350, with or without the F Sport package, makes the most sense from a cost vs. reward perspective. While the IS250 is a great car, in the entry level model segment it will find very stiff competition from BMW’s split 320i/328i in pricing and performance. Therefore the IS350 is worth the nearly $5,000 premium, while still being a few grand less than the 335i. Beyond the options, the 8-speed automatic found only in the IS350 (rear-wheel-drive models only) proves a far better alternative to the not-so-intelligent legacy 6-speed automatic. In most cases the 8-speed gearbox, sourced from the outgoing IS-F, proved more than capable of actuating spot-on gear changes than those of the 6-speed. It’s a shame that the IS250 and all-wheel-drive models are excluded from using this wonderful box.

Lexus has made incredible leaps forward to keep the new IS competitive within the entry level sport sedan segment. It has aggressive, younger styling while on the inside offering a chic overhaul of the previously dull interior. The overhauled styling is matched by revitalized chassis dynamics thanks in part to the rear suspension of the GS F Sport and the trick VDIM system tying in all stability and control systems. Lexus missed the mark on some things, like the middle-of-the-pack fuel economy (combined MPG of 24 for the IS250 and 22MPG for the IS350) and the lackluster onboard system. Overall, though, the car will prove an excellent counterpoint to the German rivals. The 2014 IS has a bit of something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a tech-laden car to wow you or just something that can spice up the daily commute.

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