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2014 Lexus IS prototype

Thu, 06 Dec 2012

No one was comparing the IS to the BMW 3 Series, and for Lexus that was a problem.

At the beginning of 2011, we rocked up to the parking lot at Southern California's Santa Anita Raceway to test the 2012 Lexus GS. This was the first sedan in the luxury brand's lineup to reset its intentions on the balance of sport and luxury. The previous GS had blanched into mute tepidity, and the new generation we drove on an autocross course and on a canyon road corrected just about everything; we liked its looks, and the Variable Gear Ratio Steering- and Adaptive Variable Suspension-equipped car moved its abilities into the realm of a true sports sedan, and it was great to drive. They absolutely nailed it.

In our review of that car, we wrote that the only other sporty Lexus was the IS, and that our favorite among its rank and file is the IS 250 with the six-speed manual. Specifically, we called it "a spirited little weakling of a car." Down on power but also on weight, it rewarded commitment and skill – it didn't have the gumption to compensate for missed shifts and bad lines, and because it was so easy to get wrong, the momentum carried through right to the smiles when you got it right.

Yet no one was ever seriously comparing the IS – Lexus' third-best-selling car – to the BMW 3 Series, and for Lexus that was a problem. You can't have your entry-level sports sedan omitted entirely from the conversation. So now, finally, it is time for the IS to get its dip into Lexus' spindle-grille-and-F-Sport-performance bath.

The aim is high: Chief Engineer Junichi Furuyama said he wanted the IS to be "the most fun to drive in the segment." That was reinforced throughout the presentation and the day with statements that the new IS should react "faithfully to even slight inputs" and that it should "respond to the driver's will." The idea with this model is to build a link from the LFA, down through the IS F, to this F Sport model.

The idea is to build a link from the LFA, down through the IS F, to this F Sport model.

These are goals that are hard enough in light of how cars are growing in size and weight, in general. On top of that, Lexus has to work around the ideas of luxury and refinement that any mention of the brand brings with it. Easy (well, easier) to do when you're charging LFA money, much harder when buyers are checking the bottom line and lease rates carefully. And one only needs to look at where the 3 Series has gone to see how weak the word "sport" has gotten in the phrase "sport sedan."

The next generation IS 250 and IS 350 F Sports were benchmarked against the previous-generation 3 Series M Sport, targeting its driving dynamics, feedback and fun-to-drive factor. While buyers for standard cars in the segment skew female, buyers of tuned versions like F Sports and M Sports skew male, and that's the pie Lexus wants a larger piece of.

Furuyama grouped the changes to the IS into three categories: body and suspension, driver environment and powertrain. Body rigidity has been increased by using more spot welding, a process called laser screw welding, and a lot more adhesive to join body panels at all of the major cutouts – windshield and backlight, door cutouts, engine bay and wheel arches. The front suspension is stiffer by 20 percent through the use of a new front stabilizer. In back, the IS adopts the rear suspension from the GS, separating the spring and the absorber and changing the position of the toe arm. The increased body rigidity also meant they could lower the spring rates. The objective was increased rear grip, a side benefit being that with the suspension towers going more upright there is more cargo room in the trunk.

To raise its dynamic game, the new IS 350 gets the eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic from the IS F.

Another part from the GS used as a starting point for this IS was the steering gear. Better feedback through the wheel and more direct steering have come through refinements like a higher stroke ratio, new ball-screw structure and increased rigidity in the pinion shaft. Lexus also wanted to give drivers the sensation of a clear on-center area.

To raise its dynamic game, the new IS 350 gets the eight-speed Sport Direct Shift (SDS) automatic from the IS F that has "G-AI," programming that makes it sensitive to g-forces and will keep it from shifting during hard cornering when in Sport mode. The 350 also gets the aforementioned Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) and Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) from the GS.

The IS 250 has three driving modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. The IS 350 gets four, adding Sport S+ to the top end. Sport ups the throttle sensitivity, while Sport S+ 'activates' the most aggressive settings on the electric power steering, the VGRS and the AVS.

This is called the Next Generation IS, but it's the cabin and chassis changes that go the furthest. Covered in camo as these cars were, we had to use the light and shadow to make out what we could as best we could, but on the outside this is an evolution of the current design. It doesn't look noticeably bigger than it is now, but it is noticeably more expressive.

We don't know if the rear track is wider, but the rear arches are definitely punchier.

Naturally, that starts with the spindle grille in front. The F Sports will be differentiated by exterior design and tuning, and the grilles on these sedans were filled in with different treatments on the 250s and 350s at the event – a six-bar grille up top on the 250, mesh on the 350, and each wore a different lower bumper – but we were told that these differences weren't indicative of the final cars. The headlights, single-lens jobs that are cleaner in design, jut out from the line of the car instead of being contained within it. The side sills are more sculpted and get thicker as they move rearward, then twist to form a character line that runs up the front of the rear wheel arch. It doesn't appear that substantial when viewed straight-on, but when we saw the car driving into the sun you could detect the width – everything below the sill character line is in shadow. That line is met on the other side of the rear arch by a cutline that runs over the tops of the taillights. Behind the arch, another line forms a crease that runs underneath the lights. As for the lights themselves, it almost looks like the current units have been turned over and drawn out a bit more along the sides of the car. And we don't know if the rear track is wider, but the rear arches are definitely punchier.

Instead of a lip on the decklid, the deck is shaped into a spoiler in the center of the car. Below, another crease in the bodywork runs from the bottom of the rear arch up to the bottom of the bumper, creating an effect like a built-in diffuser.

Inside, the interior feels vastly different – moreso than a list of its details would indicate. The driver's hip point has dropped 20 millimeters due to the increased concavity of the seats – and concomitant increase in bolstering. Neither the roof height nor the floor height of the car have changed, but those 20 mm raise the center tunnel and the door shoulder height in relation to your position, so you feel like you're dropped much more deeply into the cabin.

One of the reasons for rejection of the current car among shoppers is lack of rear leg room. That has been addressed.

The armrest starts up near the instrument panel, the inclined portion housing the window, lock and mirror switches, sliding down into a flat stretch where one's arm would go. It's a familiar setup and replaces the L-Finesse wave of the door on the current car, where the buttons are placed on a horizontal low and in front.

The vertical slabs of paneling in the current car give way to inclines. The IP doesn't rise, cliff-like, from the center tunnel; instead it slopes up and away toward the windshield and away from the driver, but it isn't canted toward the driver. A vertical feature that houses the vents divides the upper and lower parts of the dash, textured plastic and the nav screen above, hard, shiny bits below. The climate controls have been reworked with eight buttons in two rows underneath a digital temperature readout as opposed to the six buttons in one row on the current car. Beside that readout there are touch controls to adjust the temperature; slide your finger along the silver bar, up to increase the temp, down to lower it, or you can tap either end for the same function.

We were told that one of the primary reasons for rejection of the current car among shoppers is the lack of rear leg room. That has been addressed. In the new car, with the driver's seat set for a driver nearly six-feet tall, hopping in the back seat still left an inch between the closest part of the driver's seat. Leaving one's legs in the scallops of the back of the seat meant even more space. In the previous gen our knees were hard up against the driver's seatback. There is appreciably more headroom as well. And for the first time in an IS, the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split.

The steering wheel is the same diameter but thicker. The buttons on the left spoke are for Mode, Phone and voice commands, on the right are the selector arrows and, below that, a single switch for the 'back' button and to move the F Meter. The paddles behind the wheel are also reshaped, narrower at the top.

What is the F Meter? It is the trick that will get a lot of guys' attentions.

What is the F Meter? It is the trick that will get a lot of guys' attentions. The reconfiguring dash cluster is a wide screen that houses a single bezeled gauge, that gauge being the F Meter. When the F Meter is in the middle it displays the rev counter around its rim, and in the center displays the speed, gear and supplemental information. To the left, on the screen behind, is the oil temperature, with gas and odometer readings on the right. Tap the button on the wheel to move the F Meter to the right and the single screen to the left picks up the gas and odometer reading with supplemental notices displayed in between that and the temperature above.

When it came time to put the F Meter to work, we started with an autocross. Both the IS 250 and IS 350 were fitted with 18-inch wheels shod with Bridgestone Turanzas, 225/40 R18 up front, 255/35 R18 in back on both cars. Lexus said that the IS 250 not having Sport+ was a price-point issue and would be studied over the life cycle of the car. The 350 has that eight-speed gearbox, the 250 makes do with a six-speed automatic, and both cars' engines carry over but are fitted with sound enhancers to pipe engine noise into the cabin during sporty driving.

The only hitch to the first test was the rain – LA had seen intermittent showers for days, and while the course wasn't afflicted by standing pools of water, it was thoroughly wet.

Lexus didn't give out power numbers, but the IS 250 sounds faster than it is, the cabin filling with that induction resonance. It also feels faster than before and wastes no time working itself up to a good clip, with good throttle response in Sport and more feedback from the steering even in a straight line. The body and suspension rigidity have helped this car more than the 350; driving it correctly and maintaining momentum will still (as always) bring the greatest rewards, but the added stiffness and better response to inputs give it better reflexes and give you a larger dynamic window in which to operate. In the slalom portion that needed three flicks of the wheel at speed, the current IS 250 would skitter after you finished the slalom and were straightening out, the car's chassis and traction control still trying to catch up with what just happened. There was none of that in the new IS 250. It is still best to shift gears for yourself, though, the reflexes of the six-speed not where we'd like them in a sports sedan. Nevertheless, the IS 250 is composed, supple, chuckable, and can be pivoted around corners, even when you need to adjust your line. It's fun.

The IS 250 is composed, supple, chuckable, and can be pivoted around corners. It's fun.

The new IS 350 is a lot faster than the IS 250 – both cars would spin wheels off the line, but we were doing five to eight more mph at the end of the short run to the first corner than in the IS 250. But it's not as much fun on an autocross course, that first turn explaining why: understeer. We were told that the 3.5-liter is about 60-70 pounds heavier than the 2.5-liter, which is part of it. The car overall feels stouter and more stable, but also heftier. Lexus wouldn't divulge curb weights other than to suggest that new car is a little lighter, but the IS 350 feels like it outweighs the 250 probably by more than it actually does. You needed to do more work to get your speed and your lines right in the 350; when you didn't, you found that the car would rather keep going in a straight line.

What's more, the additional stiffness and the advanced suspension might play the wrong kind of trick with the IS 350, making it too stiff and the rear wheels almost recalcitrant. Even in the wet the rear wheels didn't want to come loose at all unless you got boneheaded, turned traction control completely off, or got into a four-wheel slide, due to the wet, coming out of a turn at just the right speed and angle. It's isn't the kind of car you can really steer with the throttle. Overall, on the autocross it felt like a BMW 5 Series trying to be a 3 Series.

On a canyon road in San Gabriel, however, both cars came to life and the speeds each car could do and the sensation of weight were the primary differences. Cutting from apex to apex, the IS 250 in Sport, the IS 350 in Sport+, each car displays creamy handling, the 350's VGRS weights up beautifully as you increase lock, the 350's cornering limits that much higher because of its AVS. Get on them hard enough to get the tires talking, both sedans provide progressive feedback as you push closer to the edges of their abilities and don't suddenly go loose or choppy – traction control might flash its assistance, but it doesn't alter or halt proceedings.

Given either of the new cars, we'd take the next generation IS 250.

The G-AI control on the IS 350's gearbox works as long as you stay on it; let off in the middle of a turn and it shifts a couple of times while it figures out where it should be. On both cars, even when shifting manually, we wish the actual shifts happened more quickly.

Here again, though, the 350's increased weight and stiffness, along with that tauter suspension, made it much firmer. It felt like sport sedan that was compensating for its weight with added stiffness – not uncomfortable at all, just less supple than the IS 250.

When we arrived at the event, the current IS 250 with the six-speed manual was our favorite IS. When the day was over, after driving everything, the current – not the 2014 – IS 250 with the six-speed auto is still our favorite IS. Given either of the new cars, we'd take the next generation IS 250.

Admittedly, on the day it could have been oversold to us – after the presentation we were expecting a sedan with MMA-fighter reflexes that responded to our every input and was a clear contender for the most fun-to-drive car in the segment. It's a fine car. It just isn't that.

The IS has evolved, yet we feel it isn't quite finished evolving.

What's not in question is that the car has evolved, it is better in almost every way, and it is more engaging if not capital-F "Fun." The only reason we'd take the current generation IS 250 over the new one is because we could (until 2012) get a manual transmission and stay totally in control of shifting.

The IS has evolved, yet we feel it isn't quite finished evolving – dynamically there isn't as much difference as we expected between the current car and the coming car. There isn't even as much difference as we expected between driving modes – we had to check the dash to see which one we were in. If you're going to offer four driving modes, from Eco to Sport S+, when I get to the final one I'd like there to be no doubt that I'm on the limit. We'd have liked Lexus to go further to make the new IS a proper and properly dynamic sport sedan overall, and we'd like the individual parts to mesh together better.

Lexus nailed the GS, so we know they can do the IS right.

The autocross track was wet so we can make some allowances for that, but the canyon road wasn't. We'd like to have tried the current-gen IS on the canyon as well for a better comparison, but later in the day when the autocross was dry, someone who hadn't driven all day went out in the 350 and said that the back of the car was so planted he didn't think he could get the rear wheels unstuck, then he noted the understeer. An inertia-inclined front end and a sticky back isn't where a sport sedan should be, and his comments reinforced our assessment that this isn't a sport sedan you can get to dance on a tight course with easy inputs to the steering and the throttle. He also noted the understeer. The car does much better on actual roads than in autocrosses, the 350 especially, so it's good that that's where most drivers will use them.

While there's some room for tuning, with a mid-year on-sale date the production car probably won't be much different than what we drove. Lexus nailed the GS, so we know they can do the IS right – and we'll keep hoping that they do. As for the exterior, stay tuned for the production car's skin to be revealed at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

By Jonathon Ramsey

See also: 2013 Lexus ES earns five stars from NHTSA, Lexus bringing next-gen IS to Detroit, Lexus LF-CC gets green light, Evoque rival under consideration.