November 8, 2006
"L-finesse" may be the name of Lexus’ new design philosophy, but finesse isn’t the lasting impression left by the new IS. Indeed, if you’ve just gotten out of the IS 350, you’re more likely to be thinking of sledgehammer power and torque, and a surprisingly extreme driving experience.
With 306 horsepower, the IS 350’s 3.5-litre V6 is a holy terror. Even though it’s only available only with a six-speed automatic transmission, it produces sufficient power and torque to launch the car away from stoplights with an almighty roar and no small amount of squealing from the tires; it propels the IS past other cars on the highway with sports car acceleration even in sixth gear; and it produces a surprisingly angry sound while going about its business. You can thank the absolute latest in Lexus’ various engine technologies, such as dual variable valve timing with intelligence and direct injection, not only for the massive power but also for the engine’s surprising efficiency; it also qualifies as an ultra-low emissions vehicle. (If you don’t want quite so much excitement, a 2.5-litre IS 250, with 204 hp is also available, with manual or automatic transmissions.)
The IS has also been the odd Lexus out in terms of its dynamics. The IS 350 is not just the fastest-accelerating car in its class, but also one of the most entertaining to drive. The steering is super-sharp, pointing the nose into corners with a mere twitch of the steering, the chassis is almost playful in its willingness to change direction, and the brakes are powerful and respond even to the lightest pedal effort. Even in the wet, cornering grip verges on the extreme, thanks to big new wheels and tires and a sophisticated multi-link suspension system. Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM) actually anticipates a loss of vehicle control and is quicker, and less overt in its operation, than other stability-control systems.
Of special interest to Canadians is the optional all-wheel-drive system, available only on the IS 250 with an automatic, that further enhances poor-weather traction. In normal conditions, it splits power 30 percent front/70 percent rear, though it can go to a 50/50 split under slippery conditions; it works seamlessly and smoothly, as you would expect from a Lexus. Indeed, drive a bit more conservatively in the new IS – that’s the 250’s natural gait – and you discover a seemingly contradictory quality to it. Even when fitted with a sports package, the new IS’ ride is serene, gliding over bumps and pavement ruts as if they weren’t there, and it’s also supremely quiet, with very little road or wind noise making their way into the cabin. It’s only when you get into the gas and head for a winding road that the IS transforms itself into a snarling, road-munching monster.
All of which is kind of appropriate, because Lexus’ "L-finesse" design philosophy emphasizes not just smoothness and refinement, but a sense of surprise and complication. Its exterior styling is an appealing mix of soft and hard, with gentle curves intersected by sharp lines and chunky proportions. Viewed head-on, it looks like it’s all shoulders, hunkered down low over big wheels; the side-view mirrors are big and driver-oriented, and the rear end is a wall of metal and wedge-like lights that gives the car a truncated, compact appearance. The IS 250 rolls on standard 17-inch wheels, while the 350 gets massive 18-inchers and a lower suspension. But while the overall look may scream aggression, the details are very refined: the front and rear bumpers are beautifully integrated, the gently-curved body sides are unadorned by any extraneous trim, and the windows are outlined with a delicate strip of chrome.
Step into the new IS, and you’re treated to an ambiance that contrasts traditional Lexus build quality – superb materials, tight panel fits – alongside sporty themes and advanced technology. The basic shapes of the dashboard and console are pretty simple, but contrasting-colour flourishes on the doors enliven the atmosphere, as do the beautifully-backlit Optitron gauges in a metal housing, drilled aluminum pedals (on sport-package cars), and a racy steering wheel that comes complete with paddle shifters on automatic cars. The new IS’ front seats offer all the Lexus luxury you’d hope for – they feel incredibly plush and are upholstered in gorgeous leather – but have big side bolsters to hold you in place during cornering.
As an extreme audiophile – he built his own set of stereo components and speakers – the IS’ chief engineer, Suguya Fukusato, insisted on a high-quality audio system. Even the standard Pioneer-based unit in the base-model IS 250 sounds fantastic; move up to the 350, and you’re treated to an astonishing Mark Levinson Dolby 5.1 surround system with 14 speakers and a six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability; an auxiliary audio jack also lets you plug in an iPod or other portable music player. Other notable interior features include a touch-screen DVD navigation system, a switchable trip computer in the gauge cluster, rear-view backup camera, and a "smart access" system that does away with the ignition key. All you do is keep the new IS’ keyfob in your pocket, simply gripping the door handles to unlock the car, and using a push button to start the engine. Front-seat, side, and curtain airbags are standard.
A stretch in wheelbase means that interior space has improved – there’s a marked improvement in rear legroom and a welcome dose of extra cabin width to alleviate the ‘shoulders-in’ feel you’d get while driving the old IS. But the new IS still isn’t a roomy car – it feels tighter inside than the Infiniti G35 and even the new BMW 3-series. Other minor shortcomings include the electrically-assisted power steering, which doesn’t offer as much feel as the old IS’ hydraulically-assisted system, and the lack of a manual transmission on the IS 350. With a combination of that car’s massive power and the improved control of a manual, Lexus would have a true class-beater.
Still, the company’s focus for the new IS’ marketing will be primarily targeted at urban buyers – some 67% of them will be concentrated in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – so perhaps the lack of a manual isn’t such a drawback. Certainly, one thing that Lexus does offer over and above any other luxury brand is a buying and ownership experience that’s second-to-none. With 12 stand-alone dealerships across the country, and more to come, Lexus is also creating a new identity for itself with its retail environments in the same way it’s redefining the style and attitude of the cars they sell.
As the signpost of that transformation, the newly driver-oriented IS – particularly the IS350 – bodes very well for Lexus’ future.
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