For an industry that produces great hunks of lifeless metal, the automotive industry is full of battles. Wars between rivals brands and flagship models rage across the globe, garnering die-hard audiences on both sides as they fight over power figures and battle for popularity. Mustang vs Camaro, Ferrari vs Lamborghini, Evo vs Impreza: it seems sometimes war is good for something. But the sector the new Lexus IS finds itself in is hotly contested indeed…
This is one I’ve been watching for quite a while; ever since the first time I drove the first generation IS350 and then the thoroughly yummy IS-F with that glorious Yamaha-fettled 5 liter V8, I have been patiently waiting to see how Lexus would tackle the rather difficult task of evolving their entry-level sedan. This is no joke – this is the most competitive segment for any manufacturer who dares play in BMW 3 Series territory, a car that has always ruled it. Audi and Mercedes have been getting good at it, but even they aren’t there when it comes to taking the overall package into consideration.
So how did Lexus tackle things this time round? If you remember, ever since the new GS that I drove two years ago, Lexus has been trying hard at doing two things: the first is making their cars better and more fun to drive, the second is to create an instantly recognizable design language.
The spindle grille was the first move and now with the IS, they’re showing no restraint when it comes to making bold statements.
While it may or may not be liked by everyone, I tip my hat to the Lexus team as they’re showing balls among Japanese car makers, which at best can be described as being overly conservative, and most of the time plain boring and lacking imagination.
I’m not being excessively critical, trust me, it’s just that after witnessing the crazy and wacky cars that they used to come up with in the eighties and nineties, it pains me to see Japanese streets filled with minivans and crossovers of every conceivable size and shape.
Toyota on the other hand have done a very good job of turning their boring image around and reinventing themselves. Just look at the crazy concept cars like the FT-1 they have been unleashing as of late, not to mention the close-to-production-ready RC-F. All very good stuff. That newfound edginess in Lexus design is especially evident in the IS’s front, with those small but piercing twin projector headlights and that Nike-like LED swoosh, not to mention the two nostrils on either side of the exaggerated spindle grill. It’s a very organic design and it definitely makes the IS instantly recognizable from afar. Job done then!
Since I was going to spend a week with the IS, I thought I should opt for the F-Sport version as I wanted some edginess. I know Lexus does comfort rather well but come on, I doubt you come here to Speedhunters to find drives of comfortable cars?
The F-Sport package includes the more aggressive bumpers with said nostrils, as well as lower and stiffer suspension, a sports-tuned transmission as well as Lexus’ Dynamic Handling System with rear-wheel steering. That last bit is funny: I recall in the nineties many automotive journalists complaining that the Skyline GT-R was a car for the Playstation generation, as it had too many electronic gadgets like HICAS (rear steer). Now Porsche has something similar on the 991 GT3. Just saying…
The rear end is probably even more controversially styled than the front, with those pointy tail lights that stretch and wrap around the sides.
It looks unlike anything out on the street and that’s a good thing, because among the homogeneous design mish-mash that makes up the majority of everyday regular sort of cars, it’s refreshing to see a touch of individuality.
After picking up the car from Lexus, my first port of call was to be Nagoya, a quick stop by the Liberty Walk shop before heading to Rocky Auto to check out a rather special collection of semi-abandoned cars.
The IS turned the 200-mile-or-so drive into a pleasant experience, as it wafted effortlessly down the Shin Tomei expressway, keeping me fully entertained through that optional and very impressive Mark Levinson audio system. The eight-speed transmission was a joy to use in both automatic or when in its manual setting, shifting up and down using the steering wheel mounted paddles. It’s not dual-clutch fast, but it’s fast enough on a car of this nature and matched the silky smooth V6’s character rather well. With so many good things to say about this car, I have to admit I did feel a little short changed when it came to the engine. Don’t get me wrong, the 2GR is a good unit, but among the crop of turbocharged motors from German manufacturers, it feels almost outdated, not having quite the punchy, low-rpm torque force-induced engines have these days. Plus, considering they put so much work in making the new IS feel so much tighter, so much more focused, running a slightly reworked version of the same engine from the older generation of the car, well it just feels like a bit of an oversight. Despite this, the extra 10hp or so that it now has does give the IS good acceleration out of corners and awesome overtaking ability, once you downshifted three or four gears (it sounds so strange saying stuff like this. What’s next, a nine-speed transmission? Oh wait, they’ve done that already!). I also had a chance to put the handling to the test through some nice mountain roads in Shizuoka, where I found a very neutral handling set-up with tons of grip and idiot-proof stability control system that really lets you have fun. This is one chassis that can take a hell of a lot more power!
Upon my return back to Tokyo, I had no time to rest; I had an appointment with a certain Larry Chen who had flown over to Japan to participate in the idlers 12h endurance race and while over, join me in featuring a bunch of cool cars.
After picking him up at his hotel, we filled up the IS’s trunk with Larry’s gear and pointed the spindle grille towards Yokohama, jumping on the Kanagawa-Shuto which would take us through the city and onto the Yokohama Bay Bridge.
From there it was down the spiraling off-ramp that takes you back down to ground level and to the entrance of the Daikoku PA. There we met up with Rich from GarageSpec and his rather special and unique L28-powered Skyline R30.
As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked, so after a few hours sleep, the IS would once again serve us as our chariot, taking us all the way up to Gunma where we had a meeting with about ten awesome cars from the guys at N-Style.
It was there, after a busy day shooting all sorts of cool drift and street rides, that Larry and I finally had time to focus on the IS350. The car had definitely won us over by providing a commendable array of capabilities. It does so much right, it’s almost hard to fault anything at times. Take the interior for example: extremely comfortable and relaxing to be in, it stands out thanks to a very LF-A-ish sort of layout which is now making its way into all cars wearing the big L badge up front.
Unlike other Japanese manufacturers, Lexus is doing rather well at giving up its obsession with buttons. The multitude of functions are easily controlled via the integrated LCD-screen-based infotainment system. Nissan and Infiniti should learn something here.
If I had to be very picky, maybe the lack of color could be a point that could have been improved upon, but then again for those that are a little more courageous and think black on black with a touch of black trim might be a little plain boring, there are always more exciting hues to go for. That fake metal trim however, that really has to go. It looked cheap ten years ago in the old GS/IS/LS and a decade has done nothing to change that.
The display moves!
And then we get to the instrument display. I thought the LF-A-inspired LCD dash with sliding tachometer might be tacky, but it just isn’t. I really enjoyed this so much that I felt the need to play around with it all the time, flicking through the menus and displays that are available. While the F30 3 Series has its own plain and far more serious analogue gauge set-up with lower integrated LCD screen, the IS is full-on digital and it makes the Beemer look plain old boring! I think only the Japanese can come up with a system like this, and be confident that years down the line it won’t break or stop sliding left and right!
The display position and graphical interface/color depends on the drive setting you are in, the more performance-focused Sport S+ setting giving you the red and white rpm counter.
This joins the LCD infotainment slash navigation screen, strangely enough very small compared to the really wide, wide-screen units they are dropping into the GS and LS these days.
Everything feels advanced and very technologically oriented, except maybe some of the materials chosen for the center console. But while I can digest these considering the price level the IS slots in against its less-generously equipped German rivals, there are two things I’m very surprised they’re still doing: the first one being the eighties-looking digital number displays for the dual zone climate control.
The second is again a very old school touch for such a modern car, and I mean the backlit gear position indicator next to the shifter. I’m sure Lexus could come up with more pleasant and better looking than these recycled-Toyota-parts-bin-looking items. Aside from these very minor observations, the cabin is a much better place to be in than the older IS.
There’s definitely more space for rear passengers, all coupled with the usual faultless Lexus fit and finish we’ve become used to.
I think a car’s ability to make its driver and occupants feel special goes a very long way. If the overall package doesn’t turn every drive into a bit of an occasion, if you don’t feel a little bit of excitement even for jumping in and driving five minutes down the road to the shops – if that lacks, then there’s definitely something wrong. The IS definitely satisfies; it’s a car that I personally enjoyed seeing parked in front of my house as much as I did driving it and interacting with its long list of toys and unique gadgetry. It all combines to make even the most mundane of journeys a true experience and I think Lexus have really hit the mark with this car.
And I obviously wasn’t the only one thinking this, as during our time with the IS we spotted quite a few out on the streets of Tokyo.
With lots of use comes the unavoidable fuel stops and the IS350 didn’t do particularly great on this front, but then again it could have been worse. Mind you I could have driven the car with a little more frugal left foot but the raspy-sounding V6 and that superb eight-speed transmission seemed to edge me on all the time, with blips on the downshifts every time I changed over 4,500 rpm. This is one fun car to drive and throw around.
It all leads to the occasional surprise at the pumps, but on the next tank I drove the car in exactly the same way.
If that doesn’t explain to you what the IS350 F-Sport is all about, then I don’t know what does. BMW may have upped the ante with the F30 but the IS is closer than ever on its heels. What sets the the 3 Series aside remains the well thought-out and long list of motoring options, from frugal 2-liter petrol and diesel engines, all the way to performance oriented 3-liter petrol and diesel straight-sixes, not forgetting the Active Hybrid version along the way. Oh,and then you can have any of these in a Touring Wagon, so it’s not really hard to see why the 3 Series will always be the preferred choice. In Japan, the IS is offered with two V6 engines: a 2.5L and a 3.5L, these being joined by the third and final version of the car, the 300h hybrid.
So as Lexus continues to point to a more niche-oriented market due to a lack of variants, there’s no way the IS could ever rival the 3 Series benchmark on outright sales. The latter just caters to way too many tastes and applications. But say over a 335i M-Sport, the IS350 F-Sport truly puts up a much stronger fight than the previous generation car ever could. That alone says a lot about what Lexus have achieved and where they’re planning on going. I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s wondering how the hot version of the FC-F will do up against the M4!
Dino Dalle Carbonare
Photos by Larry Chen
I actually saw one of these on the motorway. Well, I only caught glimpse of the tail-lights, but I immediately knew that it was "that Lexus I read about on SH" Those tail-lights really are very distinct
My God! I had to make an account just to say how incredible these pictures are. Larry always seems to inspire me somehow but these are just breathtakingly beautiful. Definitely found some new wallpapers today
A few things, 1) Lexus has a reputation for boring, and this is an attempt to climb out of it, but when compared to offerings of the past this is slightly less beige than before 2) While new cars have so much technology to offer with gobs of power, better brakes and gas mileage than was ever available before, what happened to the passion to connect a driver and a car. As a former BMW tech, I am a bit biased, one thing I loved at BMW was how almost every car they made was fun to drive, even the base models were still a little sporty. But even the new Bimmers are just a little too much for me, I wish there was a stripped down model here in the states. I would love a 200hp stripped down model with cloth seats... I guess that's why I lean so much toward older cars, I feel like there was more excitement by manufacturers, not every car model went through a test group before going to marketing before going to production.
Sorry I am rambling, in short Lexus has always lacked passion or a specific sense of something, they try to appeal to too many people at once... and most of those people are retired.
i like the look of the first 2 generation's of IS but i can't get on board with this one. while lexus is trying to find their design language, it is producing cars like this that feels like it's half baked with uncohesive designs. it's like they took the previous gen's car, which was conservative but still handsome, then they just slapped a buncha angular design elements around the front and rear. the side profile still has conservative slabbiness. compared to the mazda 6/atenza's profile, it's lacking in intersting lines that connect the front to the rear.
Lexus/Toyota makes the best cars they can make given the market, costs, economy, etc. Not everyone cares to drive a fast car. Not everyone cares about handling. The average folks just want a nice looking car so they can drop their money. I wasted the last 15 minutes reading narrow minded and manufacturer dedicated comments. If Lexus build the cars only for us petrol heads, they would most likely shut their doors and go out of business. A car with serious speed, power, handling, race car aesthetics, etc. are only a tiny, tiny segment to them. How many millions are going to go out and grab the baddest car they can get? For those that weren't around, I'll talk about the '90s mega horsepower and turbo wars. How many families are going to rush out there and buy an RX-7 or a Supra or a 300ZX or a 3000GT or even an NSX? Do the math. Many examples can be used, but all this biased comments and bashing BS comments really don't make headlines. The real petrol guys are open minded to all design, engineering, etc. of so called sports cars or sports sedans. Sigh...
Lexus have the interior design nailed, i hired an f30 3 series for a couple of days last year and thought it was great but at the side if the new IS it looks positively boring! Overall the id still take the f30 though for the better engine/gearbox choice and a front end that doesn't look likes its been given a chelsea smile.
To answer the title question in short.... nope. Its a good effort for Lexus but, BMW is still on top for me. I just like that it blends in better than the IS, those headlights are weird. solved for the RC & RC-F though imo. The RC-F vs M4 will be a better battle. (I still prefer an M3 for practicality although I wish the 2 series had 4doors.)
When i saw the first image I felt there had to be a burn out coming, glad to see I wasnt disappointed.
I have been seeing a lot of this car in America, both versions. The body styling is instantly a neck-breaker, the lines are smooth and aggressive just like the the 3 Series from BMW. But, performance wise I have to give it to the BMW, just because of the many variations you can get. Inline-sixs just take the BMW onto another level. Only if the 2JZ were brought back & put in this car, it will still my heart. Nice work Dino & Larry! @speedhunters_dino & @larry_chen_foto
How this piece of s$!t can ever beat bmw...and its funny...that trying to beat bmw they all agree that they are not as good as bmw...
You know.. A car has to be attractive nowadays and has to make it right to everyone... Beginning from the 16yr old kid dreaming about it, to the 60yr old man driving it...The Germans are able to sell their cars everywhere.. They are nice and well designed, in fact attractive...This is what sells cars in my opinion ( of this segment).. I think that Japanese car makers need to push more their design and go more innovative with their power plants! Hell, the time of powerful N/A engines at the moment is over... Look at BMW, they developped a Diesel engine on series car with 3-Turbochargers..?! Japan has the ideas, the technology, the skills, etc.. But they miss the emotional aspect of building a car, and that's were they fail compared to Europe... I hope they wake up and take the challenge against the imperial German car fleet! What do you think?
Awesome article!... Lexus is getting the battle to another level in his section! the car is very good but i think that the design it cuestionable, and the engine´s stats are not the best. BMW and others manufacters still win this market
Great Photos Larry i´m your fan xD And the words? Dino You know how to get me from the first letter =D
preeeeeeach!!! damn right about the japanese styles as of late. I expect great things from japan and germany, but lately japan seems to be marketing cars towards dull dry-toast-without-butter americans.
Awesome car by the way. Deff turns heads.
Why does it have to be so damn ugly?!?! If I wanted a luxury sports car, it sure as HELL shouldn't come with the 2014 Corolla front end! Toyota needs to get a few more artists working on their designs before anyone who drives a BMW would look at those hideous clown cars. Even the LFA is pathetic when compared to the rivals. The new NSX might be a hybrid, but at least it LOOKS like a proper supercar...
I drive IS 300h and I must say it is an awesome car and it excels compaired to BMW 3 tier in every way. + here in Czech Republic there is only arround 70 lexuses (all of them IS,RX,GS,LS,CT) sold by a year. 3 tier BMW is everywhere, sold in much higher numbers. The biggest trouble is they are sold from low cost (316i with no interior stuff) to high cost versions. With lexus you have only few versions in a quite close pricerange and with luxury interior in every version. For lowcost you have toyota, not lexus. That is why lexus seems much more luxury car compaired to BMW 3 which seems to be more like over prices Skoda Octavia / VW Passat. And that is why people who want nice luxury car will always buy Lexus. Not BMW.
PS: BMW quality got south in path few years. It is not worth the money anymore.
i spend alot of time in traffic, and the inside of the is looks very appealing, comfortable yet sophisticated. i wouldn't mind getting stuck in traffic in an IS. between lexus and bmw, i think lexus is winning the interior styling... i never liked the way the bmw's looked in the inside. i prefer what lexus did to make the rcf over the IS. it would be interesting to see what lexus has in its future when the 4 series grand coupe gets released. if i had to choose a lexus 4 door sedan, i'd go with the new gs or ls... the front of the IS is nice its the butt i can't get used to looking at. great write up btw!
@Kevin Truong The problem with your argument is that Lexus sells mostly stuff your parents drive; ISF, LFA were just cars that got Toyota enthusiasts (myself included) excited, but that's obviously not what they were known for. Not a problem with the IS, as it has moved the dial again, but dude, Lexus/Toyota making the best cars is a subjective statement. I'm not surprised that a certain demographic loves them more than any other.
@JohnWilliamTilleryJr RS4 you mean
@Taka dont know about 350 but 300h version is compaired to 320d.... and sry but 320d is a piece of junk compaired to 300h IS.
@Gianluca FairladyZ I think Japanese manufacturers really need to get their sense of humour back. They are far too conservative in everything they do. Take Nissan for example. If it was a German manufacturer, how many models would the VR38 have been fitted into by now? Yep, every single one, including the Murano or FX (or whatever they call it now).
@JoseFickert Thanks Jose :)
@wheatgod Yep no manual. The manual does not fit in with Lexus marketing, so don't ever expect to see one offered
@CliffordTallman Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think it looks wonderful and very aggressive, as well as the rest of Toyota's current lineup.
@master88 I haven't noticed a decline in quality on BMWs honestly. I feel they still manage to pull off the most intuitive and simply laid out cabins out there and they have been doing very nice things with their latest models. Might not be for everyone, I agree about that, we all have different tastes after all. :)
@d_rav But that's the thing, they have nothing. BMW and Benz capitalise on their cars in the same way the Japanese manufacturers used to in the 80s and 90s, by making multiple cars/models on the same platform, albeit with a great amount of brand identity and actual cohesion with the rest of the line up. BMW makes the 3 sedan, the 4 coupe, the 4 Grand Coupe, the M3, the M4, the M4 Gran Coupe (we all know this is coming) the Touring Wagon, the Active Hybrid and the 3 series Gran Turismo. Lexus makes the IS, and soon the RC. No comparison really...
@gatoonik LOL, ok then
@mat88 MT is a thing of a past... diesel is a thing that does not belong anywhere near luxury cars. That BS is for lowcost cars. Turbo? Why if there is no need for it. Why to get turbo just to have turbo?
@mat88 I somewhat agree. To close the gap in my option they need to drop the NA V6 motors, come up with turbo units, offer manuals, offer diesels and get their handling done by German suspension manufacturers. Oh and what is up with the lack of wagons Lexus??
@speedhunters_dino : Dear Dino, as we all know you know a lot of higher ranked People in the automotive industries. In case that you meet Mr Carlos Ghosn please tell him my message: Dear Mr Ghosn, I apreaciate the fact that you reanimated the GTR with the R35. I have a proposal for the next Z car and the VR38DETT engine. Please reinvent a new RB26DETT engine with direct fuel injection and all the gadgets of this new era for the new Z car coming, and please make more use of the VR38DETT engine in other cars.... But leave the most powerful in the GTR... For exclusivity... You know.. ;) ;) ;) Itadakimasu i'ts lunch time in Switzerland see you later guys!
@speedhunters_dino I think he's comparing it to the cadillac cts v-sport. Personally i think they are on even grounds when it comes down to styling and handling but the cts does have an extra 100 horse power....which is always nice.
@master88 Diesel is certainly a no low cost option, it is more expensive to manufacture and maintain. It does suit luxury cars very well, it's very quiet and very torquey so it moves the car effortlessly... Lexus may be a luxury brand but BMW is more than that, it merges sportiness with luxury and on the sportiness side Lexus has a long way to go
The MT may be a thing of past, but there is no better driver involvement than shifting yourself and once you master it it's pure joy to do heel and toe, up shifts, rev matched downshifts as smooth as an auto box....
@master88 Well I know quite a bit about diesels as I live in Europe, you are only considered a wanna be if you get wound up in traffic and start "racing" other cars. If you have ever ridden in a 6 cylinder 2005+ luxury diesel car you should know that they are very quiet and smooth.
Your description of a Lexus is quite the reason why Lexus is quite far behind BMW, it lacks sportiness. I have driven both automatics and manuals and even in heavy traffic I prefer the manual as it is more nippy and it allows me to react faster to openings in traffic.
@mat88 @master88 I dont know where are you from. Im from Europe, Czech Republic. Here diesel is considered low cost because of the consumption. Many people do not see the maintenance costs etc. They just care about the consumption. Anyway, long story short, if you drive MB Sclasse with diesel you will be considered a wanna be. Guy who wants to look rich with his Sclasse but doesnt have the money to buy propper petrol engine.
Diesel quiet? Yes the sound of it got down from loud tractor to tractor, but still it cant compair to good petrol engine. + diesel when driving in sports mode... well... its just not that good as a sound of petrol engine. I think there is no doubt in that one.
MT - I'm on same page with you on this. Although you must understand what an IS, GS, LS is. Those cars are for daily driving, for comfort, when you go home from work or drive home from client, you are stuck in ruch hour trafic. That is for AT is much better than MT. It is too heavy to drift or to race properly. Mby the 350 version has more HP, but it is still 1,8 ton car. Once a year when you go with IS to race track you can shift with paddles. Therefore there is no place for MT in such car. Cars for race, drift driving, for high reving, for racedays should be with MT ofc, but simply IS is not build to be a race and weekend track car. IS seems ofc comfortable, but a bit booring. But thats the same problem with every modern sedan even with BMW. for heal toe, downshifting and propper driving techniques I drive MT Honda. It has 1,15 t and is much more agile. But for daily driving Id always go with AT.
@speedhunters_dino @mat88 I see and totally agree with the European status of Lexus. Thats also why the sales are so low (as I said, 70 cars in CZ rep. 10 mil ppl here). Fuel economics is the reason why the most popular are hybrids and we have no IS 350 here, nor the 4WD version, only GS 350 comes with 4WD. The future of Lexus here imho depends on tax incentives for hybrids (less CO2) and bringing what works in California and Japan to Europe. Not on developing diesel engine or even taking Toyota diesels to Lexus. If EU ppl want diesel they will most prolly go to local brands like VW group. Lexus needs the mark of individuality, rareness which it has so far, just needs to pursue this individuality mark and use it as marketing strategy.
Most people I know around brought lexus because of realibility and rareness. Also it is also quite nice for me to begin the business meeting with question from the client "oh what is this car, how does the hybrid work, oh that is so silent"..... you will never have that with bmw 3 tier here in Europe.
As far as I know the imports in JAP tend to be taxed quite high and therefore thats why they tend to have the "rare" sticker, am I right?
@master88 @speedhunters_dino @mat88 Trust me, location has a lot to do with it. If I was in Europe I'd probably feel more like you, but the truth of the matter is that most German brands in Japan (as an example) are marketed as premium brands, and they are because the cars they offer here are more expensive than their domestic counterparts and they are almost unanimously accepted as better products because of the "import" feel they have. In Japan the imported European cars will always give the impression of better status, also because a lot of Japanese customers get the top of the line models. That is certainly not the case in a lot of European countries both in or out of the EU. Go to the US and Lexus I feel is really well marketed, it's perceived as a premium brand and accepted as such. In Europe it's nothing more than a niche, only those that want to follow a different path from the norm go for them, to stand out among a sea of 3/5 series of A4/A6s. In the US Lexus is very well marketed, it's always been perceived as a luxury brand and it has a great reliability and customer satisfaction track record to back it up. In Japan it's different still, it's still a new brand, launched in 2005, it has a bit of a stigma as being an old man's car, a car that countryside folk buy because most people from the city would get an import. I'm generalizing here obviously bit that's the general consensus...
Ofc they are dino. Everybody has its own personal opinion on cars and needs. I'm not trying to tell the ultimate truth here, just my own opinion. And that's how I understand the discussion should go.
I'm very confident with the way how lexus cars are made, because I'm sick and tired of "universal" cars that VW, Skoda and Audi spits out from their factories. Mby it is because I'm in Europe, but I.e. Skoda is a CZ brand. You can see it everywhere. That's ok. But I dont see the point in buying car with price range of the one single and same model from 12k EUR to 40k EUR. So If I go and spend 40 grand for the car, it looks same as the 12k one. And thats the same with BMW. And why isnt Lexus like that? Because Lexus is not a single brand. It is Toyota! And Toyota has the cars with MT, Diesel and Wagon for sale. I dont think that diesel wagon with MT is considered to be a luxury car by general public. Dont you think?
@speedhunters_dino @master88 @mat88 Ofc such cars exist. But what I was saying is that when you are looking for a luxury car, wagon is usually the last option. Usually people that need more space just buy a higher version of the sedan.
Its like you would be compairing Lexus and Kia telling me that they both have leather interior. Well maybe they do, but Kia uses fake leather or low quality leather compaired to Lexus. That's why they cannot be on the same page.