Lexus has been on a mission to reinvent their cars and change their safe-and-stodgy brand image. If there's one car in their lineup that both shows potential and needs massive help, it's the baby IS -- so how does the all-new 2014 Lexus IS fare? Read on.
First Glance: Getting it wrong to get it right
There are some cars that need to get it wrong before they get it right, and the all-new 2014 Lexus IS is just such a car. The first-generation IS, introduced in 1999, was a BMW 3-series copy right down to the inline six-cylinder engine. I loved it, but many critics (rightly) complained that it was too plasticky and Toyota-y. Lexus came out with a new Lexus-ized version in 2006, but it was a bit too Lexus-y -- soft and cushy but rather uninvolving to drive, and if you ask me, a real waste of a rear-wheel-drive platform. (The exception was the hot-rod IS-F, which was nearly too awesome for words.)
But Lexus has been on a mission of late to shake their bland, stodgy image. They've made big changes to the LS and introduced an all-new ES and GS, all greatly improve. Now its the IS' turn, and it would appear that with the all-new 2014 version, Lexus has finally gotten it right. The new car nicely spans the gap between the 1st and 2nd generation IS, offering both soft, comfy, Lexus-y versions and an F-Sport variant (link goes to photo) that feels properly, well, fsporty.
In the Driver's Seat: Good space but oh, that mouse...
Both Lexus and parent company Toyota have been trying to inject a little personality into their interiors. Gone are the old IS' gentle waves of plastic, replaced by sharp curves and bold shapes. The F-Sport's dashboard features a giant video tachometer that motors over to one side to allow for the trip computer display. Other models get a traditional (but no less attractive) twin-dial layout. The dash is a visual treat, but not a very practical one; there's precious little storage space, and my cell phone and keys (the IS has a keyless push-button ignition) wound up riding atop the center console.
Since I'm in complaint mode, let me reiterate my dislike for Lexus' new mouse-like "Remote Touch" controller. I thought it was a neat idea when I first tried it, but I've since realized it was wrong -- a mouse is great when you are sitting at your computer, but not when you are sitting in traffic; programming simply takes too long. A touch-screen would be better (like I keep telling the automakers, think iPad!) and even a dial would be preferable. Fortunately there are redundant controls for the stereo and A/C, and the nav system can be programmed by sending directions from your computer or calling a Destination Assistance operator from the car, so you can generally avoid using Remote Touch.
Ergonomically, the IS is pretty good; the cabin is cozy, not quite cramped, with comfy front seats (available in red leather in the F-Sport), great visibility and decent-sized mirrors. The back seat is comfy enough for two, but the transmission tunnel renders the middle seat largely useless -- par for the course for a rear-drive sedan. But the trunk is excellent for this type of car, with 13.8 cubic feet of well-shaped storage.
On the Road: Old engines, new attitude
The engines are unchanged from the outgoing version of the IS, and as with the outgoing version, the model number (IS 250 or IS 350) denotes the presence of either a 204 horsepower 2.5 liter V6 or a 306 horsepower 3.5. Both can be had with rear- or all-wheel-drive; the rear-drive IS 350 gets an 8-speed automatic, while the rest of the cars have six-speeders. Despite the presence of direct fuel injection, both still require premium gasoline; many of the IS' competitors run on regular. EPA fuel economy estimates range from 21 MPG city/30 MPG highway in the rear-drive IS 250 down to 19/26 in the all-wheel-drive IS 350.
For this test, I spent a week each with an IS 250 F-Sport and a plain ol' IS 350, both with rear-wheel-drive. I loved the IS 250; power from the smaller engine is on the lean side of adequate, but the car has fantastic steering and a heavy, hunkered-down-on-the-road feel that, combined with the slim-fit cabin, reminded me of the way Japanese sports cars drove in the 1990s. (That's a good thing, by the way.) Unfortunately, the hair-trigger stability control system really lets it down; if it loses even a smidge of traction (as happens if, say, a tire touches a painted stripe on the road), it chops the power for a penalty. If ever a car was begging for a sport mode, this is it.
The bigger engine in the IS 350 adds some much-needed zoom, but didn't pack the thrills I was expecting. Likewise, the ride, though somewhat more compliant than the F-Sport, was surprisingly firm; I rather liked it, but the old-school Lexus buyers might be a bit put off. Overall it was quiet and comfortable, everything I expect a Lexus to be -- but a lot more interesting to drive.