Lexus is seeking younger buyers for its all–new third–generation 2014 IS sport sedan model, which will arrive at dealerships this summer, largely by boosting its technology quotient — including some tech offered free for the first time in any vehicle. Performance improvements as well as interior refinements and lower pricing also are in the mix. The result is a dramatically improved vehicle versus the 2013 model.
But while Lexus certainly breaks ground with its industry–first giveaway of those technology features, not all of the vehicle’s new technologies are pioneering, and at least a few are comparatively outdated.
Of all Lexus vehicles, the IS in particular “has been a consistent source of new youthful consumers coming into the brand,” said Owen Peacock, national product marketing manager of the Lexus division of Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., based in Torrance, Calif. — speaking at a late May press conference where prototypes of the new IS were available for test drives. In the “entry-luxury” market segment in which it competes primarily against the BMW 3 Series and Cadillac ATS, “IS is already the youngest car in the industry,” Peacock said. “We expect it to get even younger with this new model.”
High tech, not always highest tech
The formula for attracting those younger customers will be “great value” matched to “more expressive styling and greatly enhanced driving dynamics,” he said.
To wit: All IS models, regardless of model–line positioning, now come with subscription–free traffic and weather information piped to their seven–inch dashboard-mounted LCD screens via an HD Radio data broadcast. This freebie won’t require the purchase of a navigation system option, and Lexus asserts that it is precedent–setting in the industry, because no other automaker has ever offered subscription–free realtime traffic and weather, nor offered this technology without a navigation system.
Other technology introductions for the 2014 model–year include: a 4.2–inch color “multi–information display” or MID in the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel that displays colors and can show picture IDs for incoming phone calls (utilizing a Bluetooth–connected cellphone); a seven–inch “multimedia display” that sits high on the dashboard, in the driver’s line of sight through the windshield; and enhancements to the vehicle’s optional navigation system and audio systems.
Among those enhancements are: new 3–D street view maps, low fuel points–of–interest (POI) listings, new predictive traffic information in the navigation system; a radio cache that continually stores the most recent 15 minutes of a live broadcast for pause and resume functionality; and a home screen that can be customized to show one, two or three panels of information.
With the optional navigation system installed in the vehicle, traffic updates are refreshed every two minutes and weather information (with Doppler radar maps and forecasts) is refreshed every 10 minutes. Without the navigation option, static traffic information is refreshed every 10 minutes and weather forecasts (without Doppler radar maps) are refreshed hourly.
The predictive traffic feature is new to the IS but — like 3–D street view maps — has been available in other cars earlier. It anticipates what traffic conditions will be 15, 30 and 45 minutes into the future, and offers to adjust the navigation route accordingly.
The low–fuel POI feature automatically activates a warning message on the navigation screen when the low–fuel warning light turns on in the instrument cluster, providing an opportunity to display a list of nearby gas stations — and navigate to one.
More technology options include: a blind–spot monitor with rear cross–traffic alert; a lane departure warning system coupled with an automatic high beam headlight system; and adaptive cruise control paired with a pre-emptive pre–collision system. The blind–spot monitor warns the driver against changing lanes when another vehicle is traveling beside the IS where it’s not readily seen. Rear cross–traffic alert warns the driver when the IS is in reverse gear and an unseen vehicle is about to cross its path — for instance, when the driver is backing out of an angled parking spot with his rear side view is obscured. Adaptive cruise control maintains both a specified speed and a specified distance to the vehicle ahead. The pre–collision system senses an impending collision and readies the brakes and steering system for the driver, helping to steer around the vehicle ahead and increasing braking force to mitigate the severity of a potential crash.
Here again, though, Lexus has positioned the new IS behind the curve, by not giving it the most advanced blind–spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance systems.
The newest blind–spot monitoring systems available in other MY2014 autos look back down the road to detect and warn about fast–approaching vehicles that will be in the blind spot soon, rather than just detecting vehicles that are already there (as the IS system does). The newest adaptive cruise control systems will slow the vehicle down to a full stop behind the vehicle ahead, but the system in the IS will slow it down to only 25 miles per hour, at which speed the driver must take back control. And the newest collision avoidance systems will take control of the brakes to mitigate or avoid an impending rear–end collision even before the driver has reacted.
Style, space, and vastly improved performance
Compared with the prior generation, the 2014 IS is all–around larger and roomier. Overall length has been extended by 3.6 inches and the wheelbase by 2.7 inches; body width increased by 0.4 inches; and height grew by 0.2 inches. Thus interior legroom room for backseat passengers has been expanded by 1.6 inches, and for front seat occupants by 0.9 inches, while headroom, shoulder room and hip room are increased, as well.
Additionally, the seats have been revised with a steeper downward angle to the back — lowering the hip point by 20mm — to keep occupants more firmly planted. And the steering wheel has been brought closer to the driver by reducing its angle three degrees.
New styling outside emphasizes the car’s bigger dimensions. A larger grille and new headlight casings visually widen the car and give it an aggressive look and stance in front, while new taillights do the same at the rear. (HID or high–intensity discharge low/high beam headlamps and LED daytime running lights are standard. LED low/high beam headlamps are optional.) On the side, a styling line at the bottom, swooping from the front door to the taillight, and a high beltline visually elongate the car.
A more rigid body structure and a retuned suspension contribute to better handling around corners.
Two model choices are available — IS 250 and IS 350 — both in rear–wheel–drive (RWD) or all–wheel–drive (AWD) configurations. The AWD drivetrain will automatically vary front–to–rear torque balance from 50–50 to 30–70, to meet traction needs in assorted weather conditions.
All IS 250 models are propelled by a 2.5–liter, 205 horsepower V6 engine mated to a six–speed automatic transmission — the same engine and transmission used in MY2013 IS models.
All IS 350 models have a 3.5–liter, 306 horsepower V6 engine mated to an updated version of the eight–speed automatic transmission used in the 2013 IS-F, a high–performance version of the discontinued second–generation model. This “Sport Direct Shift” transmission comes with paddle shifters at the steering wheel and a new “G-force Artificial Intelligence” (G-AI) system that automatically selects the best gear and downshift pattern in response to the G-forces acting on the moving car.
In both the IS 250 and IS 350, a new “Drive Mode Select” system alters the vehicle’s throttle response, suspension, and power steering characteristics in different configurations that emphasize varying degrees of fuel efficiency, comfort, and spirited driving. Eco mode makes the throttle makes the throttle less jumpy for smoother acceleration and also changes how the car’s air–conditioning works — slowing the blower motor and engaging “recirculation” — to boost fuel economy. Sport mode makes the throttle more responsive from a standing stop and also decreases power steering assist. Normal mode offers a blend of fuel efficiency and sportiness. In AWD models, a Snow mode is oriented toward winter driving.
There isn’t a 2014 IS–F. But there is an “F Sport Package” for MY2014. It provides 18–inch wheels, a more performance–oriented suspension tuning, unique interior design elements, distinctive exterior bodywork, and an engine tone that has been made to sound sportier. Also, in IS 350 F Sport models, the Sport mode in Drive Mode Select is replaced by Sport S and Sport S+ modes, which progressively adjust the suspension for less and less body roll, further increasing the car’s agility.
For drivers and passengers alike, all of these changes in the 2014 IS translate to a car that is comfortable cruising down the highway or navigating suburban streets, and much fun to drive on a racetrack.
I experienced this myself at the Lexus press event. There, I drove the 2014 IS 250 AWD F Sport, IS 350 AWD F Sport, IS 250 AWD and IS 350 RWD — as well as the 2013 IS 350 RWD — around Rockingham Speedway in Rockingham, NC. And I drove the IS 350 RWD on the local roads in nearby Pinehurst, NC.
Performance differences among the 2014 variants were in line with my expectations. In all regards, the differences between the 2013 IS 350 and its direct descendant were unmissable.
Of course, I most enjoyed driving the IS 350 F Sport — because of its features and capabilities detailed above, and all the nuances explained in a Car and Driver magazine comparison test of that car, the BMW 335i sedan, and the Cadillac ATS 3.6 sedan. The test results, published in the magazine’s July 2013 issue, rank the Lexus in first place, ahead of the BMW and the Cadillac respectively.
Base prices for the 2014 IS 250 are $35,950 (RWD) and $38,845 (AWD). Base prices for the 2014 IS 350 are $39,465 (RWD) and $41,700 (AWD). Additional prices for the F Sport Package range from $2,675 to $3,620, depending on model variant.