Lexus' 3-Series fighter just got a heck of a lot more serious.
As much as we love the rear-wheel-drive Scion FR-S sports coupe, we've long been afraid that its sporty DNA might make it an odd outlier in Toyota's portfolio of otherwise rather un-sporty vehicles.
Then again, Lexus seems to be doing a remarkably good job of stepping into that role these days. After years of boring complacency, Lexus has roared back with an edgier, sportier style. Perhaps no car better illustrates that new attitude than the 2014 Lexus IS.
Taking over for a dated, but strong-selling predecessor, the IS is tasked with bringing in the coveted yuppie demographic that flocks to the BMW 3-Series.
But as the 3-Series goes soft, Lexus is getting edgier.
The latest evolution of Lexus' "spindle" grille design is its best yet - at least to our eyes. The IS is mean and aggressive, not restrained and lumpy like its predecessor. Bold design cues throughout - like separate LED strakes below the headlamps and hard lines in the rear fenders - certainly set it apart in a generally buttoned-up segment. We're not sure how well the look will age, but it's undeniably more visually intriguing than that offered up by German, Japanese and American rivals like the evergreen 3-Series, the Audi A4, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Infiniti G37 (or whatever they're calling it this week) and the Cadillac ATS.
IS is available in a dizzying array of combinations - two V6 engines, two drive wheel choices (rear and all-wheel drive) and an F Sport trim with its own unique body kit, seats and performance-oriented suspension.
The new look hides last year's V6s: A 306-horsepower, 277 lb-ft. of torque 3.5-liter (IS 350) or a 204-pony, 184 lb-ft. of torque 2.5-liter (IS 250). Rear-drive IS 350s gain a terrific eight-speed automatic, but all other models use a carryover six-speed. Sadly, no manual gearbox is on offer.
IS 250s should remain the highest-volume units, and Lexus' decision to stick with a V6 instead of a turbocharged four-cylinder could be both a blessing and a curse. Certainly, the IS 250 is a little pokey compared to the BMW 328i, but it rewards by being ultra smooth and predictable thanks to its linear power delivery. That's something we can't say about even the best turbo fours.
Opt for the IS 350 and you'll net solid performance and a refined growl thanks to an induction system that pumps intake noise into the cabin. The six-speed automatic is actually a fine unit in all models, but the eight-speed was the real winner on our test drives through the winding hills around Austin, Texas.
We didn't have the opportunity to measure fuel economy, but Lexus' claims of 21/30 mpg for the thriftiest IS 250 to 19/26 mpg for its thirstiest IS 350 AWD are nothing to write home about.
Things aren't all that impressive in the engine department, but Toyota invested instead on a new, slightly larger platform and a GS-sourced multi-link rear suspension. Select the F Sport and you'll net adjustable dampers to stiffen things up.
The standard car rides firmly but compliantly. F Sports, predictably, tighten things up a bit. Though the electric steering doesn't deliver gobs of feel, it's surprisingly natural-feeling and wonderfully weighted. Little of the vagueness the plagues the larger GS is evident here.
F Sports turn things up a wick further when their IS 350 F Sport-exclusive Sport+ mode is selected using a console-mounted dial. Those models' variable ratio power steering enters sport mode, where feedback is unchanged but heft becomes more apparent at higher cornering speeds.
We were especially impressed with the F Sport's larger brakes while driving on a highly technical private race track.
Of course, few ISs will be used for track day duty. Off the track, the new car shines even more. Road noise proved louder than we anticipated on the glassy Central Texas pavement, but that's about the only demerit we found during our extensive testing.
Comforts of home
Settling into the IS' all-new cabin, we were greeted with a look not unlike that seen in the GS and flagship LS. The low dashboard and flat climate and audio control panels were simple and elegant. Materials selection is top notch throughout, certainly besting the occasional cheap bit seen in the latest 3-Series.
The optional Mark Levinson audio system was thunderously powerful and we loved its ceramic volume and seek knobs, which give it a hi-fi home theater look. Lexus saw fit to scrap knobs and buttons for its climate control temperature controls, instead relying on capacitive touch "sliders." Unlike conceptually similar units in recent Lincoln and Cadillac offerings, these are relegated to only one, occasionally-used function. Both elegant and intuitive, they are a model for gradual integration of new technology.
We wish we could say the same about Lexus' infotainment system controller, a mouse-like wart on the center console. Though we warmed up to using the system, there's more of a learning curve here than in many rivals. On the other hand, F Sport models feature one of the most trick gauge clusters we've seen (not pictured). The central speedometer moves to the left to enlarge an LCD screen with various trip computer and settings adjustments. Another cool tech is that the IS - and all new Lexus models - uses (free) over-the-air HD radio data to update its traffic and weather radar, which means drivers won't need to subscribe to a service just to see if roads are congested.
If traffic is a mess, at least the IS' sculpted front seats are a comfortable place to whittle away the hours. NuLuxe synthetic seating surfaces are standard, while leather is optional only on non-F Sports. At first, this seemed like a bad idea to us, but we quickly grew to like the plush-feeling NuLuxe, which Lexus promises is as hard-wearing as vinyl but with a premium feel befitting a luxury car.
It's this sort of unconventional thinking that Lexus has long needed.
Leftlane's bottom line
Sportier and more refined, the third-generation Lexus IS should make a mark on the compact sports sedan segment. We like its combination of interior and exterior style as well as its excellent road manners.
It injects some much-needed passion into Lexus entry-level model, something certain Germans are starting to lack.
2014 Lexus IS base price, TBA.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Follow Andrew on Twitter.