2014 Lexus IS, dueling with the Germans: Motoramic Drives
There’s a corporate phrase that gets thrown around at Toyota and Toyota-derived launches: kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement.” That’s certainly more true with some products than others, but the phrase really applies to the new Lexus IS, leagues better than the old version, which seemed a bit stale and imitative even when it was released in 2007, and hasn’t been much redeemed by the occasional refresh. It was always the definition of a middle-of-the-pack vehicle. But now the IS appears ready to move forward in line.
When you’re talking about the IS, you’re really talking about two separate cars: The IS250 and the IS350. Both have rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive remains optional) and V-6 aluminum block engines, but the 250 only generates 204 hp, while the 350 gets up to 306 hp. The IS350 also opts for a sportier 8-speed transmission, while the IS250 settles for a less engaging 6-speed automatic; both boxes work via the now obligatory paddle shifters.
The 350 remains a far more dynamic, sharp, and fun machine, though the 250 does get better gas mileage. They’re like identical twins, but the 350 is the naughty one, a real growler, while the 250 is docile and smooth, the sensible, steady one that gets good grades. And no, that wasn’t a Sweet Valley High reference. Or maybe it was.
Regardless, I drove the 2014 Lexus IS around a racetrack in Austin last week. It wasn’t the Austin racetrack, the Circuit Of The Americas, rather Lexus took us to Driveway Austin, a humble track built by a retired racecar driver, on the site of a former industrial scrapyard. The racer told us he had the intention of turning it into “the number-one training facility in the world.” That’s a questionable claim, but Driveway Austin does have its charms. The owner has constructed features based on the Festival Corner at Monaco, the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, and a straightaway at Nurburging. It’s challenging enough, but it’s not going to eat your soul. Because of that, it served as a perfect showcase for the new IS, which is not a racecar, or anything approximating such. But it’s still a really fun car to drive.
The new IS “has more of a sports car feel,” the former racecar driver told me as the Lexuses circled his land. He seemed particularly enthusiastic about the new suspension dynamic, augmented by softened coil springs and the “increased rigidity of the sway bar.” If you upgrade to the “F-Sport” package on the 350, the dampening rate gets electronically controlled. All of it adds up to increased cornering grip and a whizzy, go-kart-like feel to the ride. They told us to keep it at 70 mph and lower, but I had the IS350 up to 100 on the twisty track, and it jumped from cone to cone as efficiently as a frog hopping across lily pads. It was fast and wicked. The 250 was less so, but it held its stance with dignity, if not with as much speed and bone-rattling joy.