Is A New Kind Of Lexus Hiding Under That Radical Skin?

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport - front three-quarter view with trees

When the now-outgoing Lexus IS generation was launched back in 2006, the company would not have been wise to bring the compact luxury sedan to be driven by journalists to a track like Driveway Austin Motorsports. Taking along a BMW 335i for comparison loops would have proved an ill choice as well.

Our own Jonathon Ramsey found the current-generation Lexus IS250 to be fairly nimble over a tightly wound autocross course, when he drove it back-to-back with the prototype version of this 2014 IS a few months ago. Our track for testing the fully realized version of the IS350 F-Sport meanwhile – again with the 2013 version along for competitive driving – was on a circuit designed to string together recreations of some of the best tracks in the world. Laguna Seca, bits of the Nürburgring and sections inspired by Imola and Ferrari's Fiorano test track all make for a far more enticing road course than you'd expect to find plunked down in a nondescript area a few miles east of downtown Austin. Critically, this environment highlighted what strides Lexus has made in the sport sedan race with its new IS.

As a general statement, the new IS350 acquitted itself well when driven with pace on the aggressive track. The performance, and much higher level of driver satisfaction when compared with the old car, is down to a few significant revisions: a new eight-speed transmission, a stiffer body structure and a greatly revised power steering system.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport side view2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport front view2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport rear view

At Driveway, it was that retuned steering that made the biggest initial impact on us. We took four back-to-back laps, switching from old to new IS, and found that the new car has an unmistakably better, more talkative and more direct tiller. Though overall road feel through the wheel was still pretty low in the grand scheme of road cars, the 2014 IS350 gave us some sense of where the edge of grip was, especially when carrying speed through several high-speed esses. The older Lexus, meanwhile, felt utterly vague by comparison and proved much more difficult to plot an aggressive line with as a result. The more rigid body (combined with a less skittish rear suspension setup) also allowed for less strain during hard corners. There was also a much higher degree of stability under heavy braking in the new car versus the old, most notable when we shed speed quickly at the end of the long front straight.

The new IS has an unmistakably better, more talkative and more direct tiller.

Left to shift for itself in these track conditions, we did find the new eight-speed automatic to be a better companion than the old six-speed unit. Lexus poached the 8AT from its own IS-F, and added in something called "G-force Artificial Intelligence" that will downshift more aggressively as it senses increased G forces. This seemed to work, as the IS350 didn't often bog down when transitioning out of a corner. However, when we left the computers alone and switched both old and new cars into manual mode ­ – each operable by way of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters – the difference in transmissions had little impact on performance. Both autoboxes were equally quick to respond, which is to say just slightly less quick than your typical dual-clutch setup. Still, we'll call the eight-speed unit a boon for smooth normal driving on real roads and for slightly improved fuel economy.

Hot from the driver's seat, with brakes from both cars still sweetly stinking, it was obvious to us that Lexus had vastly improved at least the handling characteristics from one generation of IS to the next. Less obvious was that it had built a car that would trump the BMW 335i at its own sport sedan game.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport grille2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport headlight2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport wheel2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport taillight

The truth of the matter is that cars like the IS350 will win or lose mostly based on looks, comfort, content and price.

In addition to the old IS that Lexus trailered down for comparison lapping, the company also felt strongly that its new vehicle would stack up well versus BMW's turbocharged 3.0-liter 3 Series, as well as the Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport. The best that we can say about the IS350 here is that it drives a lot "smaller" around the track than the rather bulky Bimmer. The Lexus felt a bit more willing to be chucked through tight corners than did the 335i, though it's safe to say that the BMW was taking said corners at a quicker pace almost every time. In addition to having a motor that is clearly more powerful (anyone questioning BMW's underrating of horsepower is encouraged to drive these two cars back-to-back), the BMW offers a level of fluidity and composure when moving through corner complexes that the IS can't match, – and a great deal more stability when braking heavily. Both cars are quick, but the 335i felt more mature at the end of the day.

And the C-Class? Well, our mother always told us that it's better to say nothing at all, if you haven't got anything nice to say. We'll divulge that we didn't consider the Mercedes-Benz a match for either the Lexus or the BMW, at least not on the track, and let that suffice.

Sadly, the world is not peopled with car buyers shopping for luxury sedans based mostly on how well they lap a circuit. It's a fun fantasy, and we'd wager that there are a lot of owners that like to think they have the raciest competitor in the segment, but the truth of the matter is that cars like the IS350 will win or lose mostly based on looks, comfort, content, price and perceived prestige. That's the reality that has made Lexus such a force in the luxury market over the last two decades, and it's the sensibility that will make the new IS a popular pick.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport engine

For our day of test-driving, Lexus had on hand IS250 and IS350 vehicles, in both F-Sport and standard trim, with one all-wheel-drive car alleged to be in the mix somewhere, too. The dozen or so total vehicles on tap represented the totality of the 2014 IS fleet in North America right now – real production has yet to begin in earnest. The F-Sport-trimmed IS350 seemed to be the thickest on the ground, and we exclusively drove the more powerful cars on the track, so it was those vehicles that we comprehensively noted for this review. (The IS250 F-Sport that you see in our gallery was lent out for us to photograph after the other cars were packed away, and is visually a near-match for the IS350 F-Sport save badging and the lack of a Sport+ mode on the drive program knob.)

The IS250 will probably start around the $36,000 range, and move north of $50k for an all-boxes-ticked IS350 F-Sport AWD.

Pricing for the 2014 IS has yet to be revealed, but our friends at Lexus inform us that it will be "comparable" to the 2013 range. That indicates that the IS250 will probably start around $36,000 and move north of $50k for an all-boxes-ticked IS350 F-Sport AWD. Generally speaking, Lexus pricing has lived a few thousand lower than BMW and Mercedes-Benz competitors, and a few thousand more than comparable G37 (soon to be Q50) models from Infiniti. We expect that to mostly hold true for 2014.

The question remains, will your forty-odd thousand dollars buy a car you like to see in your garage every day? There is a passing chance that if you're reading our review, you've already seen images of the new, rather radical IS bodywork from its debut appearance at the Detroit Auto Show. If so, you've most likely already formed your opinion about the slashed bodyside, the wrapped and pointy taillights and the biggest-yet instantiation of Lexus' spindle grille. If you're anything like the dozen or so motoring journalists we surveyed on the test drive, you've also probably come down firmly in either the Love It or Hate It way of seeing things.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport logo2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport badge

Early in the proceedings, Lexus vice president of marketing Brian Smith told us that the company has become "obsessed with design." Based on the new cars and facelifts we've seen over the last year, that doesn't seem to be an overstatement. But the fallout from putting an emphasis on design is that you'll often reveal something bold that truly polarizes the viewing public – this IS seems to be just that sort of thing. We will only add that a few days of looking at the IS350 revealed that the shape isn't quite so shocking in person as it had appeared when we saw the first studio shots of it – less different than the previous generation car than we'd expected – and that it does come off better with the optional 18-inch alloy package, if only because the new profile tends to make wheels look small. (Bigger wheels look cool, who knew?)

Lexus VP Brian Smith told us that the company has become "obsessed with design."

The interior design of the IS is likely to be a lot less controversial. From our first moments behind the wheel, we found the Lexus cockpit to be fashionable and comfortable and loaded with surprising technology. Some buyers might not like dropping down into the deep front buckets of the F-Sport trimmed cars, but they'll likely give way to the comfort and stability while driving that they provide. While standard leather seating is offered for other packages, our F-Sport car made use of Lexus' NuLuxe seating materials, which we actually really like in the deep red hue. NuLuxe is made from polyurethane, and gets used in the F-Sport cars because it's lighter, grippier and more resistant to moisture than standard leather. We thought that the material's slightly matte finish fit in perfectly with the rest of the cabin, which relies heavily on brushed metal accents, soft-surfaced plastics and generally non-shiny controls and touch points. Even the excellent new navigation display had a kind of matte finish to the surface, that was both unexpected and pleasant. We also found that that horizontal orientation of the elements of the dash made the whole cabin feel wider, and a touch more sophisticated.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport interior2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport gauges2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport multimedia control toggle2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport drive mode control knob

We found the Lexus cockpit to be fashionable and comfortable and loaded with surprising technology.

From the perspective of the driver, the flashiest piece of tech has got to be the configurable gauge cluster that borrows liberally from its supercar sibling, the Lexus LF-A. The display features a sliding bezel which can either be centered with smaller information "boxes" on either side or moved off to the right with a touch of a button on the steering wheel to display one large box on the left hand side. We really liked this latter configuration, as it allowed us to easily use a joystick on the steering wheel to call up pertinent information like navigation directions, radio adjustments and car status info. Specifically, seeing the turn-by-turn navigation directions were far less distracting than having to turn to look at the central display, and proved nearly as good as a heads-up display on the windshield (though not quite).

On the road – driving like sane people and at legal speeds, after the palpitating track experience – we also found that Lexus hasn't thrown its conservative-hearted baby out with the high-design bathwater. This is still a Lexus. The ride is smooth and not fussy, visibility is good and the sense of quiet at highway speeds is really only broken by the excellent Mark Levinson stereo system. The 306-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine is unchanged from the previous IS, and still offers a deep reserve of power for any task called up during the standard American commute. Lexus has even squeezed out one extra highway mile per gallon (28 versus 27 mpg from last year) that will probably be easier to achieve in real world driving than are BMW's turbo motor efficiency ratings. Call it a hunch.

2014 Lexus IS350 F-Sport rear 3/4 view

And it's that part – the easy-to-live with, great reliability and owner satisfaction scores part – that will seal the deal for those who shop this design-heavy sedan. Lexus may be treading in new waters in terms of youthful looks and promises of performance, but the IS still has enough underlying Toyota sensibleness to make it not daunting for those wanting to take their first steps into the luxury world. In fact, this whole remap of the brand's image is all about throwing off the notion that Toyota/Lexus products are always "boring," one huge black spindle grille at a time. In that spirit, a polarizing design like this one, which some people will actively dislike, is probably a good thing.

As for the sports sedan notion – hot track drive, racing instructors and all that – we're not convinced. Not because the IS isn't dynamically good but because, ­even as the letter-drenched IS350 F-Sport, this car is not likely to call away those who grew up hankering for an E30 M3 and an empty stretch of road. The segment of the population that truly cares about driving fast in a glitzy sedan is still likely to be better rewarded in a BMW or Infiniti showroom. (Hell, the Cadillac ATS may be the best of this bunch; we need a comparison test, and quick.) But when the IS goes on sale later this summer, we do believe that its overall balance, newly weighted in the direction of driving pleasure, will resonate with a big chunk of the real world.

UPDATE: We've just gotten an interesting email from Lexus, regarding the NuLuxe seating material in the 2014 IS. During the presentation of the interior at the IS launch program, we were told directly by a member of the Lexus team that NuLuxe contained both leather and "plastic" in its formulation. In fact, the description raised a few questions in our group, causing our product specialist to digress a bit, and refer to NuLuxe literally as "pleather" at one point. We found that interesting, and duly included a description of it in our review:

"One of the company's design guys explained that the "pleather" (his words, not ours) material actually contains a mixture of shredded leather and various plastics, and gets used in the F-Sport cars because it's lighter, grippier and more resistant to moisture than standard leather."

As it turns out, that is all completely incorrect. Lexus now tells us that NuLuxe is a product made entirely from polyurethane. What's more, the Lexus representative that we've been emailing with, admits that, going into the launch program, the team was told that NuLuxe was a leather/plastic amalgam. Our review has been edited to reflect all of this.