2014 Lexus IS First Drive

Familiarity does not breed contempt: The 2014 Lexus IS is better than ever.

What It Is
Entry-level luxury sedan with a flair for sport.
Best Thing
Interior is a contender for best-in-segment
Worst Thing
The IS 250 has a better transmission, same doggish engine.
Snap Judgment
More of the same, but better than ever, is as good as the best in the segment.


It wasn't until my sixth pass on the backstretch of Driveway Austin's Motorsports Academy in the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport that I realized why driving on a racetrack was important for a consumer automotive review. For the most part, these kinds of media events cater to an auto journalist's childish dream to be Mario Andretti or Ayrton Senna or Lewis Hamilton. But they usually have little bearing on how regular Americans will drive their cars on public roads.

I had a colleague once who was insistent on skipping track time at these events, saying that our publication was consumer minded and therefore didn't apply to his review. In this case, with Lexus in Austin, Texas, and with that manner of thinking, my former colleague would have missed out on a firsthand working example of new safety technology. He would have missed knowing and feeling and controlling the automobile under circumstances that are often replicated on public roads. And he would have missed knowing firsthand how the car under review performed compared to its competition in the segment.

That's only half the story, however, because the 2014 Lexus IS is more than just a sports sedan. The IS is one of Lexus' two most important cars, an entry-level model that brings young professionals into the luxury automaker's showrooms. And it's fun. So it goes without saying that Lexus was really excited about its redesigned IS, so excited, in fact, that it flew us to Texas for a model information preview and test drive. We walked away impressed, but we also left Texas wondering and dreaming and scheming for a comparison: Is the 2014 Lexus IS as good as the 2014 Cadillac ATS, or the benchmarked BMW 3 Series?

We're itchin' to find out.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Walkaround

The first photos of the 2014 Lexus IS stirred up an interesting office debate. And regardless of the impression, everyone was at least wowed. Most of the Automotive.com staff agreed that the rear of the car, with that sharp diagonal line from the taillights to just in front of the rear fender, was pretty impressive, while the new spindle grille and "Nike Swoosh" LED running lamps beneath the headlight assembly took some getting used to. This striking new design was less polarizing in person, though, when unveiled at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, and even less so now that we've spent more time with it.

Lexus says the rear design highlights the IS's rear-wheel drive platform, and that the higher beltline wraps the firmly stanced sport sedan with an elegant, athletic aesthetic. Overall, the new IS is 3.4-inches longer with a 2.7-inch increase to its wheelbase, 0.4-inch wider, and not significantly taller. To whom it matters, the 2014 Lexus IS is also more streamlined than the outgoing model, and achieved a .28 coefficient of drag (among other enhancements, CoD helps with improved fuel economy and reduces wind noise).

Both the IS 250 and IS 350 can be ordered with the F-Sport package (in both rear- and all-wheel drive), and those models receive additional exterior aero treatments, and upgrades to suspension and braking components, as well as various F-Sport badges.

Most importantly, though, the 2014 Lexus IS now has brand recognition. The spindle grille is as identifiably Lexus in the rearview mirror as the kidney bean grille is to BMW. And with the higher beltline and radical rear lines, the IS is the freshest looking car in the segment.

Sitting Down

Anyone intrigued by the outer looks will be positively rewarded once they step inside the 2014 Lexus IS. There's a lot going on inside, but it takes just a few moments for it to feel like home. Right off the bat, Lexus increased interior volume. That means more room up front, and in the back, too.

The driver's position is a sport-themed cockpit. It sits lower, and the angle of the steering wheel has been reworked to put the wheel closer to the driver's hands for a more controlled drive. The NuLuxe interior is soft like leather, but smooth and durable (and not animal derived), and the seat bolsters tell you right away--these are here for a reason. And if you've been monitoring Lexus interiors since the recent rebranding effort (GS, ES, LS, now IS), the horizontal layout will look familiar.

With increased length and wheelbase, Lexus was able to add about 1.5-inches legroom for backseat passengers. And more importantly, thin-back seats provide spacious knee room. Which is great for the young single professionals who happen to multiply. The new 60/40 split-folding seats will come in handy for those trips to Home Depot or Lowe's.

Aside from aesthetics, the IS interior also boasts some cool new technology. The infotainment's screen gets 3D navigation maps and "predictive traffic" updates every 2 minutes, real-time weather updates every 10 minutes; 20 minutes of recordable HD radio, and a low fuel reminder with popup points of reference for where to refuel. New IS F-Sport models also get a new gauge cluster inspired by the Lexus LFA supercar. Aesthetically, it looks gimmicky, but in practice, it's a marvel.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

There is an almost insignificant 2-mpg difference between the small V-6 and the big V-6, but the difference in driving dynamics is, for us, the deciding factor. Both engines are carryover from the previous generation: One's a 204-horsepower slug that revs smoothly, but struggles to accelerate the IS in traffic or up hills. The other is a 306-horsepower stallion with the eight-speed automatic transmission sourced from the current IS-F. For the statistically conscious, that means freeway speeds happen in as little as 7.9 and 5.6 seconds; a little higher for all-wheel drive models.

We're pretty sure that that is why, on the racetrack in Austin, we sampled the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport, and not the lesser-powered variant. We drove it back to back with a 2013 BMW 335i, a 2013 Mercedes-Benz C350, and a 2013 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport. It was not a direct apples-to-apples comparison--the Benz and BMW were not equipped with sport packages--but the point of the exercise, although fun, was more to compare high speed stability and handling prowess than it was to see which was quickest around the track.

Like the 2013 Lexus GS 350, the 2014 IS receives a number of chassis and suspension upgrades, as well as aero stabilizer fins fitted along the mirrors and undercarriage. The multi-link rear suspension was sourced from the GS 350 and it increases tire grip by up to 15 percent; its compact design also increases trunk space (yes, trunk space). The front stabilizer bar's rigidity has been increased by 20 percent. To increase driver confidence and steering feel, Lexus used stiffer rubber bushings in the front strut support, and the electric power steering's motor reduces steering effort when in "Sport" mode. The new IS also receives various braking components that lessen brake pedal effort, and improve cooling characteristics.

On the back high-speed stretch of the racetrack, we routinely hit 105 mph in each car. This led to hard braking and a sharp, double-apex and decreasing-radius corner--and the perfect spot to test just how stable each car was while standing on the brakes. And while this may not appear to be important or relevant to consumer interests, consider an equivalent situation on the highway (minus the racing aspect) of driving at 70-80 mph and needing to rapidly drop speed to about 30 mph. Maybe a deer darts onto the highway, or a car cuts in front of the car in front of you and slams on the brakes.

With the aero fins and stiffened chassis, the 2014 Lexus IS was the best-controlled car on the racetrack. That doesn't mean it was the fastest. That doesn't mean it had the quickest lap time. It was, however, the most confident; no butterflies in the pits of our stomachs. Though the previous-generation IS 350 F-Sport Lexus brought out was no slouch, it had, by far, the most rear-end wiggle under hard braking. Simply put, it took a lot of effort to keep the car straight under rapid deceleration. The Mercedes, on the other hand, felt loose and slippery in our hands, while the BMW, though highly competent, and a beast in its own right, was no surer in its ability. If that deer or car cut in front of you on the highway, you would feel more secure and confident in the 2014 IS. You would maintain control more effectively than in a competitor.

What this all boils down to is that the 2014 Lexus IS just feels confident and easy in your hands, under pressure, on backroads, while enjoying a spirited ride, or when cruising down the highway. It drives not like a car assembled from many pieces, but as if it were carved from a single block of steel. It feels solid and controlled, as nimble as any sport sedan on the road, but as refined behind the wheel as any other Lexus. And that's the point for this entry-level sports sedan: it retains familiar Lexus attributes of luxury and quality while also appealing to design-conscious young professionals.

Summary

It's too early to call the 2014 Lexus IS a segment champion, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of the comparison opportunity. In our short time with the new IS, we felt that, in all configurations, it is civil, engaging, and fresh. It's not the fastest, or the most efficient, but it might be the best-designed package of fun, comfort, safety, and reliability in the segment.

Like its predecessor, Lexus is going to sell a boatload of 'em, too.

Basic Specs

2.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission with standard sport paddle shifter, rear- and all-wheel drive, 204 horsepower, 21 mpg city/30 mpg hwy (20/27 with all-wheel drive)
3.5-liter V-6, eight-speed automatic transmission with standard sport paddle shifter, rear- and all-wheel drive, 306 horsepower, 19 mpg city/28 mpg hwy (19/26 with all-wheel drive)

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