Looking for Fun in a 2014 Lexus IS

The skepticism began when I received an invitation to fly down to North Carolina to drive a Lexus around a racetrack that wasn’t their LFA flagship supercar. Rather, I would be driving the newly redesigned for 2014 Lexus IS. My lack of enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that previous iterations of the IS have never showed any signs of sport, despite their place in the entry-level luxury sports sedan segment. They weren’t bad cars by any means, and they embodied the luxury, comfort, and reliability that Lexus is known for. But when compared with its German—and now, with the addition of the Cadillac ATS—domestic competitors, the Lexus IS always fell short in the fun-to-drive department.

So when the engineers at Lexus told a room full of auto journalist (aka “driving enthusiasts”) that the goal for the 2014 Lexus IS was to create “the most fun car to drive in its class,” there was a lot of eye rolling and perhaps a snicker or two amongst the crowd.  But with over a million miles put into testing the car, I was at least willing to hear them out.

002 Lexus

Exterior

Just looking at the new IS you could tell that Lexus was taking this whole “fun to drive” thing seriously. If the design of the previous IS was plain vanilla, the new design is a flavor so intense it doesn’t even have a name yet. Too intense, in fact, for my tastes upon first glance, particularly the large front “spindle” grill, an exaggerated play on Lexus’ new signature design feature. That said, you need to tip your hat to Lexus knowing that in order to disperse the preconceived notions that the previous IS carried with it, and capture the attention of would-be 3-series or C-class drivers, they needed to offer the boldest and most aggressive styling in its class.

In any case, the more time I spent with the car, the more I came to appreciate—dare I say love—the subtleties in the design that actually make this the best looking car in the segment, save for perhaps the more conservative 3-series M-Sport.

Of particular note is the swooping line that starts midway through the bottom of the front doors, cutting through the rear wheel well to meet up with the rear lights, and finishing off through the rear trunk lid. I even came to appreciate the front end, with its aggressive air inlets and headlamps and LED’s that seamlessly integrate into the bodywork.

Lexus Interior

Interior

If you’ve ever sat in the outgoing IS, forget everything. In line with the old IS exterior, the interior was equally boring, with nothing about it inspiring spirited driving.  But with the newly aggressive exterior of the new IS comes a revamped interior to match. Replacing the wide-open feel of the outgoing model, the new IS benefits greatly from a more cockpit-like layout and lowered driver position. The seats in the standard model are comfortable and provide ample support, but the sport seats from the F-Sport package are, in my opinion, the best seats available in any car in the segment, and worth splurging for the F-Sport package on their own.

Similarly, the standard 8-speaker, 250 watt sound system is great, but the 15-speaker, 800 watt Mark Levinson system is remarkable—but only worth spending for if you’re an audiophile.

And while the computer-mouse-inspired infotainment system is safer to use than a touch screen, it still requires too much driver attention to be considered a better alternative to the tactile feel of buttons and dials found on the exceptionally easy to use system in the Mercedes C-Class. Thankfully though, some buttons and dials remain for the most regularly used functions, such as volume and climate control. 

Speedometer Lexus

Performance

So about that whole “fun-to-drive” thing Lexus was going for with the new IS …

It was smart on Lexus’ part to have an outgoing IS350 on hand for us to drive at the track for a side-by-side comparison, because, like the exterior and interior, the new IS drives like a completely different car—for the better. Where the old IS suffered from oversteer, body roll, and poor braking, the new IS felt confident in the corners, both under speed and during braking. The new chassis and suspension work perfectly together to provide you with a sporty feel when pushing the car, but not at the expense of a comfortable ride when casually cruising.

But the fun factor depends heavily on your engine choice. While most will find the 204hp and 184 lb-ft of torque 2.5 liter V6 in the IS250, with a 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds (8.3 seconds with AWD) to be enough for general driving, it lacks the power necessary to really feel fun. So if fun is what you’re after, spring for the 306hp and 277 lb-ft of torque 3.5 liter V6 in the IS350, with a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds (although most agreed it felt faster). It not only provides you with the power that’s lacking in the IS250, it also sounds a lot better too.

Lexus Art Shot

Wrap-Up

So is the new Lexus IS fun to drive? Absolutely. Is it “the most fun car to drive in its class”? It’s hard to say. When you remove cost as a factor, the 335i M-Sport still gets my nod in the fun department, but fully loaded comes in a few thousand dollars higher than the comparably equipped IS350 F-Sport. If cost is a factor, you could argue that the Cadillac ATS, which is a blast to drive and comes in a few thousand less than the IS, is the best value.  But regardless of those minor differences, there’s no question that the 2014 IS is now a serious contender in the entry-level luxury sports sedan segment, and a car that its competitors should be worried about.

[More by David Heath]

Seeking Powder and Finding Power in the 2013 Ford Explorer Sport

When Ford asked me to test out the new 2013 Explorer Sport, I knew my home base of New York City couldn’t offer the driving conditions it was built for. Sure, I’d hit plenty of potholes and swerve to avoid taxis cutting across four lanes of Broadway, but an Explorer seems to long for more natural extremes, like snow, ice, and treacherous mountain passes. The Explorer Sport attempts to solidify its position in the crossover SUV category—compared to the pickup truck-based platforms of previous generations—and almost seemed to challenge me to exploit the multiple personalities it embraces, from fun and sporty, to practical and comfortable, to capable and confident. Challenge accepted.

In the middle of winter there are few things that consume my thoughts as much as finding the best snow possible, and for this assignment the destination was obvious. I called up a buddy and we packed our bags and hopped a flight to see what our neighbor to the north had to offer. Shortly after landing in Calgary, we rendezvoused with our ruby red metallic Ford Explorer Sport. At first glance, it’s clear that what separates the Sport from your standard Explorer is the use of black exterior trim accents where you’d otherwise find aluminum. A black front grill and rear lift gate badge, slightly smoked front and rear lights, and, most notably, the black and polished aluminum 20-inch sport wheels add a healthy touch of aggression.

We made quick use of the Explorer’s roomy interior. While not power-assisted, the second and third rows of seats folded down quickly and intuitively with the pull of a few levers, creating 80.7 cubic feet of space, enough for two large ski/board bags and two large rolling suitcases to lay comfortably, while still allowing full visibility out of the rear windshield.

Anyone who hasn’t been in a newer model Ford—say, in the last four to five years—usually pauses for a second, looks around, and, with a dumbfounded look says, “This is a Ford?” Gone are the days of cookie cutter layouts and cheap materials. The overall fit and finish of the new Sport is superior, with a great blend of glossy black, brushed metal, and leather-wrapped surfaces throughout. From the driver’s seat, everything is within easy reach, and thanks to the adjustable seats, steering wheel, and pedals, there is no compromise in finding the perfect driving position, whether you’re of basketball point guard or jockey stature.

Making myself familiar with the center dash and MyFord Touch SYNC entertainment system was easier than most, although I would still opt for physical buttons and dials over touch-sensitive buttons and screens. I found myself taking my eyes off the road for far too long to perform simple tasks such as adjusting the temperature or switching between the navigation and radio. Unfortunately, the touch trend is spread industry-wide, so it’s unfair to single out Ford for embracing it. Indeed, once familiar with the layout I found the Sport’s controls more intuitive than the majority of its competitors.

Once fully acquainted it was time to shift our attention back to what we came here for: snow, and lots of it. Revelstoke Mountain boasts the highest average annual snowfall of any resort in North America, with a season-to-date accumulation of over 400 inches at the time of our visit, so we programmed the navi and pointed the Explorer west to find our flakes.

The nearly five-hour, 254 mile jaunt provided plenty of distractions by way of awe-inspiring views of the sprawling Canadian Rockies. What started as a few mounds in the distance soon became mile-high snow-covered giants, which caused us to utter “wow!”, “amazing!”, and “incredible!” on a perpetual loop throughout the drive. Feeling a bit peckish, we scheduled a pit stop in Banff, where a few friendly locals directed us to Bear Street Tavern. Despite hailing from the pizza mecca of New York, we ordered a wood oven-baked pie and devoured it with their signature chili oil and honey dipping sauce slathered on every bite, a delicious combination I was glad to discover. With our appetites quelled we hit the open road to find out if the Sport was deserving of its title. Spoiler alert – it is.

Most notably, this nearly 2.5 ton hauler of seven will charge to 60 mph in just over six seconds, a full two seconds quicker than its non-turbo sibling, the Explorer Limited. This upgraded figure owes it all to the aluminum 3.5-liter twin-turbo intercooled EcoBoost V6, a beast of an engine that produces 365 BHP and 350 foot-pounds of torque. With wide open stretches of highway to attack, I was especially thankful for the increase in power, as it instilled confidence when passing the massive, trans-Canadian freighthaulers these parts are known for—not to mention the 45 minutes it shaved off our estimated drive time.

As we drove along, the snow banks lining the road grew higher and higher, from a paltry foot outside Calgary to nearly six feet as we approached Revelstoke. Exhausted from our 5 1/2 hour flight and 4 hour drive, we made haste to The Sutton Place Hotel, Revelstoke Resort’s ski-in/ski-out lodge situated at the base of the mountain.

With the Explorer Sport safely tucked away in the heated underground garage, we made our way to the room to see what The Sutton Place had to offer by way of accommodations. Throughout the hotel it was clear that no expense was spared when it was built less than six years ago. Our 475 square foot studio suite was equipped with a kitchen, gas fireplace, balcony, and an oh-so-necessary washer and dryer.

After a much-needed good night’s rest, I slipped on my new AirBlaster Ninja Suit (a base layer you will never go without after you try it once), followed by the rest of my gear. I was about to experience one of the more technical mountains North America has to offer, and I knew I would need a board that could handle it all, from open powder bowls, to tight trees, and even the occasional groomer, so I grabbed the newest addition to my quiver, the hard-charging, all-mountain Jones Flagship. (Story continues below.)

Explorer Sport 2

Despite its claims, I found myself cursing the Flagship for the first few runs, primarily due to my lack of familiarity with it, and partly due to the fact that the Flagship was created by snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones. Not surprisingly, his namesake board requires a certain degree of skill to control. The biggest contributor to this is the Flagship’s incredible stiffness, which makes slow turns and hard stops all the more difficult for the uninitiated. This is a board you cannot fight, because no matter your strength, it will win. Once I came to realize this and decided to put more of my trust in the board I fell in love with it. All the negatives I found earlier in the day turned into positives as it tackled everything from tight glades, to cliff drops, to hard-packed groomers with confidence.

During our time at Revelstoke we made use of all the terrain the mountain had to offer. With only three upper mountain lifts, we were blown away by the amount and variety of accessible in-bounds terrain. That said, only advanced to expert skiers or riders will be able to fully enjoy all that Revelstoke has to offer, particularly in the way of glades. And while you can hit glades on every run, the north face of the mountain, serviced via the “Ripper” quad chairlift, is where you’ll spend the majority of your time if you’re a true tree hugger.

Knowing that British Columbia is home to some of the best backcountry terrain in the world, we decided it was time to continue our journey to meet up with our friends at Big Red Cats, a snowcat skiing operator. With the daylight hours dwindling we packed up the Sport and headed south to Rossland.

Had I known the treachery of the five-hour drive that lay before us, I would have preferred to have the sun on our side, but the Sport’s improved handling kept my confidence high as conditions deteriorated. The Canadian word for highway surely can’t share the U.S. definition, because Highway 6 is nothing more than a mountain road that would put most race tracks to shame. For nearly the entire drive, the two-lane ribbon boasted a sheer mountain face on one side and 150-foot-plus drops on the other, with two-way traffic that included an endless stream of big rigs blasting past us at high speed.

With the roads covered in a mix of gravel and ice, I set the dial on the Terrain Management System to the Gravel/Snow setting, taming the otherwise sporty throttle response to minimize wheel slip. During lulls in oncoming traffic, I seized the opportunity to push the limits of the Sport’s upgraded suspension, larger brakes, 20-inch wheels, and increased steering response. Under pressure, I felt the weight of the Sport in the form of body roll, but the upgrades to the overall handling provided a level of control similar to that of your standard mid-sized sedan, an impressive feat considering its hefty curb weight.

Despite its powerful engine and responsive handling there was one flaw to the Sport that prevented us from coming in under the drive time calculated by its navigation system. Like Mr. Hyde, the Sport’s one major downside only presents itself at night, in the form of “are-they-on?” headlights. As the winter sun slipped below the horizon, more than once I found myself wondering if the headlights were turned on at all. Once I confirmed that they were, I was shocked to learn that a 2013 model car costing nearly $50,000 not only didn’t come with HID headlights standard but they aren’t even an option. Adding to the halogens’ sub-par performance are the lack of headlight washer nozzles, which came as an even bigger surprise considering that, at the end of the day, the Sport is still an SUV, and is expected to be exposed to dust, dirt, sand, snow, and whatever else the environment can throw at it.

Poor visibility aside, we pulled into Red Mountain Resort thirty minutes ahead of schedule and checked into one of their mountainside two-bedroom suites, complete with a full kitchen, sleeping room for up to six, and a private outdoor hot tub that we made instant use of to loosen ourselves up for the three days of powder hunting which lay before us. (Story continues below.)

Explorer Sport 3

Early the next morning, we met up with Kieren Gaul, owner of Big Red Cats, for a quick but thorough avalanche safety briefing, avalanches being the most prevalent danger we would face in the backcountry. As the biggest Cat skiing operation in the world, Big Red offers three different skill levels: intermediate, advanced, and expert. Naturally, we opted for expert to see if we could hang. With my powder-specific Jones Hovercraft in tow, we started on our twenty-minute ascent to the first peak, grinning anxiously as the air grew thinner.

In the three days that followed we would explore just a fraction of the 5,000+ acres of back country Big Red operates in. The guided trips (Kieren leads the majority of the expert-level trips himself) would deliver us to a mix of open bowls, cliff drops, pillow lines, and glade runs, all of which shared one thing in common: fresh powder lines of the face-blasting variety. Separating itself on uniqueness alone, one run had us weaving fresh tracks through five-foot high baby pine trees, which we aptly named the “Christmas Tree” run. While certainly not inexpensive at $450 a day, it’s still half the price of the cheapest heli-skiing trip, and something any avid skier or boarder should treat themself to at least once in their lives.

As our snowy week came to a close two things were blindingly apparent: If you’re looking for the best snow, head to British Columbia. And if you’re looking for the best car to drive for your search, get a Ford Explorer Sport.

Explorer Sport 4

First Drive: 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish

After nearly an eight-year hiatus, the 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish returns to reclaim the top stop as the king of the Sports GT world. Evolving from the recently departed, and wildly fantastic, DBS, the second generation Vanquish leaps forward borrowing on many of the technologies and styling cues, both internally and externally, from the $1.5-million dollar Aston Martin One-77 Supercar.

The design of the new Vanquish finds the perfect balance between modern and forward thinking elements while maintaining heritage styling cues that make it unmistakably an Aston Martin. Take, for example, the addition of the Vanquish’s new Aero Duct on the deck lid, an unique passive engineering feature designed to counteract lift of the cars rear while travelling at speed, takes one person nearly two days to complete a single unit.

Every body panel on the Vanquish is constructed entirely of high-grade carbon fiber, a first for an Aston Martin production vehicle. The use of carbon fiber throughout the body is due to it’s incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio and its flexibility of form, allowing for an increase of torsional rigidity by more than 25 percent over that of the DBS, allowing for a great responsiveness and predictability in the Vanquish’s handling.

Powered by an all new, hand-assembled, 6.0 liter V12 matted to a performance honed six-speed transmission, the Vanquish produces 565hp and 457 lb/ft of torque, which will accelerate the car from 0-62 mph in 4.1 seconds with a top speed of 183 mph. Utilizing a proprietary torque converter borrowed from the One-77, the transmission seamlessly shifts through gears without hesitation or pause.

Keeping the Vanquish glued to the road are 20-inch light weight alloy wheels wrapped in Pirelli P-Zero rubber that were specially developed for the car, with 255/35ZR20 in the front and 305/30ZR20 in the rear. Utilizing the latest iteration of Aston Martin’s Adaptive Damping System, the driver is able to change the suspension, body rigidity, throttle response, brake position, and steering response by simply switching through three distinctive modes: Normal, Sport, and Track, taking the car from a comfortable cruiser to a track-day dominating monster. Helping instill confidence in braking are Carbon Ceramic brakes at all four corners, with the same calipers used on the One-77.

Inside, you’ll find exactly what you would expect from Aston Martin. An interior where nearly every panel is covered in the finest leather, requiring over 70 hours of expert craftsmanship, and seven leather hides, to complete the sport cars luxurious interior. The engineers at Aston Martin have managed to create 140 percent more storage space over the DBS.

One of the most defining interior improvements for the Vanquish is the introduction of the new center stack and infotainment system, another direct descendent of the One-77, which proves to be significantly more user friendly than it’s predecessor found in the DBS. Completing the package is a 1000w Bang & Olufsen 13-speaker audio system that can compete with the best home theater systems available. However, we much preferred the natural aural notes produced by the Vanquish’s incredible engine and exhaust.

So while it took nearly eight years for us to receive the new Vanquish, the wait was certainly well worth it. Embracing its multiple personalities allows the driver to feel equally comfortable with the Vanquish on crowded city streets or on long haul drives. And then, when the situation calls for it, provide immediate confidence swallowing up miles of twisted pavement at speed. These are claims for which most of its Italian counterparts aren’t as able to easily make.

And that is, of course, the defining difference with Aston Martin. While the Italian rivals show up to the dinner party in their purple velour dinner jackets emblazed with Swarovski crystals begging for attention, the Aston is more than content simply knowing that he’s the one hosting it. While other super cars pride themselves on being aggressive, the Aston Martin Vanquish prides itself on being assertive. 

Finally, when you consider the immense amount of technologies taken directly from the $1.5mm One-77, and the fact that this is one the most well rounded supercars ever built, at a starting price of $279,995, the 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish is a bargain that will make any one who is fortunate enough to get their hands on one more than pleased with their purchase.  

 The Aston Martin Vanquish is currently available for pre-orders now with first expected deliveries to take place in early 2013. 

Your Daily Commute Is More Fun With the 2013 Specialized Sirrus Hybrid Bicycle

Commuting. It’s rarely the best part of your day. And if you live or work in a highly congested city like New York, it can be downright dreadful. Packed subways, impenetrable traffic, expensive fares, the sweat…oh, the sweat. However, with an increase of 50 percent more people commuting to work by bicycle from 2000 (according to the US Census), maybe your commute doesn’t need to be all that bad…perhaps enjoyable even.

Speaking on the matter from first-hand experience, I can say with confidence that I do enjoy my commute to work, and depending on the day, it can even be the best part of my day (don’t tell my boss or girlfriend).  You see, I have been commuting to my place of work on two wheels for over five years now and I can say with absolutely certainty, pending any dehabilitating injuries [finds piece of wood and knocks loudly], I will continue in this fashion for as long as I am physically able.

Why do you ask? It is hands down the fastest way to get from point A to point B in a congested city for distances under four miles. To put this in perspective, the commute from my apartment by subway takes 25 minutes door-to-door. My bike? Four min. No joke. It’s also incredibly fun, very cost effective (if free works for you), provides you with some exercise, and, thanks to the constant breeze, you won’t sweat nearly as much as you would if you walked or took the subway. Again, first hand experience talking here (and I sweat…a lot. TMI).

But I’m not here to sell you on commuting by bicycle, despite my best efforts. What I am here to do is guide you on the best bike for said commute. Let me preface this by saying that I am NOT a bike expert. I don’t really know (or care for that matter) about the differences between brands, components, or setups. I’m just an average guy who rides a bike to work every day and occasionally on longer rides for exercise purposes. So if you’re looking for technical jargon and specifications, go and visit Chris Levesque at Sid’s Bikes on 19th Street in Manhattan. He is the best and will answer any question you throw at him.

I simply set out to find a bike that was going to be reliable, easy to ride on all road conditions, and light enough to carry up a few flights of stairs to my apartment. After trying a number of styles from pure road-race bikes to hard-core mountain bikes, I landed on a hybrid, again thanks to the experts over at Sid’s. And no, not that kind of hybrid. A hybrid bicycle combines the best features of both road bikes and mountain bikes to produce a bicycle that is both fast and sturdy and is capable of handling a wide variety of road surfaces.

And after spending a seemingly endless number of hours digging into the seemingly endless number of hybrid bicycles out there, I found the Sirrus line of bicycles from Specialized. If you’re unfamiliar, Specialized is one of, if not the most, well-known and respected bike manufacturer in the world. Walk blindfolded into any bike shop and in all likelihood you’ll bump into (or knock over rather) a Specialized first.

While the Sirrus line offers up seven different models, from the entry level Sirrus ($520) to the top of the line Sirrus Limited ($2,200), the function is the same throughout: to provide the rider with a bike that they can feel equally comfortable and confident weaving in and out of traffic as they would on a 25-mile race circuit.

I opted for the Sirrus Comp ($1,100), which falls directly in the middle and I can say that I couldn’t be happier. The shifts are quick, the brakes responsive, the steering is tight, and the frame is light. So much so that I’m able to haul it up 3 flights to my apartment with out breaking a sweat (and if you recall, I sweat).

To say that the Sirrus is more than capable of handling the most grueling of commutes would be a serious understatement, and unless you’re biking 3+ miles each way daily, most bikes should be able to get your from your home to office with out much trouble. But when it comes to long distance riding, or even the casual race, most non-road bikes will fall seriously short. But not the Sirrus. I’ve personally tackled multiple Central Park loops (6.1 miles) in a single shot with my legs giving out way before any sort of discomfort from the bike setting in. Oh, and did I mention it’s fast? I managed to clock a shockingly fast 43mph (on a slight decline) with full confidence and zero wobble.

Think of the Specialized Sirrus as the Porsche 911 of the bicycle world. Comfortable and easy enough to use as your daily driver, but more than capable of running hot laps when the time and occasion calls for it. And all for about $119,000 less and no cost to fill it up.

Start looking forward to your commute by visiting the Specialized Sirrus site here to select which model is right for you or visit your local bike shop (if you’re in New York, this rider recommends Sid’s Bikes). 

McLaren’s New $270K Drop-Top Beauty

We hope you have a napkin handy because if you’re anything like us, get ready to start drooling. No less than a few hours ago we got word that McLaren is soon to be releasing the drop-top version of their “only-car-to-give-the-Ferrari-458-Italia-a-run-for-it’s-money” McLaren MC4-12C and, damn, it is gorgeous.

The car is set to debut in the fall, so stay tuned for a more in-depth report when we finally get behind the wheel of this 3.1sec 0-60, 616hp, beast of a machine. For the time being just enjoy the slideshow and head on over to www.configure.mclaren.com to start customizing your own.