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]