With the redesigned 2014 IS sport sedan, Lexus is trying hard to appeal to buyers intent on getting a compact luxury car that's not only luxurious and well put-together, but also fun to drive. So focused is Lexus on this goal that it's holding regional media drive events at racetracks around the country for journalists to sample the IS' current variations on closed road courses.
We already reviewed the new 2014 IS earlier this year at its launch in Austin, Texas, but we're not going to pass up the opportunity to drive sport sedans around a track. So I trekked out to the media gathering Lexus held at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., a track familiar to NASCAR Sprint Cup fans as the home of the Pure Michigan 400 and other races.
The course laid out for us took us onto an infield road course before dumping the cars onto the front stretch of the oval track and then back into the infield course at the end of pit lane. It was a relatively simple course, but it provided a good opportunity to see just how well Lexus has tuned the new IS as an enthusiast's option.
The 2014 IS comes with two engines and powertrains: a 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic with rear- or all-wheel drive or a 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 paired to an eight-speed automatic in rear-wheel-drive form or the six-speed auto with all-wheel drive. Cars have a standard driver-selectable mode with a choice of Normal, Eco or Sport modes, which reconfigure things like steering effort and feel, throttle response, transmission shift points and even incorporate an adaptive shift strategy based on the g-loads the car is experiencing.
If you're going fast and haul down on the brakes in Sport mode, the car knows that you're likely intentionally driving aggressively and selects an optimum gear to keep your momentum as you power out of a turn. An F Sport Package is available on all models and adds an adjustable suspension setting and variable ratio gear to the steering, along with a reconfigurable sliding gauge cluster straight out of the Lexus LFA supercar. I tested all models available in all configurations and came away with some interesting observations.
First of all, the IS 250 is not the enthusiast's choice.
A zero-to-60 time of 7.9 seconds for the rear-drive model and 8.3 seconds for the all-wheel-drive model is dull by just about any measure, but try playing lead-and-follow with the professional drivers on hand in their previous-generation 2013 IS-F and you realize just how hard the 2.5-liter V-6 has to work to keep things on boil. The weight savings in the IS 250 versus the IS 350 is about 130 pounds — not bad — but not enough to make up for a 100-hp deficit. Out on the street, the IS 250 feels adequately powered and nimble, and since Lexus expects it to comprise 80% of IS sales, that's probably enough. But for pure entertainment value, step up to the IS 350.
The question then becomes to F Sport or not F Sport?
I sampled the IS 350 in both regular and F Sport trim and came away feeling that the regular rear-wheel version is the one to have. Around the track, the rear-wheel-drive IS 350's eight-speed automatic and predictive transmission program in Sport mode made for some fun corners at speed. The car pushes at the limit, with the electronic stability system cutting in to prevent much in the way of oversteer, even in Sport mode. Frankly, the system was a bit too intrusive even in the F Sport's Sport Plus mode, cutting engine throttle right when you wanted more. Switching off the electronic stability system would have been my next move, except that for insurance purposes, that was verboten.
The F Sport does provide some better feel and feedback, but it's not appreciably better than the regular model. Both the F's sport seats and the regular model's leather ones do a good job of keeping one in place, and while the F-Sport does have a grippier steering wheel, it's really up to the buyer as to whether all this will make a big difference in daily driving. Most folks who choose an F Sport are likely to do so based on the package's styling and interior changes.
Overall, Lexus has succeeded in creating a small sport sedan that is fun to drive, if not exactly a new benchmark for performance sedans that are compared to the BMW 328 and Cadillac ATS, two models whose track performance in our $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge were described as outstanding. Out on the street, the little Lexus can hold its own and entertain its driver quite well. If you plan on taking your IS to track-day events, however, I would suggest waiting for the next-generation IS-F.