2014 Lexus IS models show luxury brand addressing image problem
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In its short lifetime, Lexus has reached the pinnacle of success in the luxury vehicle market, at times leading all other brands in sales.
Toyota's upscale marque has accomplished that with a combination of style, craftsmanship and deadbolt reliability in its luxurious big sedans, midsize and compact cars as well as crossover and sport utility vehicles powered by conventional gasoline engines and gasoline/electric hybrids.
Starting with a single midsize sedan in 1989, the lineup also has expanded to high performance sport coupes and sedans.
But it suffers from an image problem. Think Lexus and you think high-end comfort, prestige and designer appointments. Think some of its competitors like BMW and the mind goes immediately to high performance.
The perception has changed somewhat and could accelerate markedly with the introduction of the compact 2014 Lexus IS models, which compete against the BMW 3-Series, Cadillac's ATS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4.
Among those, the Lexus trails in fifth place. Through the first half of 2013, IS sales totaled 10,786, compared to 49,162 for the BMW 3, 45,902 for the Mercedes C, 19,183 for the Caddy ATS and 17,842 for Audi's A4.
One thing that may have blurred the image: Lexus does not offer a manual gearbox on the IS. Even on the highest performance version, the F-Type, the transmission is an automatic, though it's an eight-speed with manual shift control.
The subject here is the new IS350 with all-wheel drive, which makes do with a six-speed automatic, also with manual control via shift paddles on the steering wheel. However, it has the same 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine as the F-Type.
There's also an IS250 with a 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 and the six-speed automatic. Both the 250 and 350 are available as F-Types, which feature revised suspension systems and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Prospective buyers in snow belt areas will appreciate the IS350's all-wheel drive. But it provides enhanced confidence even if it never sees slush or ice. Punch the pedal for a hot acceleration run and all four tires bite the pavement and launch the IS to 60 miles an hour in about six seconds.
Quick throttle tip-in is partly responsible. The term refers to the IS's characteristic of leaping forward as soon as you press the accelerator pedal. It happens so rapidly it can even become disconcerting if you're trying to maneuver in a parking lot.
On the road, the IS AWD exhibits solid straight-line tracking with tactile feedback through the steering wheel around curves. It's easy to feel the road condition and what the front tires are doing.
The all-wheel drive IS has three different driving modes, selectable by a button on the console: Eco, Normal and Sport. There's also a setting for snow, which starts the transmission in a higher gear to avoid wheel spin.
There's not a great difference among the three. The ride is slightly better in the Normal mode, which also defaults to Eco when the driving is leisurely. But the suspension is biased toward precise handling, so the ride gets punishing on rough roads regardless of the mode.
Inside, the IS exhibits an unusual instrument panel design that looks more industrial than luxurious. A panel that juts out of the center stack looks as if it would be just at home as a control console in a factory. Wood grain accents on the dash and doors, however, provide a luxury tinge. A step-on parking brake is out of character with the sporty orientation.
The front seats are supportive and comfortable, with good bolstering on the seatbacks. However, the sun visors do not slide on their support rods to block sunshine from the sides, and the cup holders on the console are tiny.
In back, the outboard seats can accommodate passengers up to about six feet tall but with little excess of head or knee room. The center position is impossible, a punishing perch that straddles a huge drive line hump. The trunk is nicely finished but the exposed C-hinges could damage luggage.
With a base price of $42,995, the AWD IS comes with a full load of safety equipment, along with automatic climate control, satellite and high definition radio, motorized glass sunroof, pushbutton starting and 17-inch alloy wheels.
An options package added leather upholstery, backup camera, lane departure alert and blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert. But the bottom line sticker of $47,480 did not include a navigation system.
Model: 2014 Lexus IS350 AWD four-door sedan.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 306 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and all-wheel drive.
Overall length: 15 feet 4 inches.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 90/14 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,737 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/26/21 mpg. Premium fuel recommended.
Base price, including destination charge: $42,595.
Price as tested: $47,480.