The first time I approached the Lexus IS, I had to look twice to find the rear doors. That’s not because the cabin’s back doors are hidden or concealed. In fact, they stand out for their dramatic and graceful outline. And the rear-door handles nest as prominently and invitingly as the front-door handles in the flanks of this dynamic new luxury car. What’s more, the IS is a substantial car, well anchored and sleekly elongated, with a stretched-out body that makes room for back passengers.
But at first glance I missed the rear doors because the Lexus IS looks like a stealthy, slick coupe. It has the flash, dash and sparkle of a slinky two-door car that serves as an emblem of personal expression as much as a transportation tool.
I wasn’t surprised when Willy Moy, general manager of Ira Lexus in Danvers, told me that buyers of the new IS skew toward youthful drivers of luxury autos.
“It has a striking stance that they like,” he said.
In the all-new, 2014 version, the stance is more striking due to features like high shoulders that sweep upward from the tip of the front bumper and run prominently to the taillights. Like the front bumper itself, with a deep, dark and wide low intake underlining a zig-zag hourglass grille. Like bright, bold, check-mark-shaped accept lights vectored below the angled headlights. Like the spiral twist of the low door sills that suddenly slant upward as they approach the rear wheels. The car has a stand-out shape.
Still, the rear doors of the Lexus IS remain important elements of the auto. During the everyday, to-and-fro driving of a one-week evaluation, I found that the car’s sedan status — its four doors, rear seat and trunk — makes the IS a useful hauler as well as a striking showpiece. Changes in the updated, 2014 version make it even more helpful and accommodating.
That’s mostly because it’s larger. Lexus, the luxury-car division of Toyota, released the re-engineered and restyled, third-generation version of its IS sport sedan last summer. The new model is wider, and rides on longer wheelbase than the outgoing, 2013 model it replaced. The added size contributes to a roomier cabin and a larger trunk in the new model. One noteworthy benefit is an added 1.6 inches of rear-seat leg room — an impressive increase inside the confines of an automobile.
That certainly doesn’t make the IS a full-fledged family shuttle. It is a compact luxury sedan, in the class that includes the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, its two biggest competitors. Cars in that category have usable, but not generous passenger quarters. They’re typically considered personal cars, with the flexibility to handle lighter duty haul-around tasks.
I found the new Lexus handled such tasks with aplomb. A week’s supply of family groceries was a snap. My evaluation model buttoned up neatly over a set a skis and poles set diagonally in the trunk, along with a big ski bag and two bulky school backpacks. It left the cabin fully available for two children and their chauffeur (me), along with a boisterous, barking pooch. Sure, the skis were youth models; adult skis would not have fit (without folding down part of the split rear-seat back). And we three humans plus one canine might have grown uncomfortable in a run all they way to, say, Loon Mountain in northern New Hampshire. But for a close-to-home trundle of about 30 minutes, the energetic IS was a good companion.
Still, the car sticks closest to the two traditional functions of a luxury sport sedan: to engage active, athletic drivers with its performance while it impresses onlookers with its style.
The style side is handled by the body design of the new model, which carries into a cabin infused with an equal share of contemporary design.
The sporting performance of the 2014 IS is upgraded by changes such as a substantial increase in the rigid strength of its body. Lexus increased the number of body welds, while it employed advanced construction methods it calls “laser-screw welding and adhesive body bonding.” A stiffer vehicle body is more stable in motion, and it responds with more snap to driver commands. It is also more comfortable for riders, but the improvement in driving dynamics seems to be the headline advantage for the new Lexus.
Aided by other improvements — like fast-acting electric power-steering, added bracing, revised frame structures and new suspension geometry to quicken the car’s reflexes and hold it firm in turns — the re-made IS performs with so much spunk and agility that it is attracting a growing number of young drivers tuned in to the thrill and satisfaction of active and aggressive road control, according to Willy Moy, the Ira Lexus general manager.
He sees it elbowing into enthusiast territory first defined by the German auto maker BMW.
“This car is taking over what the BMW has done,” Moy stated. “The BMW got softer while the IS got hard.”
Hardness is a good quality in the code of sport drivers, who want autos that handle the road, rather than softly insulate you from it.
Lexus sells two versions of the IS. Both use rear-wheel drive, which is the traditional, coveted configuration for sport driving. All-wheel drive is available as an option. The IS 250 comes with a 204-horsepower V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The IS 350 contains a larger V6 that produces 306 horsepower, mated to an eight-speed automatic in the rear-drive version. The all-wheel-drove IS 350 uses a six-speed automatic.
Available now for about six months, the new version of the Lexus IS is pleasing existing fans, while it also brings new converts to Lexus, Moy said.
“We’re seeing a lift in sales from it.”
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2014 Lexus IS
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, rear- and all-wheel-drive compact luxury sedan
Price range: $36,845 to $42,595 (plus options)
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles basic warranty; 6 years/70,000 miles powertrain warranty; 6 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty
Base engine: 2.5-liter V6
Power: 204 horsepower at 6,400 rpm; 185 lb.-ft. torque at 4,800 rpm
Base transmission: six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 21 mpg city; 30 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 110 inches
Length: 184 inches
Width: 71 inches
Height: 56 inches
Weight: 3,461 pounds
Fuel capacity: 17.4 gallons
Turning circle: 34.2 ft.