As a former U.S. president once asked, what is "IS"? In this particular instance, the subject at hand has nothing to do with illicit relations, but rather with automobiles. For 2006, Lexus launches the second generation of its entry-luxury IS sedan, and perhaps the biggest challenge the automaker faces is giving potential buyers a clear idea of what the '06 model is meant to represent.
First introduced five years ago, the original Lexus IS was billed as a hip, sporty and affordable alternative to the Japanese luxury maker's flagship LS 430. The smaller sedan did draw in some of the young, trend-setting buyers that otherwise ignored Lexus showrooms, but their numbers were small, the IS series failing to pose a serious challenge to the segment benchmark, BMW's best-selling 3-Series.
So Lexus is trying again, with an all-new sedan that starts out with a stiff and solid platform onto which it bolts a variety of high-tech features unexpected in this reasonably low-price segment. The result is a slick and sophisticated vehicle intended to attract a phalanx of new buyers and, in turn, to add more zip to the overall Lexus image.
To see if the new IS lives up to those lofty expectations, we headed to Willow Springs Raceway, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. With its long straights and sweeping corners, Willow Springs likes to bill itself as "the fastest road in the West." The day we wound up in the parched brown Antelope Valley, it was certainly the hottest, the 109-degree heat baking the track like a convection oven.
The very idea of taking track time in a Lexus might seem anathema to the image of Toyota's top-line brand. The defining LS430 is the ultimate freeway cruiser, lavish, smooth, and uncannily quiet - but also the antithesis of a driver's machine. The IS is intended as a sort of antidote for such somnambulant products. While Lexus is, on the whole, an aspirational brand for millions of Baby Boomers - the brand's median owner is 59 years old - the typical IS owner is just 29.
Lexus is betting that to win over more of these buyers it needs a credible competitor to the 3-Series. With the 2006 remake, the automaker begins by borrowing the platform first introduced, earlier this year, on the more up-market GS sedan. Though slightly shortened in IS trim, the wheelbase is about 2.5 inches longer than the old IS, overall length growing three inches.
More power with two powertrains
The 2006 sedan is offered with a pair of new engines, the "base" being a peppy, 2.5-liter V-6. As you'd expect, it's a technically slick powertrain, among other things introducing direct-injection to Lexus' U.S. line-up. Pumping 204-horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, it's offered in combination with either a new six-speed automatic with paddle-operated manual shift mode, or a six-speed stick. And you can opt for an AWD version that maintains the car's rear-drive bias.
With direct injection, gas is squirted directly into the cylinder, improving the air/fuel mix to deliver better mileage and lower emissions. Lexus promises a "substantial" boost in fuel economy, though it's not yet ready with government-certified numbers.
The high-line IS350 features a new, 3.5-liter V-6. It also uses DI technology, but adds a second set of port injectors for even more control over ignition, an advantage during cold starts. Unfortunately, the larger engine is not available with either a manual transmission or all-wheel-drive, though considering the unexpected success of the AWD option in the recent GS series, Lexus officials broadly hint they may expand the technology's availability. That would prove particularly attractive in northern climes, where sales of Lexus rear-drive sedans crawls to a halt during the winter months.
The bigger engine does come with a driver-friendly performance suspension package, a good way to keep all that power on the road. This package will launch you from 0-60 in an impressive 5.6 seconds, while top speed is governed out at 142 mph.
We were especially pleased with the paddle shifters, which made it uncannily intuitive to shift. The crisp, short-throw manual on the IS 250, meanwhile, was about as good a stick as any in the class, nearly as good as BMW's 3-er.
An exercise in acronyms
These days, attending a Lexus preview is an exercise in acronyms. The Toyota division lives and dies by technology, even at the low-end of its line-up, the new IS featuring such things as Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, (BA), and an advanced stability control system, dubbed VDIM, that pulls all that technology into harmony.
A new tire pressure monitoring system allows an owner to swap between two different sets of tires without throwing off calibration. Hill Assist automatically applies the brakes when you start off on a steep climb to keep you from rolling backwards.
If all that's not enough, there are optional features, such as AFS, er, adaptive front headlight system, radar-guided active cruise control, or ACC, and the latest in voice-programmable navigation. We were disappointed by the car's hands-free Bluetooth communication system, however, which refused to sync up with the popular new Palm Treo 650 cellphone. (A fix for this and other PDA phones is reportedly in the works.)
All that hardware - and software - is squeezed under sheetmetal that's decidedly better looking than the original, and decidedly undistinguished IS. Let's face it, Lexus has not been what you'd call a design trend-setter, though the brand is intent on changing that. This year's GS introduced a more distinctive design theme dubbed L-finesse. It's meant to be simple, sporty and elegant. L-finesse is a work in progress, and it's likely to be some time before Lexus gets where it needs to go. But the new IS definitely does take the theme up another notch.
The cowl sits low, building into a rear-biased wedge. The tail sits high, a design touch that offers distinct aerodynamic advantages. And indeed, at 0.28, the IS claims about the lowest drag coefficient in its class.
The cabin continues the design theme, carrying over the subtle, reverse-Z lines incorporated into L-finesse. This is not nearly as sophisticated a cockpit as the GS or LS, but its also significantly less expensive. And with that in mind, you may forget you're at the bottom of the luxury segment here. The look is generally handsome, but as with the exterior, one can say the theme is still evolving.
The added inches on the new IS have largely gone into the rear seat. There's more room than before - and definitely more than in a 3-Series - but rear passengers aren't going to stretch out luxuriantly.
We found the driver's side of the IS250 AWD model cramped around the footwell, by the way, due to the awkward intrusion of the transfer case.
Incidentally, Lexus has dropped the wagon version of the new IS, but we're told other body styles are under consideration.
Mastering Willow Springs takes a bit of daring. It's easy to lift off the throttle too early and not get the full benefit of this fast track, but the IS encourages you to push a little harder on each lap. The 250 is quick and nimble, but the 350 positively pushes you back into your seat as you blast down the straights. And the car flawlessly tracks the line as it races around the sweeping back corner, known as Turn 9.
A modified version of the GS sedan's electric power steering is arguably the best in its class. It seamlessly adjusts steering effort to match driving conditions. The IS suspension is based on the GS's, too, but has been modified to deliver a somewhat more sporty feel. And when you need them, the IS's massive brakes are there to stop you fast.
As one of our colleagues accurately pointed out at the end of a long afternoon's driving, the IS rewards subtlety and smoothness. In fact, a good driver will likely seldom notice all the high-tech traction gear, even during a four-wheel drift. On the other hand, the VDIM system is ready to step in if you make a mistake, quickly pulling things back in line. We have to agree with Lexus' technology wiz, Paul Williamsen, who insists that the IS will likely make most folks feel like better drivers.
But let's face it, mistakes will be made, and the new IS boasts an astounding array of safety features. Let's start with the new Twin Chamber frontal airbags. Thing of them as, essentially, two airbags in one, designed to minimize facial injuries. There are twin knee bags up front, as well. Add front and rear seat-mounted side airbags, and ceiling mounted bags for both rows.
There's also the Pre-Collision system first introduced on the GS. Paired with the radar-guided Active Cruise Control, it can sense if a collision is imminent and take steps to either avoid it or, if there's no alternative, prepare the cabin to reduce injuries.
Though an admirable first effort, it was easy to find fault with the original Lexus IS. You have to look a lot harder this time around. Oh, there are some flaws. The steering wheel on the first 250 we drove was too smooth and easy to lose your grip. But from 30,000 feet, it's hard to do much more than admire the automaker's second attempt.
No, it's not quite a BMW, but the new IS comes temptingly close. Lexus is confident that sales will soar by 400 percent or more when this new model hits market in the coming months. We'd be hard-pressed to disagree.
2006 Lexus IS
Base price: $35,000 (est.)
Engine: IS250: all-aluminum 2.5-liter, direct-injection V-6, 204 hp/185 lb-ft; IS350: 3.5-liter direct-injection V-6, 306 hp/277 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with manual mode and paddle shifters, optional all-wheel drive; six-speed automatic with manual mode and paddle shifters (IS350)
Wheelbase: 107.5 in
Length x width x height: 180.1 in x 70.9 in x 56.1 inches
Curb weight: 3455 lb (IS 250 with manual transmission) - 3651 lb (IS 250 with auto transmission and AWD)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control; dual front, knee, side front and rear, and side curtain airbags
Major standard features: Dual-zone automatic climate control; tilt steering wheel; cruise control; power windows/mirrors/locks; keyless entry and keyless starter with immobilizer system and push-start; AM/FM/satellite/CD audio; seat heaters.
Warranty: Four-year/50,000-mile basic warranty