Since its release in 2001, the Lexus IS has taken on big names such as the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class. It's helped Lexus attract younger buyers by offering bold styling and sporty handling. For 2014, Lexus hopes to improve on the formula with a new IS that's totally redesigned from the ground up.
There's no doubt that Lexus has its sights set on BMW with the latest IS. While the 2014 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 have more interior room than their predecessor and several exciting new features, the major focal point of Lexus is on its improved driving dynamics. In that sense, they've made big progress.
The 2014 IS model's enhanced dynamics are the result of several changes under the skin. For one, the 2014 IS model's body is much more rigid than the old model's. The IS also adapts components from the sporty new GS sedan, which includes the larger GS model's steering, along with its front and rear suspension. All-wheel drive is available once again and can distribute up to 70 percent of the power to the sedan's rear wheels for optimal handling.
Lexus also touts its new G-force Artificial Intelligence (G-AI) system, which is included on the IS 350. This system helps drivers corner faster by selecting the best gear in response to G-forces created when slowing down for a turn. While the system is largely invisible in normal driving, it's helpful in a track setting where it behaves like a driver downshifting before a corner.
The 2014 IS also plays up its sporty character with the Lexus F Sport trim lines. Available on the IS 250 or the IS 350, the F Sport trim includes several exterior upgrades and the new Drive Mode Select system from Lexus. Drive Mode Select lets drivers choose between Eco, Normal and Sport, while the IS 350 also offers a Sport S+ mode. Both Sport and Sport S+ noticeably tighten the steering and suspension for improved handling.
F Sport models also offer the Lexus intake sound generator, which amplifies the sedan's engine note in the cabin. It helps, but the IS still doesn't have the growl of BMW's 335i or even the outgoing Infiniti G37.
Not Just Under the Skin
While driving dynamics are important, many shoppers considering premium sport sedans are just as interested in styling, both inside and out. Of course, exterior styling is highly subjective. But it's safe to say that the new model has a bolder look than the outgoing IS -- especially up front. That's the location of the new Lexus Spindle grille design, which carries far more presence than the outgoing model's smaller unit.
The 2014 IS also has a totally new side profile, which is highlighted by a sculpted line that starts a few feet in front of the sedan's rear wheels. The same line continues to the taillights, which are smaller and thinner than the outgoing model's.
Changes to the interior are even more radical. The most obvious is that last year's touchscreen is gone. It's replaced by a Remote Touch interface from Lexus, which gives drivers a computer mouse-like controller in the center console. Some drivers will find the system foreign at first, though Lexus says that it's safer than a typical touchscreen once drivers learn its ins and outs. That's because the screen is positioned at eye level, meaning drivers hardly need to take their eyes off the road to use it.
Beyond Remote Touch, the 2014 IS offers several other interior revisions. For one, the dashboard is totally redesigned with sharper lines. The center stack is also completely new. The biggest difference is the sedan's climate controls: Drivers can now adjust the temperature by simply sliding a finger up for warm air, or down for cold.
Rear passengers will also appreciate the updated interior, since it addresses one of the biggest disadvantages of the old model by adding backseat legroom. At 110.2 inches, the 2014 IS model's wheelbase grows by nearly three inches. Most of the increase is confined to the sedan's rear seats.
What Isn't New
Despite all the major changes to the IS, one big component hasn't changed: its engines. The 2014 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 still use last year's V6 powerplants, good for 204 horsepower in the IS 250 and 306 hp in the IS 350. In many respects, that's fine: The engines are smooth and efficient and even the IS 250 model's 2.5-liter V6 feels more than adequate. But the IS 350 model's V6 is showing its age, especially in comparison to more lively competition from the BMW 335i.
Another aspect of the IS lineup that isn't new is its high-performance IS-F variant. That model, along with the IS 250 C and IS 350 C convertibles, will stand pat for the 2013 model year using their current designs.
Lexus hasn't announced pricing for the 2014 IS, and won't until the sedan is closer to launching this summer. But we don't expect a huge jump from today's model, which starts around $36,000 for an IS 250 and $41,000 for an IS 350. Both figures are highly competitive, especially with the IS model's updates for 2014.