Better in Almost Every Way, but Still Too Sterile To Change the Game
We'll leave the critical details about the 2014 Lexus IS to your imagination largely because Lexus left them to ours. But yesterday we slid still-disguised F-Sport trim levels of the IS 250 and IS 350 around a wet road course. We also blasted them up a canyon road with impunity. Still, the details didn't materialize.
The impressions, however, did.
What We Know So Far
When it comes to hard facts about the next-generation Lexus IS sedan, here's what we know right now: The new car's wheelbase is longer and it is marginally heavier. How much isn't clear in either case, but based on the improved rear-seat space we'd say the wheelbase is stretched at least 1.5 inches, maybe more given the 3.1-inch chasm between the current IS and the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series.
Assuming our lip-reading skills are still well tuned, weight will increase about 90 pounds depending on feature content.
Engines from the two styles are carried over into the new car. That means about 200 horsepower from the 2.5-liter V6 in the IS 250 and about 300 hp from the 3.5-liter V6 in the IS 350. One major upgrade for the IS 350 will be the use of the Aisin-built eight-speed automatic from the company's IS F and LS models. IS 250 styles will continue to use the same six-speed auto. Manual transmissions, it seems, will continue to be as rare as zoomie headers at Lexus.
Body and suspension revisions are minor. Their main goal is to bring more chassis stiffness, ride control latitude and trunk space.
It isn't an all-new IS, but it is a subtly different car on the road.
How the Lexus IS Feels Behind the Wheel
Pound the new 2014 Lexus IS around a wet autocross course like we did and you'll notice it's simply not as lively as the old car. It's not as eager to change directions in many instances, but the longer wheelbase delivers stability in places the current model doesn't. Whether this matters to you probably depends a lot on how often you plan to hammer your IS around a wet autocross course.
But a wet autocross is a less critical dynamic measure than, say, the Nürburgring, where Toyota proves its performance cars. Junichi Furuyama, IS chief engineer, didn't say the new car is slower there, but he admitted as much by saying its time wasn't measured.
Even if this is the case, it's hard to argue with the results on the road. In that environment the car is predictable, stable and still plenty rapid. And that's exactly what Lexus wanted — a sedan that's simple, safe and still enjoyable to drive.
In the new IS there are modest grip limits combined with excellent balance and solid manners at speed. It's what we'd expect from a Lexus sport sedan — good, sanitary fun.
The Real Goal
According to Furuyama, the primary goal with the new car wasn't to make it faster anyway, but rather to produce a machine with immediate response that doesn't compromise comfort.
A stiffer body structure is the primary means to gaining latitude in both arenas, according to Furuyama. Structural improvements include additional spot welds, laser screw welds and about 80 feet of adhesive, which isn't present in the current IS.
The IS's double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspensions are still present. Out back, however, there's a new suspension design borrowed from the larger GS sedan. It separates the previous suspension's concentric spring/damper assembly and places the spring inboard of the damper. This increases the distance between the suspension towers, which produces more trunk space.
A 20 percent increase in front stabilizer bar rigidity aids body control and steering feel, while the addition of active dampers allows more (or less) compliance to compensate in ride quality.
Also high on Furuyama's priority list was a tangible increase in road feel through the steering, as well as improved on-center feedback. What he's achieved isn't quite as clear. Certainly the steering feel is different. It is abundant enough to guide the car sideways between cones, so who are we to complain? There's more weight when Sport Plus mode is engaged, but in Normal mode differences are negligible. There's nothing bad here, but also nothing revolutionary.
The New Eight-Speed Transmission
More gears are nice, but the new eight-speed in the Lexus IS 350 isn't as obedient as it should be in many situations. Upshifts, for example, are still automatic when the shifter is moved to the manual gate and aggressive downshifts are often denied. These are early prototypes, so calibration changes are still possible.
We got lost in its many gear ratios more than once, but that's an adjustment that would come with more seat time. Plus, there are genuine benefits to this many gears. Increased fuel economy and plausibly better acceleration both come to mind.
One interface that is certainly improved is the IS's instrument panel, which is a multimode thin-film transistor display similar to that of the 2012 Lexus LFA. Swap the drive mode from Eco to Normal to Sport Plus and the center-mounted tachometer changes attitudes accordingly.
All the Tech That Would Fit
Unable to resist the pull of acronym alphabet soup, the 2014 Lexus IS offers Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) and Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) coupled to Drive Mode Select (DMS).
Eco, Normal and Sport drive modes are chosen via a center-console-mounted knob. The variable-rate dampers change with drive modes, becoming stiffer as more aggressive settings are picked. Steering ratio slows as vehicle speed increases, independent of drive mode. These two features aren't available on the IS 250, where switching to Sport mode changes only the throttle calibration.
New seats are a worthy improvement, providing the ample bolstering that the current car critically lacks. They also place the driver's hip point about 0.75 inch lower in the body, which is sure to be a popular improvement with the long of torso.
More To Come Soon
Much like the power, weight and wheelbase specs on the 2014 Lexus IS, pricing for the new sedan remains a mystery. Expect full details when Lexus officially unveils the IS at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show next month.
Until then, know that this latest IS isn't a ground-breaker, but based on this brief drive it's got both the comfort and dynamic ability to solidly compete.
Even without zoomie headers.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.