Long live the sedan: Lexus' latest IS tested on Kiwi roads
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If there’s one thing that Lexus knows how to build, it’s a good sedan.
Back in the late eighties, the brand roped together almost 4000 workers to create 450 flagship prototypes and 900 engine prototypes. On top of this, the team logged more than 2.7 million kilometres of testing across multiple continents, and at the end of this all, Lexus had settled on the ‘F1’ project. This F1 project turned out to be the first-generation LS 400, a luxury sedan that’s still celebrated today thanks to its pillow-like suspension system and buttery smooth 4.0-litre V8.
So yeah, it’s fair to say that the team at Lexus knows their way around a good sedan, and the new IS is certainly one of them. But will it be enough to crack Lexus New Zealand’s goal of 1000 sales this year? That remains to be seen.
In essence, the new IS range is made of three new models that span over a line-up of seven new cars. While this sounds rather confusing, you’ve got three trim levels; base Limited, and F Sport, and three power trains; a 2.0-litre turbo, a 2.5-litre hybrid, and the V6-equipped IS 350.
Packing 180kW from the 2.0-litre turbo, the range starts with the IS 300 at $70,900. It gets an eight-speed automatic transmission and is available in all three trims.
The hybrid-powered IS 300h comes next, which is powered by a 2.5-litre petrol engine with electric assistance making 164kW. It starts from $76,200, is available in all three trim levels, and uses an ‘ECVT’ transmission to get power to the rear.
At the top of the new IS range is the IS 350 F Sport, which starts at $101,800, comes exclusively in F Sport guise, and gets the burly 3.5-litre V6 making 232kW.
Across the range, the new IS has been made to look more like a coupe, with wider wheel arches, and a more menacing front fascia. It measures 30mm wider, but retains the same wheelbase as the outgoing IS. F Sport models are distinguished by blacked-out trims, and the range-topping 350 gets a set of spicy BBS forged wheels.
To sample the new IS range, we were flown down to Lexus (and Toyota’s) home base in Palmerston North. We then set off on a drive through the back roads of the central North Island, stopping for the night in Taupo, before making our way up to Auckland via Hampton Downs.
Luckily, we managed to first get into the range-topping IS 350 F Sport for the first leg of the journey. This saw us travel up from Palmy, through State Highway 54, to Turangi. This was lucky as it was the most involving drive of the journey, which displayed the strengths of the sedan perfectly.
Admittedly, the 3.5-litre V6 does take a little while to get going when the eight-speed automatic transmission is left to do its thing, considering it builds power higher in the rev range. The IS 350 is the only model that gets a limited-slip differential, and while we weren’t planning on testing its integrity on these roads, it helps with peace of mind when pushing through corners.
A planted feeling is present across the whole IS range, no matter which engine you go with. The 300 and 350 feel almost identical through the corners, with the added weight of the V6 being cancelled out by the beefier power and torque figures.
Differences become clearer between the 300 and 300h, but this mainly lies with the transmission. The 300h feels somewhat of a compromise between fuel economy and driving dynamics, as the sedan would only drink around 5.2L/100km at any point of the drive, but the ECVT had the tendency to do that rubber band thing that CVTs are known to do. In saying that, it’s a lot more refined than something that you’d find in a family SUV, and using the paddle shifters more or less fixes it.
On the inside, the IS feels like a luxury sedan through and through. Everything in the cabin is very sleek and stylish, well, apart from the steering wheel – it’s a little bulbous for my liking. In terms of tech, it gains a new 10-inch touchscreen display which comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. All the usual high-tech safety equipment has also been thrown in for good measure.
While the IS’ compact luxury sedan segment isn’t as competitive as it once was, you’ve got the usual suspects from BMW, Mercedes and Audi coming up against it. All three of these sedans start around the $76,000 mark, so a fair bit of change can be saved by going with the $70,900 IS300. If you’re looking for something that performs as well as it looks, I’d be seriously considering the Lexus, as it hasn’t strayed far from its roots as a luxury take on the performance sedan.
Considering the rise in popularity of the SUV, I believe that America’s retained interest in sedans has kept this IS alive. I would be extremely disappointed to not see the IS not go the distance, but looking at what happened with the Falcon and the Commodore, it’s a very real prospect. So let’s enjoy it while we’ve still got the option, and who knows, if the masses rediscover the sedan, we could see a sedanolution – long live the sedan!