All-new and much improved in every department, could the 'baby' Lexus be getting closer to the 3-series?
There's no doubt about it, the all-new IS350 is the most exciting four-door saloon we've yet driven from Japan's biggest car maker, at least on the evidence of a first drive at Toyota's secret proving ground on Japan's northern-most island of Hokkaido. Tired of being likened to a certain German manufacturer in terms of looks, Lexus is reinventing itself. Known for its uncompromising, class-leading quality levels and silky smooth performance, Lexus has up until now been associated with very reliable but unadventurous models which stayed well within the traditional design envelope. But with its new crop of vehicles, especially this IS, Lexus is breaking away from its old habits with bolder, sportier styling. The new IS range is also slightly bigger than its predecessor in every dimension and has a useful extra 60mm tucked into its wheelbase to improve cabin space and help with the ride quality. The new IS sticks with rear-wheel drive, but it's a completely new chassis and drivetrain. The other big change is that the IS no longer uses straight-six engines but has moved to V6s. The flagship IS350 has a 3.5-litre unit, the IS250 a 2.5-litre. The bad news, according to Lexus, is that the 3.5 will not officially appear in UK showrooms, though you can bet that the 'grey' importers will be on its case. The 2.5, meanwhile, is expected to arrive in November. Engine specs haven't yet been finalised, but we managed to coax some impressive-sounding figures out of chief engineer Suguya Fukusato. Apparently the new 2.5-litre generates around 220bhp (but a comparatively weak 184lb ft of torque), while the new 3.5-litre pumps out a very healthy 310bhp and 258lb ft. No official acceleration figures are available, but my stopwatch clocked the IS350 at an impressive 5.9sec for the 0-62mph sprint, with the 2.5-litre running a 7.3sec time. Power comes in instantly and builds progressively, offering a far more compelling experience than in the old models. The 3.5-litre pulls hard all the way from 2000rpm, and coupled to the creamy-smooth and fast-acting paddle-shift six-speed auto 'box, provides plenty of torque at just about any speed.The car's exhaust note has also been given a meaty note to lift the perception of sportiness. On the road, the IS's rigid chassis and taut suspension - front struts and rear multi-links - combine to provide some of the best handling in the sector. The dominant characteristics are nicely weighted steering, a torque response that beckons a heavier right foot, and a rear end that stays firmly planted. The IS turns-in quickly and accurately with just a hint of understeer at the limit but we reckon a little more feedback from the road wouldn't go amiss. Thankfully, the company's VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system, which incorporates VSC, ABS and TRC, isn't too intrusive, while the brakes deliver firm, well-balanced stopping power. And as you might expect from a Lexus, ride quality is excellent while refinement is a match for the very best in the class. The comfortable interior's soft flowing contours, superb materials and exquisite 13-speaker Pioneer sound system give the required luxury feel and there are neat touches like illuminating rings inside the speedo and tacho which inform the driver when a certain speed or preset rev count has been reached. The IS also comes fitted with the world's first 'twin chamber' airbag for front passengers. This airbag's new 'omni-support concept' employs two airbags opening in unison to form a V-shaped indentation that captures an occupant's head and shoulders. The all-new Lexus IS range is so far ahead of its predecessor that it could have been given another name. Unlike previous Lexuses, it certainly looks far more stylish. It also handles superbly, while offering the expected high comfort and quality levels. Maybe this time the littlest Lexus could become a genuine threat to Bimmer and Benz...
|Max power||310bhp (est)|
|Max torque||258lb ft (est)|
|Top speed||165mph (claimed)|
|On sale||IS250 November 2006|