Lexus IS 250 SE
3-series rival sharpens up its act, but is it enough?
I like surprises. Some new cars are great, but you kind of know what to expect. Many others just feel, if we're honest, broadly similar in these days of generic homogenization. But sometimes you get one that genuinely takes you by surprise. It might not re-write the rulebook, but it exceeds your expectations. The IS250 I was ready to pigeon-hole as being, well, a Lexus and therefore not massively interesting. A new interior here, a bigger alloy there, but predominantly the motoring equivalent of a laptop case (useful, a bit techy, tells everyone you're in the running for 'Salesperson of the Month'). The reality that turned up at the office was somewhat different... Longer and wider than its predecessor, the new IS might also have been considerably heavier but for the use of aluminium for the bonnet and suspension. In the past the design of the IS was taken as a very sincere piece of flattery by the BMW design team and it's still a bit like a game of motoring pelmonism - flashes of 5-series in the high-waisted doors, a sniff of 3-series in the roofline. But the front is fantastically wide and aggressive, with a very short overhang (it bears a passing resemblance to the LF-A supercar concept); overall the IS is a clean, purposeful shape. Inside there's a little too much Toyota in evidence but it's not offensive. Press the starter button and two needles glow brightly from the inky depths of the instrument binnacle. Like miniature white light-sabres they sweep around the blank black backgrounds before returning to their starting posts. Only then do the digits emerge to give some definition to the rev-counter and speedo. You sit on rather than in the seats, which initially leaves you feeling slightly unconnected to the car, but the three-spoke steering wheel is nicely sized. We had the new close-ratio six-speed automatic 'box which means there are two paddles attached, F1-style, to the back of the wheel. Yes, we'd rather have a manual, but if you do need an auto then the changes between cogs are smooth and there's a satisfying action to the paddles. You just learn to give the 'box a little more time than you'd allow if you were changing ratios conventionally. The engine is perhaps the most disappointing element of the new IS. The aluminium 2.5-litre V6 puts out 204bhp at 6400rpm and 185lb ft of torque at a rather elevated 4800rpm. Apart from a definite six-cylinder edge to the exhaust note at the top of the rev-range where the dual VVT-i kicks in, you mightn't even be aware of the presence of more than four cylinders. It both sounds and feels very thin in its delivery, as witnessed by a laboured 8.4sec 0-60mph time. The ride is agitated at village speeds but improves markedly as the pace increases. Through the bumpy, gnarled back-lanes of Surrey, the IS was utterly unflappable. It glides over snags, feeding the bumps into your subconscious but never letting them intrude unnecessarily into the process of making progress. The all-new speed-sensitive electric power steering won't surprise or delight you initially, but up the pace and things become much more impressive. It's as though the rack shrinks as your commitment grows. Dive for a corner and the nose of the IS darts as it grips and turns in. You throw it into corners faster and deeper and it keeps gripping; understeer hardly seems to enter the equation: flick-flack through a quick direction change and the car just stays with you. It's so unexpected that it's unnerving at first. One might almost be forced to utter an incredulous 'I don't believe it'. On the cold, greasy roads of our test route the lack of understeer means the back feels quite eager to play, but most of the time you just concentrate on using that surgical front end to slice through a corner. When the rear does come round, the IS remains unflustered and an instinctive twitch of opposite lock catches it quickly. Admittedly there's not a stream of grainy feedback, but the steering is nicely weighted and the body always feels taut and controlled. The only down-sides to the pointy front end are that it's a little too sensitive on the motorway and that it has a mild tendency to wander and pull slightly under heavy braking. The engine undoubtedly needs to be stronger and there is still a slightly digital quality to driving the IS250, particularly with the arcade-game gearshift, but in terms of exceeding your expectations, the IS would be a five-star car. Its actual stellar rating may yet rise further with the introduction early in 2006 of the Sport version with lowered suspension and inch-bigger alloys. Now we just need Lexus to surprise us some more by bringing the 3.5-litre IS350 over here.
|Engine||V6, 2499cc, 24v|
|Max power||204bhp @ 6400rpm|
|Max torque||185lb ft @ 4800rpm|
|Top speed||141mph (claimed)|