With its totally redesigned third-generation IS 350 sedan, Lexus has thrown down the gauntlet to the German autocracy - specifically the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class. At 4665mm the new IS is 80mm longer and 10mm wider than its predecessor, but, almost as if to emphasise its rear-wheel drive credentials, front overhang has increased by just 10mm, while the wheelbase has been extended by 70mm to 2800mm.
Its front treatment is an evolution of the 'spindle grille' of the GS and LS models, with a chromed outline and horizontal bars, under a pedestrian-friendly pop-up bonnet (a first for Lexus), while the glazed area is placed well back as if to centre it over the rear wheels for increased traction - a visual cue BMW and Jaguar have used to good effect for years.
The grille of the range-topping F Sport package has a higher 'waistline' than on the E and EX models, increasing the area of the lower section, with a special L-shaped mesh, winglets at the bottom corners of the deeper front bumper and special dark-coated Y-spoked 18” rims (the E and EX run on 17” alloys) designed to remind you of the rims on the LFA supercar.
Only one engine variant is available in South Africa, an uprated version of the previous 3456cc V6, slightly detuned to 228kW at 6400rpm and 375Nm at 4800 - good enough for a 0-100km/h sprint in 5.9 seconds and a maximum speed of 225km/h, says Lexus, but with average fuel consumption reduced to 9.7 litres per 100km.
It drives through an eight-speed auto transmission borrowed from the hairy-chested IS F sports sedan, with a new tweak: in sport mode it selects the right gear - and downshift pattern - in response to the lateral G forces measured by its yaw sensors and holds that gear all the way through the corner.
The IS features completely new brakes - derived from the new GS - with 334 x 30mm front and 310 x 18mm rear ventilated discs, each gripped by a lightweight aluminium-alloy brake calliper, while straighter brake ducts provide increased cooling airflow to minimise brake fade.
Revised double-wishbone front suspension (stiffer anti-roll bar, softer springs) is combined with a new multilink rear system similar to that of the Lexus GS (separate springs and dampers, rather than coil-overs, toe control arm moved to the rear), each tuned for improved ride comfort grip, and improved steering response, thanks to a new electric power-steering set-up with a stiffer rack and a slightly quicker pinion ratio.
MORE SMOOTH THAN SHARP
Jesse Adams of our sister publication Star Motoring drove the IS 350 at its US debut in Austin, Texas.
“It's still safe to call this a high-performance sedan,” he wrote, “but it's clear that Lexus chose to focus on everyday drivability rather than hot-lap setups this time around. Straight-line power is excellent (there's no doubt that the new IS 350 has the legs to call itself a true 335i and C350 competitor) and there's an awesome induction noise thanks to movable flaps in the intake piping, but in the corners it feels a little bloated compared to not only the sweet-handling BMW but also the fleet-footed previous IS.
“The eight-speed automatic transmission is nice and smooth between gears but just too hesitant to compete with the best stuff on offer in German rivals today.”
The new drive-mode system has three switchable driving modes - Normal, Eco, and Sport. In Eco mode engine output, throttle opening gear selection - and even the auto aircon settings! - are modulated to favour fuel-efficiency under all driving conditions, while Sport mode sharpens throttle response and gearshift settings for maximum performance.
The F Sport variant has two additional settings - Sport S and Sport S+, which uses the F's standard variable suspension and steering gear ratios to increase the difference between inner and outer shock absorber damping through corners, thus reducing body roll.
“Where it really shines, however,” said Adams, “is out on the open road where its impeccable build quality and redesigned suspension make this one of the most comfortable sedans in its class. The cabin is extremely quiet, except for that nice intake thrum at full throttle, and the ride is super plush over rough roads.”
FIRST CLASS CABIN
The leather-trimmed interior cabin is available in a choice of three smooth leather colour schemes; black, ivory and (only on the F Sport) dark rose, each with silver metallic trim and a precision machined analogue clock.
With 50mm of the extra 70mm of wheelbase between the seats and all the extra 10mm width at shoulder level, the new IS is noticeably roomier - in fact, says Lexus, a thinner front seat back helps provide an 85mm knee room for rear-seat passerngers.
The dashboard is divided into two zones - a display zone and an operation zone; the upper zone put the 180mm multi-display screen in the right place for at-a-glance viewing, while the lower, operational zone allows access to system controls such as the remote touch interface and the electrostatic switches that control the air conditioning temperature with the swipe of a finger.
QUICK AND EASY
The driver can monitor audio data, mobile phone reception and incoming call information, as well as navigation directions, on the screen while using the cross switch on the steering wheel to select music tracks and place outgoing phone calls. The joystick on the centre console works like a computer mouse, scrolling quickly and easily across the display screen; to enter, simply push the controller.
“There's an actual cursor like your desktop computer has,” explained Adams. “When it moves over a selectable icon in each screen it clicks into place making it easier to navigate menus while on the move. It's a very different system than the usual iDrive or MMI knob-based versions in German cars, but a clever one nonetheless.
“I also like the neat new temperature selectors that work by sliding your finger up and down thin silver bars on either side of the climate control display, but this hi-tech new design makes the old-school LCD temp readouts (think Casio watch) look even more dated, especially in such a modern-looking car inside and out.”
The eight-speaker digital sound system also has iPod and USB ports; the iPod menu can now be driven from the vehicle's steering wheel control switches, and album cover art displayed on the screen.
The big deal about the F Sport dashboard is the instrument cluster, which has a driver's meter with moving center ring that can be customised for personalised display information.
The sports front seatsare made using a new moulding technique called 'integrated foaming' to produce large concave surfaces with no air-gaps between between the upholstery and the padding, improving lateral support without sacrificing comfort.
F-Sport models also have a special steering wheel and gear leaver finished in perforated leather, embossed metal-film trim, black seat stitching, and aluminium pedals and scuff plates.
Satisfying current pedestrian impact legislation would have meant raising the bonnet 40mm higher than that of its predecessor - exactly the opposite of what the designers were looking for - so a newly developed pop-up design allows for the lowest possible front profile.
For the first time on a Lexus, a sensor in the front bumper detect that a person has collided with the front of the vehicle and the bonnet immediately pops up about 70mm, allowing space for the bonnet to deform and absorb the impact of the person's head against the car. The sensor, says Lexus, is even sensitive enough to tell the difference between people and more solid objects, and keep the bonnet from popping up if you run into a bollard or lamp post.
The new IS looks after its own people too, with variable-force front airbags for driver and front passenger, knee bags, front and rear side airbags, and full-length curtain airbags.
IS 350 E - R449 900
IS 350 EX - priced at R499 900
IS 350 F Sport - R553 900
As with the rest of the Lexus range, all IS models are covered by a four-year or 100 000km warranty. The IS 350 E Model comes with a 'Distance' service plan, the EX model has a more comprehensive 'Distance Plus' plan, and the F-Sport comes with a 'Distance Plan Complete' full maintenance plan.