Does Lexus Have Something to Prove?
Now that I am part of the "media", I was invited to Pinehurst, North Carolina for a preview of the all new 2014 Lexus IS. The invitation mentioned that the media would have time to drive the all new IS models around the country side and on the Rockingham Speedway track. Once I figured out that it wasn't some mistake, I accepted; reluctantly.
Reluctant, because the IS never struck me as a sports sedan and I couldn't imagine that laps around a NASCAR track would be even remotely interesting. While the IS has been a solid model for Lexus since its debut in 2006, "sports sedan" has never been synonymous with Lexus IS. While the bulk of the model line-up for the IS will continue to coddle driver's with luxury that has come to be synonymous with the Lexus brand, the "IS 350 F Sport" didn't get the memo.
It was no secret that I had my reservations about the sportiness of this model, so I was given explicit instructions on how to navigate the line-up of IS's available. First, I was instructed to drive the current model 2013 IS 250 All Weather Model. After my, less than inspiring, lap around the track, through the hairpin turns and down the long straight, I felt vindicated. The car did what I expected it to do and it did it well. It was quite, refined and luxurious; in a small car kind of way. I must admit, the hairs on my neck did stand up as the vehicle stability assist struggled to keep me on the asphalt coming out of that first hairpin turn; I thought I was going to be the first one to make a mangled mess of the one of the fleet cars. In its defense, all of the safety features worked together to prevent a front page story about media day at Rockingham.
The 2014 IS 250 All Weather Model was up next and I was a bit hesitant; to say the least. After the first turn and headed up the back straight away, this car felt a little more balanced and controllable. Though it was no Indy car, it wasn't a "drifter" either. It seemed to have a little more bite going into the corners and the stability control anticipated my reckless intent and gave me just enough assistance to make me feel like a pretty good driver. Lexus was on to something here…
After driving the IS 250 rear wheel drive, the IS 350 All Weather and the IS 350 rear wheel drive; it was time for the flagship IS 350 F Sport. This was for all the marbles; Lexus' last chance to make a believer out of the groups most vocal skeptic, yours truly. It was my intent to take all of my aggression out on this car; I was familiar with the track now, the smell of rubber was in the air and I had something to prove. As you'll hear in the video, the engine note was the first indication that this lap would be different. The acceleration was impressive, the shifts were crisp and in the first turn, the car seemed to be petitioning for more. The steering was precise; where ever I pointed the car, it went eagerly. I couldn't break it loose in the turns (though I REALLY tried). The car was sure footed, the acceleration out of the turns was respectable and the engine tone added to the sports car inspired experience. For the driving enthusiast out there, the vehicle stability assist may be too invasive in the track experience, but when I consider how the car will be used day to day, it's comforting to know that the car is forgiving. When some novice on Main Street America enters a corner too fast in an IS F Sport, the technology is there to bring him out.
I say "him", because that's who Lexus had in mind when developing the all new IS. For years, the buyer composition has been about 60% female and 40% male; Lexus would like to see this as more of a 50/50 split for the new model. The idea was that the mesh spindle grill in the F Sport would give the car a more aggressive appearance and attract the male shopper.
There are also, wheel and tire packages available that give the car a more aggressive stance, which too, tends to be more appealing to the "40 something" man. From the looks of things, Lexus seems to be heading in the right direction on that front.
In the spirit of my pessimism, which I have been of accused of a time or two, there was this one thing. For the journey back to the beautiful Pinehurst Resort, the journalist (and I use that term loosely when referring to myself) were allowed to drive the 10-15 miles back in the test cars. Half way back, I decided to let my partner for the trip take the wheel and I settled in to the passenger seat. When I went to rest my arm on the center console armrest, my elbow found its way right into the inadequate cup holder. Inadequate, in that anything other than a small cup from the local drive thru restaurant will have to sit "old school" between your thighs. This poses two concerns for me; where does the passenger rest their arm on moderate to long road trips with a small cup present and where does the passenger rest their arm with no cup present? Aside from the fact that the cup holder is small, it finds itself just where I would have liked to place my elbow for the ride back. And yes, that's the only thing that I would change with this car.
Lexus remains true to its "pursuit" with the IS. The F Sport may not win many road races, but it has won my respect. If a "sports sedan" is in your future, the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport has raised its hand. Lexus has succeeded in producing a car worthy of the title.
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