Whenever I visit San Francisco I’m reminded of two things–why it’s been called “the Golden City” and a 10-minute car-chase scene from the film Bullitt that revolutionized the film industry. So I found it fitting that Lexus chose this gorgeous backdrop to kick-off the 2014 preview of their “Third Generation” IS, the company’s most technically advanced, entry-level luxury sports car to date that is both aesthetically beautiful and radical in redesign. The 3G Lexus IS could even change the way you use a smartphone.

Lexus 250 in San Francisco

Lexus 250. Photo courtesy Lexus

The Next Generation

While Steve McQueen might have been envious if he’d seen it, the reborn IS wasn’t entirely because of Lexus’ desire to make a nice car better. Lackluster sales in Europe, recent quality control issues, complaints about its predecessors’ rear-seat capacity, and an increasingly competitive market were apparently key motives behind the next iteration of a nearly 15-year-old luxury compact. Both IS and IS F SPORT lines have been overhauled, and it begins with price reductions.

Targeted at not only the Europeans but young (31 to mid-40s) professionals, the 2014 Lexus IS 350 is dropping in price by over two percent compared to the 2013 model. In addition, Lexus is kicking in more than $1,400 in standard equipment that was previously optional, along with subscription-free real-time traffic and weather information on IS-equipped multimedia systems. To satisfy the lack of capacity complaints, the car has been widened and stretched to comfortably handle four adults.

Finally, the Lexus signature “spindle” grille with their separated L-shaped LED daytime running lights (DRL), already incorporated into eight other non-IS Lexus models, accents the Euro feel.

Aggressive Elegance

Lexus calls the spindle grille/DRL styles an alluring, “aggressive elegance.” Indeed, from head-on, the grill looks like the car is made to consume anything in its path. I could almost hear the du-de, du-de, du-de theme from Jaws. Even the rear light assembly seems designed to mock those just smoked.

Lexus 250 Spindle Grille

Lexus 250 Spindle Grille

Still, looks can be deceiving. Lexus begins the overall dynamic shape of the IS body with the grille, continues it around the base of the front pillars, then rearward between the rearview mirrors and car body. This design actually uses airflow to help keep the IS on the ground at speed.

Updated Paddle-Shifters? G-force Artificial Intelligence? Drive Mode Select? Adaptive Variable Suspension AND Sport Direct Shift? My oh, my oh, my!

The IS 250 is powered by Toyota’s venerable 2.5-liter V6 and matched to a six-speed Electronically Controlled Transmission (ECT) that features a sequential manual-shifting mode with rev-matched downshifts in SPORT mode.

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Paddles

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Paddles. Credit: Lexus

The IS 350 boasts a more sensible 3.5-liter V6 with D4-S direct and port fuel injection and inherits the eight-speed, Sport Direct Shift (SPDS) automatic transmission.  An absolute must for the 350, also inherited but wonderfully enhanced, are left and right steering wheel paddle shifters. Lexus G-force Artificial Intelligence (G-AI) system, which automatically selects the optimum gear and downshift pattern in response to G-force, also remains intact.

The optional F SPORT package, available for all models, includes an enhanced interior, LFA-inspired 18-inch aluminum wheels (17-inch wheels are standard), and special suspension tuning. The package also offers Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) which allows a driver to fine-tune the IS F SPORT’s ride characteristics with a choice of two settings: Normal for everyday driving and SPORT S or SPORT S+ for optimized body control and agility.

Inside the Office

One of the biggest gripes about the “Gen2” IS concerned rear seat accommodation. Lexus engineers solved the problem without increasing vehicle weight. They increased the IS wheelbase by nearly three inches and its width by almost half an inch. Redesigned front seats combined with the three-inch stretch means the back area now offers significantly improved roominess. Lexus also separated the car’s shocks from its springs to produce a larger trunk, again without altering weight or performance.

Lexus IS 350 Rear Seat. Photo courtesy Lexus

Lexus IS 350 Rear Seat. Photo courtesy Lexus

The Lexus LFA supercar provided design inspiration for the IS cockpit, a design Lexus calls “driver-focused.” The Dashboard is divided into two distinct zones–a display zone and an operation zone designed to give a more comfortable, ergonomically ideal interaction with the vehicle’s control systems. F SPORT models inherit the thin-film transistor (TFT) instrumentation, with a moving center ring, from the LFA.

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Cockpit

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Cockpit. Photo courtesy Lexus

In the front office, a new “quilted, integrated foam” driver’s seat provides enhanced comfort and better lateral support. The F SPORT package offers four-way adjustable headrests and “substantial bolstering for full support during aggressive driving… even when experiencing lateral G force…” as I was soon to find out. But more on that later.

Meanwhile dual-zone, automatic climate control is standard as is a 4.2-inch full-color, multi-information display featuring audio, trip, navigation, phone, and ambient temperature. Two multimedia systems are available – the standard high-res Lexus Display Audio (LDA) with controller, or the optional Lexus navigation system.

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Apps

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Apps. Credit: Lexus

The navigation system is operated via the second-generation Lexus Remote Touch Interface (RTI) multi-function control device–fancy name for what is essentially a permanently-fixed computer mouse. The “mouse” also allows control of climate, audio, phone, and so forth. Installed in the optional nav system is the Enform® App Suite for use by a smartphone, and the suite provides in-vehicle access to popular mobile applications such as Bing™, iHeartRadio™, MovieTickets.com™, OpenTable®, Pandora®, and Yelp®. Each app (with the exception of Facebook Places) can be controlled using voice-recognition system consolidated into one button on the steering wheel.

The Mouse

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Mouse. Photo courtesy Lexus

Lexus tells me the software is based on an open-source software platform and, joy of joy, will be software-upgradable. There’s nothing worse than owning a two-year-old luxury car with an already antiquated nav/entertainment system. Two USB ports sit within the center console to allow hardwire connection to most newer smartphones regardless of OS. Good ol’ Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio is there as well.

Lexus IS 350 USB Port. Photo courtesy Lexus

Lexus IS 350 USB Port. Photo courtesy Lexus

Speaking of Pandora, the Mark Levinson® Premium Surround System is available as an add-on to the navigation system. This incredible audio package employs new Inverted Motor Structure loudspeaker technology with fifteen speakers powered by 835 watts!

Playing Safe, Staying Safe the High-Tech Way

Ten Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) airbags are standard; two-stage dual SRS front airbags, driver and front passenger SRS knee airbags, front and rear (new) SRS side airbags, as well as full-length SRS side curtain airbags. High and ultra-high-tensile steel body structure help provide excellent optimal occupant protection.

The IS models employ something Lexus calls the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which integrates Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Traction Control (TRAC), and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) active safety systems.

Optional safety equipment includes Electronic Power Steering (EPS), Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS), and a pre-emptive Pre-Collision System (PCS). (The system incorporates Adaptive Cruise Control PCS which enables deceleration when the driver applies the brakes automatically activating Brake Assist which in turn can increase the braking force under certain conditions and help decelerate the vehicle).

Other add-ons include an Automatic High Beam (AHB) headlamp system, a Lane Departure Alert (LDA) system, a Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA) system, and a standard Auto Location Tire Pressure Warning System (AL-TPWS).

High Tech Nuts ‘n Bolts Enhance IS Handling

Lexus 350

Lexus 350. Credit: Randy Law

Lexus introduced new construction techniques to beef-up handling and quality. These methods include laser screw welding and adhesive body bonding that help provide a substantial increase in overall body rigidity. Additions of rear sub-frame and cowl-side braces also help enhance handling control and steering response. A revised front suspension adds a 20-percent increase in sway rigidity while a new, multilink rear suspension increases IS grip and control.

Other augmentations include a new Electric Power Steering System (EPS) Lexus claims gives a smoother, more accurate feel with greater feedback. HID low/high beam headlamps with LED DRLs come standard.  Twin projector LED low/high beam headlamps are available.

Attention to detail and overall finish is exceptional. Lexus offers eight exterior colors: Starfire Pearl, Ultra White Metallic (new and exclusive to F SPORT), Nebula Gray Pearl, Silver Lining Metallic (new), Atomic Silver (new), Obsidian, Matador Red Mica, and Deep Sea Mica. Choose from five interior colors which I found to be intense and rich: Black, Light Gray, Parchment, Flaxen, and Rioja Red (exclusive to FSPORT).

The Test Drive

Lexus representatives offered me a choice of models to test drive around seven pre-chosen routes, ranging from short city hops to excursions along the Pacific Coast. Cloudless skies and temps in the mid-80s led me towards the cockpit of the RWD 350 and a route vectored to the sun-drenched beaches along Northern California’s Cabrillo Highway in the morning, with an afternoon jaunt to Treasure Island in an AWD 250. Both were F SPORT-equipped with Mark Levinson audio.

Lexus-350-3

PROS: Great handling, entry-level luxury sports car similar to entry-level European luxury cars. Good value for the money for a luxury sports car. Fantastic high-tech safety features, interior, and optional sound system.

The integrated foam seats easily received and quickly wrapped themselves around my 200-pound frame. After starting the car and adjusting my side and rear mirrors, it took a lot of practice to get the RTI to properly input my route from downtown San Francisco to the Cabrillo Highway using the onboard nav system and my hardwire-connected smartphone. I found the mouse loose and moved sloppily. (Lexus informed me afterward that the RTI is adjustable and later that day I found the one in the 250 much better to manipulate.)

Acceleration and shifting was smooth and crisp. However, as I headed southwest along the interstate at the posted limit, I found the yellow blind-spot monitor warning lights that kept flashing at me from each side mirror very disconcerting as drivers passed me on the left and right. But at least the lights are doing what they’re supposed to do: keep you out of trouble during a lane change.

CONS: AWD is sluggish with the smaller V6. Would not make a good family car. Would not make a good long-distance cruiser. Even though good value for money, MSRP for basic IS 250 is nearly 36k.
Lexus 2014 IS 350 Levinson

Lexus 2014 IS 350 Levinson. Photo courtesy Lexus.

There’s nothing better than tooling along California’s breathtaking coast with the windows and sunroof wide open, temps in the 80s, and the Beach Boys harmonizing “Little Deuce Coupe” through my Pandora radio subscription service at 100db from a Mark Levinson system.

I took advantage of a construction delay that reduced traffic to a single lane, pulled over to let the crowd pass, and waited for the road ahead to clear. I wanted to test the paddle shifters, the “lateral G force” enhanced seat, and Lexus’ handling enhancements.

My rapid egress from the side of the road to a now deserted highway was exhilarating with Lexus claiming 0–60 mph in 5.6 seconds. I counted just over six Mississippi’s. The paddle shifters were fairly responsive and comfortable using my right pinky to shift up during the climb-out and my left little finger to shift down going into the curves.  And try as I might, I could not get the RWD to drift. It stayed glued to the road, and I stayed glued to my seat.

The afternoon hop to Treasure Island in the IS 250 was nice, but I found the AWD, especially powered by the 200hp engine using a six-speed transmission, to be as exciting as driving a dressed up Outback. On the plus side however, once I’d arrived at the marina, I tried connecting my smartphone to the onboard system using Bluetooth while driving at slow speed. No problem–compared to many North American built vehicles that require the vehicle to be in park and shut down.

Conclusion

The reborn IS a cool car, especially the 350 with F SPORT package and Levinson sound system. It would be great to see a pair of them reenacting the chase scenes from Bullitt but then these cars couldn’t do half the stunts McQueen’s 1968 Mustang GT or “the bad guys” Charger did because they are too technically advanced.

Make no mistake though, this isn’t a family car. Yes, it will hold four adults comfortably but I think anything over a four-hour drive fully loaded would be pushing it. But if you want great handling, entry-level luxury looker that’s a great value, and will give your smartphone a new thrill, this is the one for you.

2014-IS-350-TFT

Lexus 2014 IS 350 TFT

The Stats

Warranty

  • 48 month/50,000-mile basic limited warranty with roadside assistance for 48 months/unlimited miles.
  • 72 months/70,000 miles powertrain and restraint system coverage.
  • 72 months corrosion perforation protection coverage, regardless of mileage.

Pricing

  • IS 250 RWD starts at $35,950*
  • IS 250 AWD starts at $38,485*
  • IS 350 RWD starts at $39,465*
  • IS 350 AWD starts at $41,700

*Pricing at press time. MSRP does not include a delivery, processing and handling fee of $895

Packages

  • Premium $610-$1,050
  • Luxury $3,225-$3,665
  • F SPORT $2,675-$3,620

Optional Equipment

  • Navigation System $2,085
  • Navigation System with Mark Levinson $3,225
  • Backup Monitor $350
  • Power Rear Sunshade $210
  • 18” Wheel Package with All-season tires $935
  • 18” Wheel Package with Summer tires $935
  • Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) $400
  • Intuitive Park Assist $500

Engine

4GR-FSE 2.5-LITER V6 ENGINE DOHC
  • 24-valve with dual continuously Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i)
  • Displacement: 2,499cm3 (152 cubic inches)
  • Bore x stroke: 3.27 x 3.03 inches (83.0 x 77.0mm)
  • 204 horsepower @ 6,400 rpm (152 kW)
  • 184 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,800 rpm (250 Nm)
  • Compression ratio: 12.0:1
  • Redline: 6,600 rpm
  • Fuel tank capacity: 17.1 gallons; premium fuel required
  • Fuel Economy: RWD: 21/30/24 mpg city/highway/combined; AWD: 20/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined
HIGH-OUTPUT 2GR-FSE 3.5-LITER V6 ENGINE
  • DOHC 24-valve with dual continuously Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i)
  • Displacement: 3,456cm3 (210 cubic inches)
  • Bore x stroke: 3.70 x 3.27 inches (94.0 x 83.0mm)
  • 306 horsepower @ 6,400 rpm (228 kW)
  • 277 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,800 rpm (376 Nm)
  • Compression ratio: 11.8:1
  • Redline: 6,600 rpm
  • Fuel tank capacity: 17.1 gallons; premium fuel required
  • Fuel Economy: RWD: 19/28/22 mpg city/highway/combined; AWD: 19/26/21 mpg city/highway/combined

Highlights

  • New multi-link rear suspension, eight-speed transmission on IS 350 RWD and Drive Mode Select
  • New design with Lexus signature spindle grille and separated LED daytime running lights
  • Wheelbase increased by nearly three inches for more rear leg and cargo room
  • All-Weather Drive available for IS 250 and IS 350 models with either of the two offered V6 engines
  • F SPORT package offered across the model range
  • Subscription-free real-time traffic and weather on all multimedia systems

For more information about the 2014 Lexus IS, visit online at http://www.lexus.com/IS-2014/index.html

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