There is a change of all time going on within Lexus.
Eversince the Lexus brand formally began in 1989, it wasn't a car company that produced vehicles that fit the definition of 'exciting'. In fact, if you asked us just 5 years ago at what we found to be the most exciting cars to drive in the premium car segment, you can bet that a Lexus isn't anywhere near the upper echelons of whatever list it was that turned up.
Their cars were too refined, too conservative, too quiet and, quite frankly, too boring... until the letter 'F' came along. Starting with the IS F, Lexus began a tranformation towards making their cars more fun, more exciting, more performance oriented. And just when we thought they were done and thought that the IS F was but a fluke, they unleashed the much awaited LFA, and the game was changed. Suddenly, Lexus soared to the performance market; uncharted territory for the brand known for award-winning levels of un-exciting characteristics.
We've driven the CT 200h F Sport, and we thought it still has a ways to go before Lexus could be a real exciting brand. We've also driven the GS 350 F Sport, and we thought that it was a real player in a class of 'your-dad's-kind-of-car', blending the driving qualities of the BMW 5-Series, the comfort and refinement of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class as well as the technology of the Audi A6.
Now Lexus Manila has just launched the all new IS. Could it all it's hyped up to be?
In a nutshell, yes. But hey, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Kicking it up a notch
When Lexus invites for a drive of a new car, it usually involves a nice destination, great food and plenty of straight roads. So you can understand our confusion when the guys at LMI used the words 'launch', 'Lexus', 'All-New IS', '306 horsepower' and 'racetrack' in the same sentence. They didn't seem to go together... until we got to the racetrack.
Lexus Manila, led by Mr. Danny Isla, invited members of the press to the Clark International Speedway to witness the official arrival of the next generation Lexus IS in the country. After the presentations held by Mr. Isla and the top brass of Lexus Asia Pacific, they revealed the car.
I'll just say it flat out: the new IS just looks outstanding.
An aggressive kind of L
In many ways, especially with the creases and edges, the IS proudly says that it has plenty of DNA from the LFA. There are two distinct models: the IS 350 and the IS 350 F Sport, and there are significant exterior differences.
The car has been aggressively designed from the ground up and it shows. From the front, the IS just flaunts the spindle grille that is defining the next generation of the Lexus brand, along with the split . There's a big difference in how the front end of the IS 350 and IS 350 F Sport models have been designed, with the F Sport taking the aggression of the look up a notch or two.
The side and rear just complements the overall look. The wheel arches stick out a bit more than before, and it's more profound on the rear, giving the IS (even the non-F Sport) a widebody look. The side skirt also gives a great accent to the overall design, with creases that line up with the downward 'slashing' edge of the taillight. Both the examples we drove were white, and the color really makes the IS F Sport's gunmetal rims pop out even more.
If that wasn't enough, the interior has been levelled up quite a notch, taking many of the cues from the LFA as well as the GS 350. The materials, the leather, the build quality all say premium, and was designed to evoke the very latest from the brand. We didn't really get much time to get an appreciation for the interior, but the things we can note is the improved legroom in the rear, as well as the rather awesome LFA gauges with the digital tachometer.
Way cool... and we haven't even driven it yet.
The test course and competitor cars
Organizing the drive proper are the guys from DMF, headed by David Feliciano himself.
On the main straight were a trio of complexes aimed at demonstrating the capabilities of the IS. The first complex was set up to simulate how well the car can navigate city streets; the kind of streets you would experience in old Manila. It was meant to highlight the maneuverability of the car.
Just beyond it is a high speed slalom that was meant to allow the driver to fully exploit the stability and agility of the car. It may not make much sense in a non-racing environment, but think of it as performing one high speed lane change or evasive maneuver after another, after which is the last part: the stop box. Pretty self explanatory.
All around the length of the Clark International Speedway, DMF set up several gates, cones, and markers for braking points, turn-in points and on the apex of the corners.
Lexus had two competitor cars on hand, both of which are very good. One is the Mercedes-Benz C200 CGI, indeed one of our favorites in the category of rear-wheel drive premium cars. The other is the BMW 318i, albeit the previous E90 version. The competitor cars were actually chosen based on their price points, as these models represent (more or less) similar pricing to the Lexus IS 350 and IS 350 F Sport.
We take out the C-Class first, and it's just as I remember it: well balanced and responsive. The interior has been thoroughly updated, and that's always a good thing. Braking was good, though turn in was a little lacking.
The BMW was up, and though I wish it was the newer F30 version (like the 320d we drove earlier), the price dictates it should be the older E90. On the track, it felt good to drive but the C-Class definitely has more power to play with. The car is also showing its age as the brakes feel rather tired, though the cornering prowess the 3-Series has been known for is still there in full force.
On top of the two competitor cars, Lexus also had the previous generation IS 300 on hand. The previous 3.0 liter V6 still performs well, but when it comes to cornering and feel, the IS 300 does leave quite a bit to be desired.
Now it's time for the new boys in town. This'll be interesting.
Setting the standard
The IS 350 is the 'standard' model of the line. The new car preserves the front engine, rear-wheel drive architecture that the IS has been known for since the Toyota Altezza (the car on which the original IS was based, the origin of the term 'Lexus taillights').
Powering the car is a 3.5 liter, direct and port injected dual VVT-i (intake and exhaust) V6 that delivers 306 metric horsepower (PS) and 375 Newton meters of torque. If the engine sounds familiar, its the same one installed in the GS 350 F Sport we drove earlier, but in the far lighter IS 350 body and with the 8-speed automatic that was lifted off of the previous generation IS F. Sounds like the formula for fun.
Off the line, the power is right there. No waiting, none of the lag from turbo cars like the C200, just quick throttle response in Sport mode (a multi-mode drive setting system is standard). We enter the gates for the simulated street/maneuverability demo, and the IS performs flawlessly. Actaully, the way negotiates the tight 90 degree turns reminds me of the smaller CT200h, albeit in a longer, more comfortable and far better looking package.
The car then enters the slalom, dodging the cones left and right. The stability of the car is definitely very good, though if you power out a bit too vigorously, the car does seem to want to kick out its tail a bit. We'll get to that later.
After the stop box, we enter the full course of Clark Speedway. We actually know the course quite well already, so it's a good way to benchmark the performance of the car.
Braking is surprisingly good. Turn in via the electronic power steering isn't what we would call full of feedback, but it's very precise and intuitive. The suspension definitely feels far better than the outgoing model, especially mid corner. The new IS 350 stayed composed and never felt like it was going to get away from you unless you push it far beyond its capabilities.
On top of that, once you clip the apex, feed power in and that 3.5 V6 roars to life (thanks to the intake note generator), and rockets the car onto the straights... of which there are many at CIS.
F is for fantastic
Now it's time for the cream of the crop: the IS 350 F Sport.
I actually asked David Feliciano himself to ride shotgun, as the instructors/marshalls that I didn't know personally were more eager to kick in than the rather aggressive traction and stability controls Lexus engineered into the IS.
We've discussed the significant aesthetic differences, but it goes deeper than that. The IS 350 F Sport actually comes with adaptive suspension, the same 8-speed SPDS (Sport Direct Shift) automatic transmission as the IS F and a variable steering system that stiffens up at speed. Apart from that, the wheels are bigger and wider, and are wrapped in broken sized Bridgestone Turanzas; 225/40/R18 in front and 255/35/R18 for the rear. This is about to get even more interesting.
I get settled into the drivers seat and the first thing I notice are those awesome LFA digital gauges. There are paddles on the steering wheel, and I'll get a chance to play with them later on. The engine is the same, and that's not a problem; 306 horsepower is plenty fun.
My right hand immediately reaches for the drive mode select knob, twisting it to the F Sport exclusive 'Sport S+' setting, it's most aggressive program. In this mode, the suspension stiffens up for reduced body roll, the steering is optimized for conering, and overall handling performance is enhanced.
Off the line, the 306 horses are really eager in Sport S+ mode. The IS 350 maneuvers better around the simulated city course than the F Sport and that's expected, given the larger wheels. The high speed slalom is also taken far quicker and braking can be held back a little later.
When we finally enter the main course, David tells me to floor it, and I obliged. The transmission quickly rifles through the gears as the car lunges uphill for Turn One. On the brakes, the car doesn't dive as much as the standard model, and stays flat and sharp on turn-in for the corkscrew. I ride the kerbs a bit hard, yet the car keeps composed yet again. No bouncing or throwing itself off course; just precise and predictable when driven for performance.
I push the car harder and faster on the succeeding sequences of corners and it's incredible how far it has come since the last generation IS. Though I haven't had any seat time in it yet, I'd want to see a straight comparison between this IS 350 F Sport and the much lauded turbocharged F30 BMW 328i Sport.
Simply put, this is fantastic performance (0-100 km/h in 5.9 seconds) from a car with an unbelievable price tag.
After all the driving was done, Lexus Manila invited us to try riding in the cars with Yoshihiro Kataoka, former Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) champion and current Lexus test driver.
Kataoka-san was more than eager to demonstrate what the new IS 350 can do, and he started with a few burnouts in the IS 350 F Sport before going on full attack lap after lap, with three members of the media in the car. As expected, it was the standard IS 350 that was able to sustain a drift, given its narrower tires than the F Sport.
The LFA surprise
They weren't done, however, as they brought out their final surprise: the Lexus LFA.
The moment they announced that the LFA was open for taxi rides with Kataoka behind the wheel, we all ran for the sign-up sheet. An opportunity to ride in an LFA with a racing driver behind the wheel isn't one of those things that comes all too often, if not at all.
When it was my turn, I strap in, tell Kataoka-san 'Gambatte!' (Go for it, in Japanese) and he obliges, giving the car everything its got at Clark. The roar of that engine behind me still lingers in my ears. The G forces of the car on full track attack is a sensory overload. All of this was going on while Kataoka was letting the LFA dance sideways on the limit.
Back at the start line, I got off the LFA and back to reality.
Thank you, JPEPA
Now you would think that the Lexus IS 350 and 350 F Sport must be commanding rather steep price tags, given the level of tech introduced over the previous generation IS 300.
To put it in perspective, the outgoing Lexus IS 300 (3.0L V6, 231 PS) was priced at PhP 2,948,000 because it wasn't covered by JPEPA at 2995cc. The current BMW 328i Sport (2.0L I-4 turbo direct injection, 245 PS) costs PhP 4,290,000 while the Mercedes-Benz C300 Avantgarde AMG Sport (3.0L V6, 231 PS) costs PhP 4,380,000.
Since the new IS 350 is covered fully by JPEPA, the 2013 Lexus IS 350 is priced at PhP 2,548,000. On the other hand, you can have the 2013 Lexus IS 350 F Sport for PhP 3,058,000.
The perfect sport sedan welcome
If there's one thing we know for sure, Lexus has gone all-in with the 'Intelligent Sport' (IS) sedan, as this class in the premium segment is of the utmost importance. From the laps we got, it's clear that Lexus is sending a clear challenge to the leader in the segment: the BMW 3-Series.
It may take a full road test to see how the Lexus IS 350 and the IS 350 F Sport will perform in everyday driving duties, but there's plenty of time for that.
From what we gather, there are few better ways to introduce the all new Lexus IS than a day at the track... after all, it's a true sport sedan now.