Thursday, November 7, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Lexus IS250 AWD

Lexus has an aging problem. Its buyers tend to skew towards the older side and attempts to attract younger buyers with cars like the IS300, based on the Japanese home market Altezza, resulted in small surges of younger buyers. Unfortunately, those youngsters quickly left the brand due to a lack of suitable upgrade options within the brand as they got older, as they were still seeking fun cars to drive. The second generation of the IS went in an entirely more conventionally Lexus direction, focused on luxury and ride, with only the slightest of nods towards performance. However, just to throw a curve ball, Lexus also took the opportunity to introduce the F-Sport sub-brand to sell performance parts and even entire cars, like the absolutely bonkers IS-F and LFA. As Lexus has decided that drawing a younger audience is increasingly important, they have also sought a significantly edgier image with the aggressive predator-face spindle grille that is being applied across the line-up and a full-fledged push at a true motorsports division.

All of this effort, intended to capture younger buyers, who are increasingly discriminating in their buying habits, may be for naught if Lexus's all new 3rd-generation IS fails to capture their hearts, minds, and dollars. So does the newest entry luxury sport sedan meet the high bar set to attract the moneyed youth to what has been a traditionally stodgy brand with squishy-driving cars?

My time with the Lexus IS250 started with some quality time exploring the car under the florescent lights of the dealership's showroom. Examining the car's every angle, it generally looks taut and athletic, more like a distance runner, than a sprinter. Sitting next to a previous generation IS-F, the two cars look nearly the same size from the outside, with the new car just a whisker larger in every direction. The angular slashes of the taillights flow out of a character line that rises up from the side skirts and slightly flared wheels arches add a touch of muscularity. Everything is looking clean and attractive until you get to the front of the car. At that point, things start to fall apart. Somewhere along the way, a decision was made to set the LED daytime running light elements outside of the regular light cluster, resulting in something that sort of resembles an athlete wearing eye-black, but ends up creating a disjointed and busy appearance to the nose of the car. It takes what is an otherwise handsome car and turns it into a bit of a butter-face.

Inside, Lexus has made an effort to address one of the biggest (or perhaps smallest?) shortcomings of the last two generations of the car. This new IS offers a significant increase in interior space and feels noticeably less cramped, especially in the rear seat area, which now actually has knee room for someone taller than an oompa-loompa. While the space is more, it is not necessarily better. The material quality seems to have taken a hit, with a lot more dime-store toy quality plastics used instead of rich woods and high-end soft-touch plastics that used to be the hallmark Lexus's interiors. All of this is cobbled together into a pseudo-high tech design that seems to be trying to invoke a sense of style, but ends up just looking overwrought and hard to use. Add on top of that the misaligned interior panels and buttons that shake loosely in their fittings, this is by far the worst put together Lexus interior I have seen to date.

But this is an all new car! They must have spent all of that research and development money somewhere, right? Powertrain, that must be it. Sadly, you will be disappointed. The IS250 makes do with a carried over 2.5-liter V6 direct-injection motor that was used in the last generation car. The good news is that some tweaks have been made to eke out a bit more fuel economy. And despite its small displacement and modest horsepower rating, the immediacy of the throttle tuning has made it impressively responsive and it did not feel as down on power as the ratings would suggest, even lugging around the extra weight of the AWD system. For those seeking more power, there is an IS350 with the larger 3.5-liter direct-injection V6 motor, also a carry-over, that provides over 100 more horsepower. However, there is nothing in between, so you are either paying the $3,000+ premium for the big engine or suffering with the less powerful motor. A mid-range 3.0-liter or a turbocharged version of the smaller motor to offer something in the 250 hp range with good torque. That would make better use of the stiff chassis structure that Lexus has engineered.

Out on the road, the Lexus actually feels pretty good. The chassis is well balanced, the steering weights up nicely, and the car feels solid and planted. The brakes are strong, if not particularly communicative, and the general perception is one of plentiful grip. The 8-speed transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, the ride is typically Lexus smooth, but the steering is also typically Lexus isolated. The lack of feedback somehow makes this rather small car drive larger than it really is. At the direction of the sales person, I took the car onto a back road not too far from the dealership and flogged it a bit. The overwhelming sensation is isolation with a hint of tautness in the suspension that keeps the car from feeling floaty, but not quite athletic. It walks almost exactly dead-center between luxury and sport, never straying too much in either direction. Unfortunately, that means it may come off feeling too stiff to those seeking a luxury ride, but not sporty enough for the enthusiast.

Running the car back to the dealership, I am torn about my impressions of the new IS. To say it is bad is not fair because it feels like a genuinely nice car. Sure it could be screwed together a little better, but on whole it is pretty well put together and will certainly be durable, given the Lexus reputation for reliability. It offers a balance between performance and comfort in both its handling and power delivery, but walks the line so well that it seems to lack any character. The design is handsome, but the front end of the car very much an acquired taste, as is the interior. However, if you like it, and do not mind the somewhat bland and characterless driving manners, this is a genuinely pleasant car to spend time in. I can see how it is a fit for people who want a slightly more edgy design, but like the driving dynamics of an automotive appliance. I am not convinced that this style over substance approach is enough to attract new young buyers to the brand, but it might just win over some more conquests from the likes of Volvo or the slowly deteriorating Acura.

For me, personally, I just feel likes it misses the mark as a driver's car. It is possible that the F-Sport version, which should offer a more performance oriented suspension and brakes, might change my mind, but apparently they are in short supply up here in New Engliand, where AWD is considered more important. That said, while not for me, it is a valiant effort by Lexus and is a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction. They just need to make sure that the trade-off is not a loss of the quality that has made Lexus one the most well-respected names in luxury cars.