Lexus has at last cracked the family sedan performance barrier with the introduction this week in South Africa of a bigger engine for its IS range – and the change is not only significant but startling.
First, way back in 1999, was the IS 200 (the IS standing for Intelligent Sport), a straight-six under its compact neatness; but it easily became one of my favourite cars not so much for its outright performance as for its incredible driveability, its smoothness, its high-speed stability, its way-upmarket luxury. (Thanks to Stuart, hellospaceman and clarke.may for pointing out my misremembrance of the car as a four-cylinder ... it was only a four in Japan. Truly, all readers' input to wheels24 to fix such errors is much appreciated! And it's much more pleasant when egos aren't boosted by rudeness! Also to aadil.esack for the reminder that the first-generation IS came out as a 300 1JZ - and aadil, the IS-F is mentioned below as a SUPER high-performance car.)
Much as I enjoy driving super-powerful cars, the first IS just did it for me; a Japanese equivalent for anything from Germany - a straight competitor for Mercedes' C-Class and BMW's compact 3 Series performance machines.
GETTING FASTER, QUICKER
The IS 250 sedan made it here in 2006 and I still vividly remember its launch in the Knysna area (not far from where I'm writing this in the Oubaai resort overlooking the small, but stunning, resort village of Herold's Bay just outside George in the Western Cape. What was already a brilliant car became (again, for me) an amazing compact, high-performance machine with a V6 2.5-litre engine capable of 153kW at 6400rpm and 252Nm at 4800 with a top speed of 225km/h.
The car dispatched the 0-100km/h launch in 8.1sec (8.4 for the a/t) and was rated at 9.1 litres/100km.
Since then there's always been a complaint that the IS, despite its superior performance, needed more muscle. Not a growling exhaust or tyre-shredding acceleration (that just isn't the Lexus style) type of muscle but simply more power and torque on tap; better bragging rights. Lexus listened and now I have a new favourite car - the IS 350 sedan in two specification levels, EX at R499 700 and SE at R548 600.
The extra litre of breathing space has taken power to 233kW (also at 6400rpm) and torque to 378Nm at the same 4800rpm as the 2.5, with 90% of that on call from 2000rpm. The parked-to-100km/h launch now takes 5.6sec (there's only an auto, six-speed with paddle shifts on the steering wheel) which is 0.2sec faster than BMW’s 335i a/t and 0.4sec quicker than Mercedes’ C350. Shifts can also be controlled by the floor-mounted gearshifter.
PRICES VARY - BUT CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE? Model badges don't exist on the tail of the new Lexus IS 350 but the car does come in a choice of EX or SE specification - and those who really want to know will be able to tell by the difference in wheel-rim style and size of the two versions.
Top speed has risen slightly to 230km/h.
The engine is an all-aluminium, quad-valve, quad-cam unit with variable valve timing and, Lexus says, has been tailored to suit the IS chassis: it has more power than the RX 350 4x4 SUV (204kW at 6200 and 346 at 4700rpm) in which it also appears.
The IS 350 runs on essentially the same architecture as the IS 250 but, Lexus says, adds more comfort and refinement as well as the more powerful engine. It continues the Lexus tradition of rear-wheel drive.
The essential differences between the EX and SE are the 17” rims on the former and 18” on the latter; the SE gains a sliding roof and heatable ventilated front seats. Each has power front seats; those in the SE include a three-position memory.
THREE CABIN COLOURS
Though the IS 350 is more expensive than its competitors, it comes standard with high-intensity discharge headlights and daytime running lights, satnav with voice control, a reversing camera and parking radar. It also has rain-sensing wipers, anti-dazzle mirrors and power adjustment for the steering wheel.
There’s a choice of three cabin colours and the new cars take the Lexus range to 13 models and 21 derivatives while thriving on technological input gained from the brand’s super high-performance cars, the IS-F and the awesome LFA.
Lexus points out that the main rivals IS rivals, Audi’s A4 3.2 quattro, BMW’s 335i and Mercedes’ C350, are less costly on paper but would require an extra R72 410, R64 200 and R63 000 respectively to match specs with the IS 350 EX. The automaker calls it the “optional is standard approach”.
NOBODY'S KICKING SAND ANY MORE: Smoked glass over the high-intensity discharge headlights help to create the new Lexus IS 350's imposing image while posing on the promenade at Herold's Bay.
The simultaneous introduction of the IS 250 E to replace the IS 250 S is intended to stretch the price bracket of the IS range downwards, with some specification items – among them satnav – removed but the car still has full leather upholstery, power front seats, smart-key vehicle entry with a start/stop button on the fascia, a top-end sound system, auto aircon and Bluetooth phone connectivity.
For outright performance, of course, the automaker has since 2007 had the IS-F, a competitor for BMW’s M3, what it calls a “halo effect” sports sedan but it carries a quarter-million rand price premium over the most expensive of the new IS units.
Lexus SA set a demanding route for the IS 350 launch this week in the Western Cape: out from George over the Outeniqua Pass (if you’re heading that way, watch out for roadworks being undertaken to stabilise a section of mountainside above the road – scary stuff!), a break for lunch in Oudtshoorn and back along the even tougher Robinson Pass down to the coast at Mossel Bay.
The power from the new V6 is instant, delivered seamlessly through the auto six-speed box without drama or a suburb-awakening exhaust note (sure, that might not appeal to some performance-car freaks!).
Stability and grip through the mostly daunting curves of the two passes was phenomenal – barely a chirp from the tyres. The cars have has a large on-road footprint for their overall dimensions, with a wheelbase of 2730mm, front track of 1535mm and rear track of 1525mm.
HIDDEN TALENT: Pity that the machinery that puts out the new Lexus' urge of 233kW and 378Nm has to be hidden - even if the cover is an unusually attractive one.
The rear suspension uses a lightweight multi-link system with substantial front and rear cross-members – aluminium at the front. Large, liquid-filled bushings at the rear mount of the lower arms, Lexus says, reduce noise, vibration and harshness and ball joint-mounted stabiliser bars front and rear minimise body roll.
High-pressure, gas-filled monotube shock-absorbers maintained a near-flat ride through the curves of the sweeping mountain passes and the car comes with electronic traction and stability control with ventilated anti-lock discs all round. It’s a superb driving experience.
In the confines of an underground garage, the IS 350’s reversing camera show a full-colour image on the 16cm fascia screen with lines indicating curve direction; parking sensors front and rear will let you know if you’re stuffing it up.
Controls on the steering wheel cover adjustment of the 13-speaker audio system, Bluetooth phone connection and the multi-function display.
Eight air bags are standard and all Lexus IS models are covered by a four-year or 100 000km warranty and a selection of service plans.
FULL LEXUS IS PRICE LIST
IS 250E - R368 900
IS 250 EX - R446 200
IS 350 EX - R499 700
IS 350 SE - R548 600
IS 250 Convertible - R578 500
IS-F - R808 800
Go to the Lexus home page to find out more.