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2014 Lexus IS 250, IS 350 Transformation - It IS Competitive At Last

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)
2014 Lexus IS 350

2014 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 Review

By Thom Cannell
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)

We began this review from the back seat of a 2014 Lexus IS 350, not our usual habitat. One passenger was 5 8”, the other was 6’2”. Remember, this is the IS, not an LS and frankly we were confused. All the comfort and seat and leg room made us think larger, perhaps ES or GS, but the dash clearly spoke of the smaller IS. So that is the first of our data points, an IS has a back seat that provides comfort for your friends and coworkers well beyond a run to Taco Bell.

Seats, softly tanned a shade of terra cotta called Rioja Red, were comfortable and supportive without restricting our shoulders, the fold-down arm rest hit just under the elbow and we still had hip room. Leg room, increased by 1.6” this year, felt larger and longer even for the tall guy. We thought there could be a touch more room to squeeze toes under the front seats, also lowered by 20 mm as Lexus worked diligently to increase the connectedness of driver to the car. They lowered the steering wheel similarly.

2014 Lexus IS 350(select to view enlarged photo)

As a competitor to established entry luxury sport sedans, you know who the big names are: Audi A4 and BMW 3-Series with a sales chart blip of Infiniti G—oops, Q—50, and Volvo S60, Lexus failed to impress. Oh, it had luxury aplenty, quietness and grace, design and performance that would at least encourage your heart to continue beating with only occasional help from your pace maker. That’s over, done, finished, fertig, färdiga, nashioeru; somebody gave the 2014 IS balls.

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)

For 2014 there are two IS families based on engine size, with both rear wheel and all wheel scions, they work best if you add two options to either engine choice: the F-Sport package and for your ears a Mark Levinson sound system. We drove IS 250 and IS 350 in RWD, AWD, and F-Sport versions back-to-back against 2013 models and they are so radically transformed that we were not out of pit lane before being smitten by the difference.

It’s not that engines have been doped by some arcane Japanese alchemist shooting up nitromethane or plumbing in nitrous oxide tanks, rather it is a chassis structure metamorphosis. This mutation allows the smaller engine to perform so well that, with F-Sport package and Levinson sound, the IS 250 might be the better choice for anyone who won’t track the car. Of course there is no such thing as too much horsepower. It is this revised chassis that renders Lexus competitive against Audi's A4 and BMW's 3-Series.

Simply put, the chassis is held together better. Race cars derived from production models are first stripped bare and every seam welded to provide rigidity. Lexus uses meter after meter of adhesive bonding like Boeing’s 777 plus laser screw welding, laser welding between traditional spot welds, borrowed from the flagship LS. The resulting vehicle stiffness is Lexus-like in quietness, now with race car stiffness. All of that makes the redesigned suspension with multilink rear, gas dampers, and inboard coil springs largely taken from the GS sedan, work more smoothly. Actually, spring rates are down a few percent while damping or shock absorption is tuned firmer. F Sport models have electronically controlled damper valving. You’ll like the 2014 IS regardless which vehicle you specify.

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)

Another difference is braking capacity. Again there is no equality between the old and new. Lexus says they use multiple pistons in their calipers (four in the 350, with higher friction pads for F Sport), that's racing style and the grip and stopping power is vast. You can also modulate, or vary the pressure, with instinctive ease. The 205 uses 11.65” vented front and 11.45” solid rears, the 350 gets larger 13.15” front, 12.20” rears and both are vented to absorb its greater power. In comparison, on a drying track we could drive deeper and deeper into corners and not slam on the brakes. Rather, we’d squeeze them firmly and trail brake our way into the turns—with confidence. What we're building up to is that finally Audi and BMW have a viable competitor in their midst, one with luxury, style and finesse, and finally handling, brakes, and chassis capable of applying all of its power.

Let's drill down a bit into the various models. There are four basic models, IS 250 RWD and AWD (which Lexus calls All Weather Drive) and similar versions of the more powerful IS 350. However there are rear wheel and all wheel drive F Sport versions of each, the F Sport being an option package not an engine or transmission variation. F Sport variants are by far the most desirable for performance enthusiasts.

IS 250s are powered by a 2.5-liter 4GR-FSE V-6 with 204 horsepower and 185 pound feet of torque, which is excellent in class for a non-turbo engine and couples to a 6-speed automatic transmission with selectable gears. IS 350’s 2GR-FSE engines displaces 3.5-liters and creates 306 horsepower using both direct injection and port injection. It produces 277 pound feet of torque, pretty good for the engine size. In RWD 350 F Sports it’s coupled to an 8-speed automatic derived from the IS-F sports model, AWD models stick with 6-speeds even if F Sport.

Interiors are more comfortable and extremely functional in their controls with high mounted navigation screen. Choices of color themes vary between black, dark gray, wood (it wouldn’t be a Lexus without wood), or organically etched silver for F Sports. Lexus did make a huge faux pas, heated seats are only available in AWD models and heated steering wheels, heated rear seats are nowhere to be found.

There are two instrument panels, an Optronic with large master gauges and center information display. F Sport models Bogart an LF-A supercar-style center cluster with fly out information panels. You’ll just have to see the pictures, better yet a YouTube video or dealer visit. We particularly liked the touch sensitive hot-cold manual control; it is raised about 2 mm and you can feel it as you slide the temperature up or down. Actual degrees are registered in the display, or optional navigation screen and dual zones are standard.

Underlying safety electronics are abundant with every alphabet item: ABS, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Cross Traffic Detection, Dynamic Cruise Control, Pre-CollisionSystem, Tire Pressure Monitoring, Adaptive Variable Suspension Variable Gear Ratio Steering, the list is endless and of course some features are optional parts of the Luxury package or F Sport package. In addition there are ten standard air bags to offer protection from impact if the brakes, your eyes and other safety warnings are ignored.

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)

When it comes to audio entertainment Lexus is no slacker. Their Premium 8- speaker Display Audio delivers 293 Watts, HD radio, connects to doggone anything (USB, AUX, BlueTooth and BlueTooth Audio, satellite), and has a 20 minute cache for those moments when you have to talk to your boss (or the law). Then there’s the monster we love, the 835 Watt Mark Levinson system with 10 channels, 15 speakers and it is so much better than your home system you should move into the car. Even set to neutral tonality it outperforms any in-the-trunk bass-box special with enormous ease, shifting from classical to electro-tango to classic rock with no need for adjustments.

2014 Lexus IS 350 (select to view enlarged photo)

Outside the car is longer by 3.4”, the wheelbase extended by 2.7” and it’s a bit wider (0.4”) with the result of more room inside, and delivering a car that looks distinctly dangerous instead of pinched. Body sculpting around the hood is far more emphatic, particularly scooping in at the headlamps and sweeping over the fenders. Both HID headlamps and LED headlamps are offered, with headlamp washers part of an all-weather AWD package. They’re set between the new signature spindle shaped grille. Tail lamps use LEDs that appear glowing like neon rather than annoying point sources. They are shaped in the Lexus L, flowing into the side panel emphasizing width. Side sculpting, especially the body cladding that begins under the front door, flowing into the rear wheel arch, emphasizes speed. Note that if the line were connected through the wheel it would connect with the tail light.

All of Lexus’ familiar luxury, supported by a massive array of awards from Wards Engines to JD Power and beyond is now bolstered by a chassis that can challenge Europe’s best. Take our word or visit the dealer. We suggest a test drive.