If BMW is considered the ultimate driving machine, Lexus is viewed more as the ultimate easy chair.
Toyota's luxury brand has succeeded in building a reputation for supreme comfort and quality but struggled to add aggressive styling and driving passion to the mix.
The new IS 250 and 350 sport sedans are the latest effort to shed that bland image. And it involves more than some shiny paint and slick marketing; this new IS is a true player in the cutthroat sport sedan segment.
Built on a nimble chassis and wrapped in a bold exterior, the IS brings a new swagger to the lineup. With the larger engine available in the IS 350, this is the most impressive Lexus in years.
Available in rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations, the IS starts at $36,845. Peers include entry-level luxury stalwarts such as the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Infiniti G sedan.
Previous iterations of the IS couldn't measure up to most rivals in terms of style, performance and — not coincidentally — sales. In the last three years combined, Lexus sold fewer IS sedans than BMW sold of its 3 Series in 2012 alone, according to Edmunds.com.
This new IS should help Lexus close that gap. Lexus' desire for a more emotional product has its genesis in the appointment of Akio Toyoda as company president in early 2009. Toyoda is a member of the company's founding family and is known throughout the automotive world as a gearhead himself, having raced the Lexus LFA supercar at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring.
It was Toyoda who immediately pushed Lexus to build cars that stir drivers' emotions, said Mark Templin, the global executive vice president for Lexus. "He looks to us to be a change agent," Templin said of his boss.
Toyoda's influence shook up the subdued corporate culture at Lexus, Templin said. "We're taking ourselves a little less seriously and having more fun."
Since early 2012, Lexus has busied itself giving the entire lineup a visual makeover. The hallmark of the new design language is what the company calls a spindle grille, an hourglass-shaped feature bolted to the front of every Lexus since.
To date, however, changes to some models have been largely cosmetic. In 2012, Lexus launched the new mid-size GS sedan, the first car redesigned from the ground up under Toyoda's watch. The 2014 IS sedan, hitting dealerships now, is the second.
The push for sportier cars in part reflects a desire for younger buyers. Last year, 55% of Lexus buyers were older than 55. Among its competitors, only Cadillac has an older customer base.
The 2014 IS is certainly not your father's Lexus. It's one of the more visually compelling cars in a segment that often plays it safe in an effort to chase sales volumes around the world.
The LED daytime lights on the IS, a necessary accouterment in the luxury realm these days, sit outside the shapely headlight cluster as a separate design element. The body panels below the taillights aren't mounted flush to the bottom of the lens; instead, a sharp crease tugs the corner of the lights down the side of the car toward the wheel arches.
The IS sits on the road in a ready stance. The lower body of the car seems to swell out from a smaller greenhouse, giving it broad, confident shoulders.
Second only to its looks is how it feels on the road. We tested rear-wheel-drive versions of the IS 250 and 350. Both are lively, enjoyable cars that have studied at the German school of dance.
The communicative steering system is sourced from the larger GS sedan and is especially adept when the car's sport setting is enabled. The suspension is on the firm side, but never harsh. It's a multi-link setup in the rear, another component borrowed from the GS. It works with the real wheels to put plenty of traction down on the road.
But the most rewarding part of tossing this sedan around is the way the seats hold you firmly yet comfortably in place. Memo to Toyoda: Pay the person who designed these seats whatever you have to.
Such comfort is afforded throughout the cabin. Six-footers can sit comfortably in the back seat, despite the sedan's relative compact size. From there, they can take in a quiet, stylishly designed cabin.
The only mentionable flaw in the car's performance is the engine in the IS 250. Unlike nearly everything else in its segment, this base model comes with a small V-6. Lexus says its customers like the refinement of this engine over what's become the norm: a turbocharged four-cylinder.
While this 2.5-liter unit is certainly smooth, the car often felt as if it needed more than the 204 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque that's available. A 7.7-second zero-to-60-mph time is a bit slow for a pricey sport sedan. The six-speed automatic transmission in the 250 didn't help as it seemed to constantly hunt for the most efficient gear.
This powertrain combination is rated at 21/30 city/highway mpg. During our week with the car, we averaged 23 mpg in mixed driving. The more powerful IS 350 is rated at 19/28 city/highway; our testing returned an average of 18 mpg.
Whatever the 350 lacked in efficiency it made up for in performance. This model pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Horsepower is 306; torque is 277 pound-feet. Zero to 60 mph passed in just 5.6 seconds.
If you have the extra $3,500 that the 350 commands over the 250, don't even hesitate. Either way, you'll get a strong chassis, crowd-parting aesthetics and seats you'll miss at the office.